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This article was published 28/1/2017 (1694 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A former Winnipeg artist has hit the jackpot by creating Las Vegas’s latest glitzy landmark.
Wayne Littlejohn, who grew up in Winnipeg and is a University of Manitoba fine arts grad, is the artist behind Dream Machine, a 7 1/2-metre-tall mushroom-shaped sculpture made mostly of cast aluminum, which has gone up in the recently opened Siegfried and Roy Park near Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport.
In a city with so many eye-catching sights and a state with many natural wonders, Littlejohn initially felt the anxiety of trying to create a landmark that would do Las Vegas and Nevada — not to mention himself — proud.
"It’s been pretty well received and starting to generate more and more buzz the longer it’s on site," Littlejohn says. "Other people have told me, they say it fits in so well to Las Vegas’s environment, but it doesn’t look like anything else that’s here. It’s distinctly different."
"It’s got an amazing location. I do think, fingers crossed, I hope over time it grows in terms of popularity. I’m happy with the piece, but the location is key in terms of accessibility, in terms of longevity."
Littlejohn won a competition launched by Clark County for an artistic centrepiece with an aviation theme for the US$12-million park.
"I was looking for a way to make a large-scale piece and be able to have it funded," says Littlejohn, who earned a graduate degree at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and is now an art professor at the College of Southern Nevada in Henderson, a Las Vegas suburb. "That seemed to be an opportunity for me. I didn’t really expect it to win the competition, but when it did, we presented a scale version concept for it."
The sculpture uses a combination of man-made and natural history as its theme, the artist says.
"Certainly the detonation of nuclear bombs — (Nevada) is the capital of the planet in terms of setting off bombs, so I felt I could address that at some level," Littejohn says. "That general shape of the cloud plume is in there, but it also is very similar to the dust devils and whirlwinds that we have in the desert, so it has a little bit of everything. Essentially, what I was looking at were forces both natural and man-made that shaped the Southwest."
Showing county commissioners a one-metre tall model of an artistic concept is one thing — building it to its full size so it can withstand Las Vegas wind and dust is another, Littlejohn says.
"You have an idea but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can make it at 26-feet tall," he says.
Like the the magical duo the park is named after, Littlejohn uses artistic illusion to keep the top part of the sculpture, which he says some have compared to a stealth fighter or a drone, aloft.
"My pieces already were dealing with movement of mass and making weight look like it was floating in air, so it was a natural fit for my work." Littlejohn says.
Littlejohn then worked with a foundry in neighbouring Arizona, which took three-dimensional computer maps of the scale model of Dream Machine to begin its work of fabricating the sculpture’s pieces. That’s when artistic illusion had to meet physical reality — the giant sculpture had to stay upright and then pass engineering and safety tests, he said.
"In that process of dealing with foundries and fabricators and other specialists to help me scale things up, we made modifications," says Littlejohn, who has also worked on Renaissance art re-creations at the city’s Venetian resort. "Most of the work is in cast aluminum, so there’s a lot of foundry work, a very traditional process. So some of the work was altered to work within that realm.
"I had my way that would make it stand up and make it work, and they took my plans and tweaked them with the type of metals so it was safe and sound... It seems like anything could be done in this town and there was a way to do it, I just had to find engineers to do it."
Once the foundry made the pieces, Dream Machine was assembled and painted with a transparent automobile paint Littlejohn says should change the way the sculpture looks as wind, dust and the desert’s odd drop of rain weathers its surface.
"There will be areas where the paint remains the way it was initially and places where it will eventually wear off with the winds and the sand hitting it. Eventually the piece will become pure metallic (in colour)," he says.
The sculpture was disassembled and trucked to Las Vegas on a semi-trailer. A crane was needed to put the piece back together at Siegfried and Roy Park, where it now stands with the neon glare of the Las Vegas Strip in the background.
Littlejohn grew up in the Winnipeg’s Norwood Flats area, and his childhood home is close to where one of his favourite pieces of art, Marcien Lemay’s nude sculpture of Louis Riel, stands at the Universite de Saint Boniface.
Its reception still sparks controversy, which taught Littlejohn a lesson about public reaction to art. If Las Vegas residents want to call Dream Machine the Big Mushroom, go for it, he says.
"It works for me," he says, laughing. "The thing I’ve learned over the years is that people are going to make it their own and that’s what you want. If it’s a jellyfish to somebody else that’s great, if it’s an airplane to somebody else that’s fine. The abstraction allows a person to really get in there and enjoy the moment on their own.
"It’s got a long future ahead of it so it’s going to probably have a lot of names over the years."
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.