NARRATOR: Broadway along the upper west side of Manhattan is cut in half by a median. Uptown, parts of it are paved in concrete and have some benches. When school's out and when the weather's nice, these spaces become playgrounds for kids.
Up at 146th street the median has only a couple of trees. It's windswept. Cars whiz by only a few feet away. Early on a Friday morning it's deserted. This isn't a place that inspires the imagination.
OTTERNESS: That looks kind of fresh (laugh). I hope they're not peeing on it, but I think it's just coffee or something. It'll clean up. That's the thing with bronze. So this is part of public work, you know, it gets, uh, used.
NARRATOR: Tom Otterness is standing at 146th street in front of a 40-foot long character, whose spindly legs and arms are locked to the ground. He has raised his round head to look at a girl in a triangular dress standing in the palm of his hand. She holds the key to the locks.
This‹it turns out‹is Gulliver.
OTTERNESS: I don't know if Gulliver really qualifies as a fairy tale, if one gets technical, but I look at it that way. It tells us a story in this kind of symbolic language. About, who we are as little people, versus uh, who we are as a big society, I think.
NARRATOR: A lot of Tom's work looks like the line drawings in those books that try to teach non-artists how to draw a cat or a dog: you make a circle, then an oval, then shade it all in.
OTTERNESS: I grew up in Witchitaw Kansas, and I would watch John Nagy Learn to Draw. He had a Sunday morning TV program that would show you- how to draw the cartoon figures, with a- sphere and a- pear shape for the body and little spindly arms and legs, and, uh- It was a great show. I yearn to do one myself some day. [laugh]
NARRATOR: There's another giant 30 blocks south of here at Columbia University: the Crying Giant. Even sitting down, he looms over the students who cross Broadway. His curved legs are graceful, contrasting with his cartoonish body. He holds his head in his hands and looks like he could be lost or that he's just had his heart broken. It's not clear why he's so upset.
OTTERNESS: There was a theory here among the students, that this- he has a pointed cone hat, and they thought that was a dunce cap, and he might be crying over his grades‹
It's a flexible kind of mythology when you put a work out in public. You put the work out, and I never know how exactly its going to be seen, and what stories are going to be made out of it.
NARRATOR: Tom Otterness has shoulder-length white hair, parted down the middle. He wears clear-framed glasses and sneakers. He carries himself a little like a shy, wary kid.
OTTERNESS: Oh, a lot of my work comes out of childhood, as a kid having Grimm's fairy tales around the house. Uh, having cartoons on TV. Modern Fairy tales. I think most fairy tales have a dark underside. And we don't recognize 'em so much in the States anymore when they've been made for TV. You don't see it.
OTTERNESS: So we've come all the down way now. We're down at 71st and Broadway, where Amsterdam crosses. And there's my version of Moby Dick.
NARRATOR: Most of the people who cross Broadway here pause to look at this smooth shiny bronze statue that sits, lonely, in the intersection of three busy streets. As it turns out, this Moby Dick is actually more complex than it seems from across the street.
OTTERNESS: It is a combination of three of four different fairy tales. It has two figures on the whale. One is on the top that's tangled in the harpoon; that is more of a direct reference to Moby Dick. The other is being swallowed by the whale. And the two figures are the Tin Soldier and the Ballerina, from that Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, where there's a tin soldier with one leg, and he falls in love with a toy ballerina who has one leg up in the air, and- he's convinced that she also has only one leg, and is- just as messed up as he is. And so they fall in love. And it's kind of love story. Very tragic. They end up being thrown to the fire eventually. But, uh- that's a fairy tale for you!
NARRATOR: For Studio 360 I'm Sarah Elzas.
This piece was produced for Studio 360
and originally aired the weekend of December 25/26, 2004 as part of their show on fairy tales.
It also aired on January 6, 2005 on WHQR
and on January 20, 2005 on WAMC
Producer: Sarah Elzas
Editor: David Krasnow
Recorded in New York, NY