The man behind the fish
January 2, 2009
In the summer of 2007, a flying saucer crashed on Scott Whitaker’s lawn. Or at least that’s what he wants you to believe.
Whitaker built the 14-foot concave structure that looks not unlike a derelict extraterrestrial spaceship out of recycled steel and other scraps he scavenged from junkyards. Once he assembled the necessary pieces, Whitaker completed the saucer in an eight-day flurry of activity. He strapped six solar panels onto the disc to power a deejay booth, loaded everything into his truck, and shot off into the desert to attend the Burning Man festival in Nevada.
His saucer was one of the wonders of weeklong arts and culture extravaganza. "I built it because I thought the saucer would be so cool to have in my yard," Whitaker said Wednesday. "It’s iconic. It’s like sculpting the David, sculpting Venus."
Later that summer, the Park City Arts Council awarded Whitaker with the bid to construct seven fish sculptures outside Miners Hospital. Whitaker completed the project in October, nearly a year and a half after he took the assignment. But he accepted the project with a caveat. "I had no idea what it would look like, what it would be like," Whitaker said. "I couldn’t tell them that."
Today, seven fish rest on pedestals made of old mining tracks that are composed entirely of metal, nuts, bolts foraged from trash. The metal retains its original paint, chips and all, and the fish’s eyes, made with headlights, have been wired to glow, as soon as Whitaker finds used bulbs that fit.
The fish sculptures are abstract but recognizable as fish articulating in the wind, not unlike the hodge-podge of mechanical scraps that make up Pixar’s WALL-E. The red fish, modeled after a bottom feeder, has a toolbox for a head, its bottom drawer left ajar with a chain and hook dangling out. For the fish’s body, Whitaker sliced a drum barrel into rings and bolted the parts together.
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For the blue fish, a hammer head, Whitaker sawed the hood of an old Mercury pickup truck. Its gills come from the grill off an old Jeep. The resisters from telephone poles line its eyes and ball bearings form the teeth in its gaping mouth. The green fish, a carp, has theater lights for eyes and a bumper for a nose. The orange fish, a coy has crystal bowls for eyes, an old fireplace screen for gills and tractor seats for gills. The yellow is a grouper, the silver fish is a Marlin and the purple is an angel fish. The result is a post-industrial rainbow of waste given new life as sculpture.
The project took time, foresight and considerable imagination, Whitaker admitted, especially considering that each fish is several feet long. "It’s a matter of material, so it’s not really a temptation to repeat myself," he explained. "It’s not like I’m going down to the store to get parts. I spent a lot of nights sorting through piles of metal. That’s what took so long. I created these from scratch."
Whitaker, who lives in Tollgate Canyon near Park City, is one of the founding members of an art cooperative called AMO that owns a 4,000 square foot warehouse on Salt Lake City’s west side, where Whitaker hoards his junk. New Year’s Eve was a typical day at the office for the artist. He spent four hours foraging through scrap yards. He looks for simple shapes squares, circles and triangles as well as colors. Steel is Whitaker’s metal of choice because it is cheap, about 12 cents a pound, and plentiful.
Whitaker notes, with awe, that steel melts at 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit. "When I’m working with metal, I feel it," he said. "Steel has more energy."
Whitaker, a former computer programmer for Cisco Systems, studied painting at Utah State University, but left the art scene to pursue a job in Silicon Valley. Much of his art addresses technology, communication and ontology, from handmade USB cables to Flintstones-esque telephones that use only stone and wire.
His logic is circuitous and, at times, bordering on existential. "Let’s say Armageddon happens and Jesus comes and kills everyone and it’s just you and me," he begins. "And you want to plug your iPod into my laptop. How do we make that happen?" He continues, gazing at his computer. "How many people are involved in making a microchip? How many people touched the pieces that were necessary to make this thing?"
Two and a half years after moving to Park City to become a fulltime artist, Whitaker retains an almost mystical reverence for the randomness of his process. He begins by putting parts with different shapes and textures together. He said he has a strong intuition for what might work and what won’t. "I like to look at it in terms of the art being its own creation, like maybe the art wants to be created. That piece wanted to be with that piece. Of course there’s form, function, color and shape, but there’s something magic in there."
Whitaker hopes that Park City residents agree.
Whitaker unveils a new exhibit of work Saturday, Jan. 19, from 7 until 9 p.m., at Highlife Gallery, 245 East Broadway, 300 South in Salt Lake City. To see more of Whitaker work, visit http://www.parkcitymetalart.com.