Artists Habitat

Habitat: Tom Otterness

Tom Otterness photographed in his Carroll Gardens studio. KATHERINE MCMAHON

Tom Otterness photographed in his Carroll Gardens studio.


Habitat is a weekly series that visits with artists in their workspaces.

This week’s studio: Tom Otterness, New York. “When I showed up in New York I was a painter,” Tom Otterness told me in his studio in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn. “I didn’t start sculpture until I was 28.” Today Otterness is undoubtedly best known for his sculpture, particularly public works like Life Underground (2000), his series of whimsical figures that inhabit the subway station at West 14th Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan.

Otterness started out making miniature plaster sculptures and selling them on a blanket on the sidewalk in front of the Museum of Modern Art in 1978. “I got really into it, and the sculptures got bigger and bigger,” he said. The artist recently installed pieces at the Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar (his biggest production to date), and at St. John the Divine Church in Morningside Heights in Manhattan, and he’s currently balancing a handful of private commissions, including an installation that will resemble a full-size carousel, to be installed in a Texas collector’s backyard.

For his public works, Otterness said that the big payoff is seeing people interact with his work. “One time I saw a guy try to shake one of the snakes loose on the 14th Street subway platform,” he said. “Then he kicked it really hard and when the subway came he went hopping into the train.” For public works, he added, he hasn’t found anything that beats bronze.

But it’s not just durability that Otterness thinks about when making public works. He often conducts “shade studies” at the future sites of his works, calculating how the sun will travel and what will be in the shade at certain hours. Because bronze heats up in the sun, it can be hazardous for children to touch, and public parks often need to plant a grove of trees around his installations. Below, Otterness takes us around his Carroll Gardens studio.


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