Sculpting a Tradition

By Nathan Tafoya
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Wednesday, June 9, 2004

Alums' sculpture to grace Plaza

Without yearbooks and framed diplomas, the average University of Arizona student would have little evidence of his or her passing.

Even art students only get the occasional campus installation.

Brothers John and Tom Barringer, 1973 alums, have been able to leave their mark on their alma mater by doing more more than scratching their names on bathroom stalls. Now in their 60's, John and Tom are contributing on a masterpiece that may become one of UA's most recognized landmarks.

Perhaps you've seen their less well-known bronze bust of John "Button" Salmon by the McKale Center, resting above the words, "Bear Down."

The brothers have recently been hired to cast a large bronze monument titled 'The Wildcat Family" for the Alumni Plaza. It will be one of the largest art monuments on campus.

Their foundry, Desert Crucible, Inc., was chosen by sculptor Nicholas Wilson because of his longstanding relationship with the company.

For the past 30 years, Wilson has sent his wax sculptures to Desert Crucible, Inc. to undergo lost wax ceramic shell bronze casting, a fine arts method of casting involving molds, vats of liquid and extremely hot brick ovens.

The $170,000 statue will depict an adult male and female wildcat guarding two playful kittens. According to Wilson, the family depiction was symbolic.

"The concept of this monument is to show the relationship between alumni, which are the adult wildcats, and the students, which are the kittens," said Wilson. "Because there is no such thing as a family of bobcats in the wild. The male is never present when there's kittens."

The project is Wilson's largest project to date, but his years at the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum as curator of exhibits allowed him to study wildcats and capture their movements in his sculptures.

"Altogether, it'll be around 11 feet high, from the top of the ears all the way down to the bottom," said Vee Yongbanthom, a Desert Crucible, Inc. metal-worker, standing over the unfinished product in the corrugated metal warehouse.

After graduating with master's degrees in business and fine arts, John and Tom opened Desert Crucible, Inc. and said they combined the skills provided to them by the UA to make a living.

"That's education working for you the way it's supposed to," said Tom, calling their final large task an honor and a privilege.

"Now, to give something back on both the business and the arts side, to be able to give back to the university community something that's going to be around there indefinitely as far as we know," Tom continued. "It'll outlast us and that's kind of a gift, to be from your own students, giving back to the place where they got their education."

Tom said that after the community outcry protesting the possible destruction of the Krutch Garden to make room for the Alumni Plaza, UA officials decided to place the statue at least near the garden in an effort to maximize visibility.

John said it was unusual for a major university not to have a mascot displayed somewhere on its premises.

"To be a part of finally getting the mascot in there, a bronze mascot that everyone is going to see, we feel really good about that," said John. "We've got strong ties to the university and to the community and we've been doing this kind of work for 30 years. To finish it out this way is a very fitting thing for us. We're very pleased with it."

Tom said they hope to hand the company to a number of employees.

"Thirty years," he said, standing in his office with photographs of previous projects hanging on the wall. "It's all on the wall. It's just time for someone to move in and take it over."

But the Barringers are not just going to move out to a golfing community and putt their way into old age.

"You know, while we've still got some tar and feather left, we want to run around a little bit and do some different things," said Tom.

Tom said John has moved on to be the executive director of the DeGrazia Gallery. Tom is still unsure of what he will do, but is considering teaching.

The Barringer brothers expect to complete "The Wildcat Family" by early July. Wilson said the statue should be on site by Aug. 1.

The 108,000 sq. ft. Alumni Plaza, along with the bronze statue, will be dedicated at homecoming, Oct. 29.