Magic In An Old Vacuum Bag Factory – The World of Tom Otterness

Down among the industrial warehouses in Gowanus…


…bordering on the canal…


…is an old vacuum cleaner bag factory.


Today, there’s something very special going on inside:


This is the studio of artist Tom Otterness.


Even if you don’t know the name, you’ve almost certainly run into Otterness’s sculptures on the streets of New York (or in many other cities across the world). My favorite installation in NYC is his 14th St./8th Avenue subway station piece, which took 10 years to complete.

NYC Sewer gator
(photo by flickr user Nick Sherman)

Otterness’s work is always cute and whimsical…

NYC Subway sculpture - Tourists
(photo by flicker user DogFromSpace)

…wildly imaginative yet executed with simplicity…

NYC Subway sculpture
(photo by flicker user DogFromSpace)

…and always slyly subversive – a sort of Walt Disney by way of Kurt Vonnegut.

Bronze and Dust(photo by flicker user M. V. Jantzen)

A tour of Otterness’ studio is being offered this weekend as part of the Open House New York program, and I was lucky enough to snag a sneak peek. For those who aren’t able to go this year, hopefully this will give you a look into the world of Otterness.


First thing you notice when you walk in: there are Otterness guys EVERYWHERE.


Pieces typically come to life as small, hand-made models (see the little guys above and below). A mold is created from these, enlargements are made if necessary, and finally, a bronze version is cast (you can find a far more detailed explanation here).


While some of the models were only a few inches in size…


…others couldn’t even fit in the room!


The leg pictured above is part of a playground Otterness is currently designing.


Pretty damn cool. Here’s a finished Otterness playground from 2007:

(photo by Kat Sterck)

Meanwhile, the playground head was stashed in a corner:


When I noticed this, my first thoughts were admittedly of that giant penny Batman keeps in the Batcave.


Actually, this is part of a private installation for someone’s backyard (er, not Bruce Wayne’s).


On the opposite wall is a brainstorming sketch created by Otterness and the client, explaining some of the philosophies involved.


Near the front wall is his drawing desk…


…where Otterness’ creations first come to life on paper.


Next to it is a self-portrait sculpture of Otterness (which was sort of creeping me out as I was taking pictures after the tour – I must have looked over at this thing a dozen times thinking someone was in the room watching me):


Awesome prototypes for an upcoming installation at San Francisco General Hospital:


These two guys are the models for what will be Otterness’ first stone-carved sculptures (remember the size for when we get into the workshop):


Another model – note the guy stealing money from a slit in the money bag:


One of the things I love most about Otterness’ work are the unique colors he brings out in the bronze, achieved by chemical treatment and heat (no paint is used). Below, an early sculpture much darker than his recent work:


This model for a playground was created using a 3-d printer:


“Mother With Children” is also destined for San Francisco General Hospital, though it will be 8-feet tall when it arrives.


A few pieces of art on the walls: this pillow by street artist De La Vega…


…and a really unusual mask, among others:


As for the punching bag…


…and barbell, they’re not art – just what Otterness does for fun.


We then went into one of the workshops…


Below, a “negative mold”:


A filled mold, clamped tight:


Another addition to the hospital installation (my favorite):


Remember those little guys I said were to be his first stone-carved pieces? These are an enlargement of those, produced here in the workshop (and they’re just going to get bigger):


Tools of the trade:


Finally, we took a look in his storage area:


Lots of molds…


…unfinished models…


…and even finished pieces:


Walking around, I suddenly had a Night at the Museum moment: wouldn’t it be cool if all these little people suddenly came to life around me? They all seem so happy and innocent and fun…

Except, I have a sneaking suspicion that after I left the studio, I’d find that my wallet was missing.


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  1. Really, really wonderful. I adore Otterness. His work has sort of a dry whimsy (think “dry sense of humor”). It isn’t icky-sticky, but it’s clever, funny and sweet. It makes me think of silent-era cartoons and of Keith Haring and of some of the 70s underground comics, but it’s something all its own. I love public art, and I especially love having it in the NYC subways. Kind of makes up for the vast amount of beautiful old tile work that was destroyed over the years.

  2. That last piece is similar to one that sits off the west side of Roosevelt Island:

  3. The self-portrait sculpture reminds me of Vigo the Carpathian

  4. Pat, I came in to say the exact same thing!

  5. Thank you for the phototour and descriptions. Since I woh’t be able to visit in person this weekend, it was nice of you to share it for us all.

  6. I love it! It remind me to post the serie of Tom Oterness pictures I took in the subway station…

  7. Did you know Tom Otterness, years ago, adopted a dog and shot it on film for fun?

    He also doesn’t do any of his work he has his assistants do everything.

  8. Slyly subversive, my ass. How about cloyingly twee or suffocatingly ubiquitous? Baby talk in bronze. How did this hack get the monopoly on public art in this city? If we all ask him really nicely, do you think we can get him to stop?

  9. Wow! Just brilliant and amazing! I’m such a fan of Tom’s creations and it was real treat for you to be able to be our guide in his workshop.

  10. Scout, I was enjoying the post…until the the dog-thing. I don’t care how many cute bronze creatures Tom Otterness puts up around town, or how venerated he may be. A guy who adopted a trusting animal to shoot it for the sake of art is piece of filth. I did some research on “Shot Dog Film”, and his rationale behind it is mind-boggling. Here his link to an interview if anyone has the stomach (they don’t show the film, thankfully.) Just scroll down…and notice “dog tied to a post”, you can’t make this stuff up:

    And fuck his apology, at age 25 a man is of sound mind. Imagine adopting a dog, turning on a camera…and making a conscious decision to shoot a dog in the head to bolster your career?

    Thanks for posting this Scout. I pay taxes to NYC, which in turn, pays Otterness…that doesn’t sit well with me at all. A person has every right to earn a living at what they are good at, but if they committed a despicable act of cruelty, they should not earn a cent off the public dime. I will contact my NYC council rep today to try to get this d-bag off the payroll. I urge anyone who feels the same way to do the same.

    • Hi JL –

      I respect your opinion – my girlfriend had the exact same reaction.

      A really long time ago, I came to realize that artists simply do not live up to the great works they create. I think we can all agree that what Roman Polanski did to an underage girl with the help of some pills is as despicable as you can get – yet Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Pianist are absolute brilliant works of cinema. Another that comes to mind is Mel Gibson’s outright racism and anti-semitism – but again, I think we can all agree he’s a very talented actor, as well as director (Apocalypto, not Passion, to be specific).

      The sad fact is that, while the mistakes Polanski and Otterness have made are out in the open, an unimaginable number of respected artists (probably your favorites) have committed despicable acts that you will never know about, perhaps could never imagine. I remember watching a VERY famous and respected director embarrass his female assistant by suggesting knee pads would help her give blow jobs to the crew. I remember being on set once and hearing an actor, who has been in lots of films promoting equality, complaining about having to play the father of a “fag” son (“What will they give me next, a fat wife?” was his follow-up). Minor things compared to shooting a dog, but still not the type of behavior you want to reward.

      But that’s the way it is: people are flawed, some much moreso than others. Ultimately, my mantra is, in a nutshell, love the art, hate the artist. The Ethicist summed it up more intelligently than I can here:

      “but if they committed a despicable act of cruelty, they should not earn a cent off the public dime.”

      That’s your opinion, and you’re entitled to it. In my view, he has apologized for an unconscionable crime, and clearly will never kill another dog again. It’d be one thing if my tax dollars were going toward his ongoing efforts to kill helpless animals, but the sculptures and installations seem to preach the exact opposite attitude on a level that speaks to all. And ultimately, the art is worth it.

  11. Hi – Interesting to hear these comments. Definitely evolved my thoughts about his work.

    I read this post on Fri and over the weekend was walking around town and saw that his slide is also located in a playground on 42nd St btw 10th and 11th.

  12. Great post! I was out and about for NYOH this weekend, and one of the volunteers had mentioned his interest is this tour. When I mentioned I had read about it on your blog, he was also a reader. I kind of regreat not getting his email, maybe he will read this post 😉 Keep up the awesome site scout!

  13. Thanks for such a great tour. This was one of the sites I couldn’t get into this weekend. Your post was almost as good as being there. I love his work, whenever I come across it, I feel like a kid again.
    David, how funny, I too saw the play ground, passed by it in a taxi on Sat. I thought it was on 41st between 11th & 12th, just before Lucky Strike Bowling Alley. It’s the one in the photo above by Kat Sterck. I was delighted to see it, I’m sure the cab driver thought I was nuts. lolol

  14. really fascinating piece — and i love the lede. it’s like we’re sneaking up on the studio!

    my kids enjoy looking for hidden otternesses in the 14th street subway station — it’s a fun game to enliven the monotony of underground transport.

    also wanted to say it’s refreshing that the comments section hasn’t degenerated into name-calling, despite how fraught the subject is. this is Teh Interwebs! people aren’t supposed to be so civilized!

  15. Hey Scout… my bf and I were fortunate to be able to get in to the Sunday morning tour and we were delighted with the whole experience. In addition to the free access to most of the studio and workshop, Mr. Otterness was incredibly generous with his time, patiently and kindly answering questions he clearly has been asked many times, telling amusing personal stories and treating the entire group like welcome guests. We thought he was terrific.

    We took a lot of pictures, but apparently missed a few tidbits, so thanks for posting so many photos!

    Regarding the film controversy, I agree it might have been stupid and cruel, but we can’t punish even stupid and cruel actions forever. Atonement and forgiveness, both, are key elements to any reasonable moral code. Mr. Otterness has demonstrated personal and artistic generosity and growth that I think more than make up for this bad decision. If you think I’m basing that on limited knowledge of the man’s character and history, and dismissing possible further facts, well, consider that so are the critics. And I’d rather be on the forgiving side.
    My 2cents.

  16. I got to see Tom Otterness’ studio as part of Open House New York. It was my fourth attempt and I’m quite glad that I finally got a chance to hear about his process and see some of the work he’s currently working on.

    He was very polite, charming and open about his work and life and art and I am glad that there is much more work to come from him.

  17. fantastic post! a few years back Indianapolis hosted an exhibition of his work around downtown and 4 or 5 of them still remain. i’m lucky enough to drive by the largest of them on a frequent basis and actually find myself hoping to catch the red light so i can enjoy it a little longer without causing an accident.

    as for the “dog” controversy, i had been unaware of that until reading the comments here, and frankly it turned my stomach to read the article. however, i must say i agree with Scout and Amy. if we look for perfection in the artists we admire, we’re going to be left with a very small selection of art to enjoy. many of the truly gifted creative artists seem to be a bit cracked in one way or another, but that doesn’t make their work any less beautiful. i’m reminded of an architectural tour of Chicago i took a few years back. while walking thru Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park i overheard a couple discussing what a shame it was he walked out on his wife and six children and ran away to Europe with his mistress. the man was flawed, but the building was perfect.

  18. Oh! i was just in ny and got around exclusively by subway. i didn’t see these whimsical pieces! too bad. well, i’m glad i discovered this site anyways. thanks!

  19. I watched a system about that on tv on the weekend. With thanks with the far more in-depth explanation

  20. Otterness is a disgrace to New Yorkers, to artists, and to human beings in general.

    Anybody, at any time in their life, who thinks that shooting an innocent dog for “art” needs either treatment in a mental health facility or incarceration.

    What a scumbag.

  21. A few years too late to comment?

    Otterness on 14th st is a whimsical beacon of civility in the middle of a rat’s nest. Love the Otter.