Mastodons on the Loose: How a new public art project is connecting Muskegon to its history—and future

Feb 20, 2019 / Muskegon Times / by Anna Gustafson -- A new public art project, “Mastodons on the Loose,” is both seriously and playfully answering these questions—with a sculpture of an adult mastodon emerging from the Lakeshore Museum Center and a series of smaller sculptures of baby mastodons located at sites throughout downtown Muskegon. The sculpture of the large mastodon is slated to be installed in September, and at least 13 mini-mastodons are expected to be placed this summer.

The mastodon is a distant relative of today’s elephant that, along with woolly mammoths, giant beavers, and other massive animals, roamed throughout Michigan, including in Muskegon, about 14,000 to 10,000 years ago. It sported a pair of tusks as long as 16 feet, stood between seven and nine feet tall, and weighed somewhere around six tons. Climate change and overhunting by humans drove it into extinction.

“The mastodon is our state fossil—who knew that?” said Judy Hayner, the recently retired director of the Muskegon Museum of Art who is spearheading efforts to bring the mastodon sculptures to the city. “There’s evidence of mastodons in Michigan that are fairly prolific. The mastodon fossils in the Lakeshore Museum were discovered in Rothbury. Mastodon bones were found in Muskegon in 1930; those wound up at the Grand Rapids Public Museum. It’s that history that’s so interesting and gives us the opportunity to do something very fun—to do something very attention getting.”

The coming mastodon sculptures will certainly be attention getting: the large, adult-sized mastodon will look like it’s “breaking out of the basement,” Lakeshore Museum Center Executive Director Annoesjka Soler said. The little mastodons will be located at sites around downtown, including the Heritage Museum, the Muskegon Museum of Art, the Century Club, the Union Depot, the Farmers Market, Hackley Park, and the L.C. Walker Arena, among other venues.

“It’s going to be whimsical,” Soler said. “The mastodon is coming out of the building to look for their babies. It’s a piece of art that kids and adults can interact with. They can sit on it to have their pictures taken. We want it to be very interactive. It fits in with what we’re trying to do with the museum and trying to move our image into a playful place.”

Sculpted by Gillie and Marc Schattner, a wife and husband duo from Australia who have exhibited internationally and whom the New York Times called “the most successful and prolific creators of public art in New York’s history,” the mastodons are the first project from the Muskegon City Public Art Initiative. Launched in July 2018 and led by Hayner, the initiative aims to add up to 10 new significant works of art to the city of Muskegon; it operates under the auspices of the Community Foundation for Muskegon County in collaboration with the Downtown Arts Committee.

Philanthropist Patrick O’Leary, a former Muskegonite who now lives in Arizona, is donating up to $25,000 for each of the 10 projects. The mastodon project has a total price tag of $115,000 for the large sculpture and $1,500 per mini-mastodon; the initiative has so far fundraised about 84 percent of its goal. Thirteen mini-mastodons have been secured, and Hayner said they’re hoping to fund a couple more. Donations to the project are made through the Community Foundation for Muskegon County.

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