Sandy's Story Part One

Have you been out spotting gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) as they head north? You don't have to step far from the Museum to see our celebrity gray whale, affectionately known as Sandy.  At January’s Science Saturday, migration was the theme, and true to tradition, Sandy was honored as adoring fans climbed on her and everyone sang Happy 35th, but what is the story behind her arrival in Pacific Grove? This seemed like a good time to share a little history of Sandy before she arrived at our local natural history museum. First, I gathered some information. Then I contacted the artist Larry Foster and enjoyed informative and entertaining conversations with him and his wife, Mary, who are now retired in Fort Bragg. 

Larry Foster, fine artist with astute eyes and finesse for detail. James Mead, Curator of Marine Mammals at the Smithsonian Institute noted,  “Larry Foster has turned whale illustration into a science. The depictions that he has done are the most anatomically accurate I have ever seen.”

Larry Foster, fine artist with astute eyes and finesse for detail.

James Mead, Curator of Marine Mammals at the Smithsonian Institute noted,  “Larry Foster has turned whale illustration into a science. The depictions that he has done are the most anatomically accurate I have ever seen.”

    Larry Foster was born in Sacramento, California, in 1934. He saw his first whale when he was in kindergarten and it left an impression. He set out on a voyage to research and show the world what a “real” whale looked like. Foster’s original art has been exhibited in museums, universities and natural history centers throughout the country. His work has appeared in National Geographic, Smithsonian, International Wildlife, Sierra Club Handbook and many other magazines and books.

    During his career, Foster worked in a variety of media. His first whale was a stained-glass piece that still shines in an Oakland boutique. He was also a professor at California State University East Bay in Hayward. Pursuing his passion for whales, Larry spent years collecting photographs and making his own drawings from resources in university libraries and museum basements. He built relationships with scientists, who admired his observational and artistic skills, as well as his perseverance to ‘get it right’. He became friends with cetacean experts such as Ted Walker of Scripps and museum curators such as our museum’s Director Emeritus Vern Yadon. The artist-scientist collaboration was a pivotal point and thus, the nonprofit  “General Whale” was born. 
 
    After designing a whale’s tale sculpture, Larry began to think about a new, larger project. “Maybe I can do it bigger, even bigger - - a whole whale!”  In 1971, with no contract and no commissioned request, he went to work creating a life-size ferro cement, female gray whale sculpture -  a 6,000-pound project fabricated in his spare time, all while he continued producing art and exhibiting at shows. Obviously, a 40-foot sculpture needed big space. A warehouse in East Oakland was rented as a studio and a team was assembled. 

Forty feet fabricated with iron framework in Oakland studio.

Forty feet fabricated with iron framework in Oakland studio.

Sandy’s tail in fabrication. “A whale’s tail is quite a beautiful structure in my eyes” - Larry Foster.

Sandy’s tail in fabrication.

“A whale’s tail is quite a beautiful structure in my eyes” - Larry Foster.

    From the groundwork of numerous drawings, Larry created a model using molded casting plaster. He applied a ratio of 1 inch-to-1 foot. Then took the 40-inch model and made eight transverse sections (imagine a loaf of bread with very thick pieces). An opaque projector transposed the model to a life-size 40-foot adventure. Next, an iron framework was constructed and interlaced with five layers of chicken wire, which created creamy concrete slushed in a mortar mixer. They worked from the inside and outside, using trowels and wooden blocks to push the concrete into the mesh network. It was a long, tedious and difficult job. Everybody had bloody fingers.

Larry chuckled, “No sane person would ever do it twice.”  

They were pleased with final result, especially since the “General Whale” leader had never seen ferro cement techniques applied. He just read about it in a book. It had been used for a boat, so why not a whale, he thought. Three years after conception Sandy was completed.

Look for part two in Sandy's Story soon.