Mama Penny Bear's Back Story is as Delightful as You'd Expect

"Ursa Mater" aka "Mama Penny Bear" is obviously, openly appealing to passers by in downtown San Jose. Californians love bears, for one thing, but most people do a second double-take when they realize the sculpture's "fur" is made of pennies. (Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Ferguson)

The sculpture is 12 feet tall — 12 feet six inches if you count the ears. A 5,700 pound grizzly bear with two cubs nestled into her side. She has a fancy Latin name, Ursa Mater, but really, everyone just calls her Mama Penny Bear -- including the artists, Robert and Lisa Ferguson. 

Do I need to tell you they met and married three years later at Burning Man?

And every year, a few weeks after they return from the burn, Lisa will come up with a flash of inspiration for their next project.  Robert says, "She’ll be sitting on the couch and go “Sooooo, hear me out. I have this idea.” She comes up with these concepts, then I’m the one that has to figure out how to execute ‘em."

Robert has a welding company in Hayward. Lisa’s a cinematographer, and for a number of years now, she’s been obsessed with pennies. "Cause they’re being taken out of circulation in Canada," Lisa says. Also, "People have this thing with pennies, Cause they’re whimsical. It’s a fun coin."

Lisa was the one who suggested tens of thousands of pennies turned on their sides would look like fur, and Robert figured he could get them to stay up and in using adhesive stucco called Loctite over a bear built of steel and foam. "You push the pennies in and two hours later, they weren’t coming out," he says.

"Ursa Mater" aka "Mama Penny Bear" on the Playa at Burning Man. "It's battle tested," says Robert Ferguson. "You're out in the desert in wind, blowing sand, heat, rain. And people are at it, 70,000 of them. At the end of the day, it comes home intact, you know you have something that's going to be able to be in the public eye."
"Ursa Mater" aka "Mama Penny Bear" on the Playa at Burning Man. "It's battle tested," says Robert Ferguson. "You're out in the desert in wind, blowing sand, heat, rain. And people are at it, 70,000 of them. At the end of the day, it comes home intact, you know you have something that's going to be able to be in the public eye." (Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Ferguson)

A growing number of art works from Burning Man are moving on to the nation’s museums and city plazas. But only San Jose has a three year partnership with the Burning Man Foundation to bring a rotating cast of Burning Man sculptures to the city’s streets. It's called the “Playa to the Paseo” project.

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It all started when the Director of Cultural Affairs for the City of San Jose, Kerry Adams Hapner went to Burning Man for the first time in 2016. “I was blown away," she says. " The quality and scale of the artwork was unsurpassed. I know some select projects do receive grants from Burning Man, but the artists do it in large part on their own dime. And these artists are not necessarily the ones applying for our public art commissions."

She was also excited by the outsider aesthetic of the art on display on the Burning Man playa. "So dynamic, engaging, interactive. I realized there is a huge opportunity here to assist the artists and deliver a reciprocal benefit to the community of San Jose," steeped as it is, she says, in "authentic maker culture."

The Burning Man Project gives out $1.3 million in grants each year and resources like fuel, heavy equipment, labor, et cetera.  San Jose and Burning Man co-curate what gets selected, based largely on quality and what works in an urban environment. Cost and availability dictate how long the works stay up in San Jose.

Mama Penny Bear is the second of three Burning Man pieces installed in San Jose so far. The first was the Sonic Runway, at San Jose City Hall, from November to March of this year. The newest  is“Tara Mechani” is a 15-foot-high metal figurative sculpture by Bay Area artist Dana Albany, now in the Plaza de Cesar Chavez though June 9, 2018.

"Ursa Mater" aka "Mama Penny Bear" is the third in a series of penny sculptures that started with this goose. Coming next? A bald eagle. Lisa warns it will appear more threatening. "The eagle's staring right at you. The talons are at your chest level. So you'll feel like a squirrel or a gopher, about to be taken off the ground."
"Ursa Mater" aka "Mama Penny Bear" is the third in a series of penny sculptures that started with this goose. Coming next? A bald eagle. Lisa warns it will appear more threatening. "The eagle's staring right at you. The talons are at your chest level. So you'll feel like a squirrel or a gopher, about to be taken off the ground." (Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Ferguson)

Mama Penny Bear is up in the Paseo de San Antonio near the Fairmont Hotel through the month of May.  After that, it's off to Lake Tahoe for a year. Ursa Major, the first bear the Fergusons made, is on view at Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery in Washington DC. To see a great video of how both bears were made, click here.

Lisa and Robert say the first question everybody asks is how many pennies did it take to make Mama Penny Bear? "Also, why would anybody do this?" Lisa says, chuckling.

If you don't intuit the answer to the second question, there may be no answer that works for you. But the answer to the first question?  205,000 pennies.

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