Feature Photo by Jeff Forster
It’s not an illusion produced by drug use. There really is a pink elephant in downtown Wheeling.
And for good reason.
“Bobo” the elephant rests in the Heritage Port Park on the corner of 11th and Main streets and was dedicated in early July. The sculpture, which weighs just over 1,800 pounds, is supported by a steel interior superstructure. The majority of the funding arrived via a donation made by Gary and Flip West, and Jeff Forster sculpted it.
It is illuminated pink now for two reasons: The month of October is “Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and Forster’s sister, Gail, survived her battle against breast cancer more than a decade ago.
“She totally lost her eyebrows and all her hair because of the treatments, but she had a very positive outlook about what she went through 16 years ago,” he said. “So out of tribute to her, her battle, and the fact that this is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I had the idea to alter the lighting.
“So I got some cellophane that’s pink, and I covered the lamps with it, and then I asked permission,” he admitted. “At first I think people didn’t know what to think. It’s my sculpture, but it is in a city park, so I got a little push-back. But then the city manager said it was OK.”
Not only does Forster wish to honor his sister and increase awareness with his idea, but he also hopes to further establish Heritage Port Park as a downtown landmark.
“I’d like to see it become a beacon for downtown Wheeling that people start using when they are giving directions on how to get here and there,” he said. “Landmarks are huge when it comes to navigation, so hopefully it will be used like a landmark because at the same time it’s raising awareness.
“For many years of my life it was thought that if you were seeing a pink elephant, it was because you were really intoxicated, but that’s different now here in downtown Wheeling,” Forster continued. “Now seeing a pink elephant in Wheeling means you are reminded about breast cancer and how to either prevent it or fight it like Gail did.”
Forster found the Friendly City in the 1980s thanks to friends he possessed in the Marshall County, but he didn’t stay after the first time he visited, or after the second and third times either. He was too busy, he admitted, with finding a profession with a purpose.
“I knew some people in Moundsville, so that’s where I ended up when I first came to this area, and that’s where I started smithing,” Forster said. “Then I went back to Niagara Falls, and I worked at some union fabrication shops. That’s when I started bouncing between here and there while I got jobs in welding shops.
“That’s when I picked up metal working, and every chance I had, I would do that kind of work. I even got involved with the Artists Blacksmith Association of North America, and there was a regional group in the Appalachian region,” he said. “Right at the beginning, I really didn’t know much about the craft, and I knew I had a lot to learn. That’s when, in 1991, I spent six weeks in Europe, and I learned as much as I could.”
“Bobo” is not the only Forster sculpture that is feature at the Heritage Port Park. There are a turtle, a mouse, and also the “Blue Heron” that was created larger than real life.
“In sculpture, to make it impressive, I feel that’s what you have to do,” Forster said. “The Blue Heron most commonly has a 6-foot wing span, but the one I did has a 9-foot wing span, and I did hear some criticism about it. I had to explain that I did that intentionally. It’s all a matter of perspective and how close it is.
“If you really at the sculpture, you’re able to tell that the mouse sculpture is actually coming out of the trunk of the elephant, and I think a lot of people have made the connection because they’ve always heard that elephants are freaked out by mice. I did it in a child’s view, and I get just as many comments about the mouse as I do the elephant.”
“Bobo” the elephant was an idea brought forth by Wheeling resident Susan Hogan, a board member for ReInvent Wheeling and a member of the Wheeling Arts and Cultural Commission. It honors the Friendly City’s history with the traveling circus that parade elephants through the downtown district before performances on Wheeling Island.
And the sculpture also represents what can be produced from recycled scrap metal.
“The principal materials for the elephant came from old restaurant equipment, including an old walk-in cooler,” Forster said. “But it had foam on it, and the scrappers didn’t want to deal with that foam. So, for $150 I got this 10×10 cooler that was all stainless steel. It was a nice gage of metal.
“There were a lot of other things that I acquired, too, like old restaurant prep tables and kitchen hoods. I just clipped that stuff up used very old-world techniques,” he said, “Stainless steel is not an easy material to work with, and anyone who does this stuff knows that. It is resistant, but that resistance to bending worked for me because of the ways I was going about creating it.”
And that means “Bobo” could live longer than the next 12 generations.
“It was a very affordable sculpture because it will be there for 1,000 years if (the city leaders) allow it to be,” Forster said. “The stainless steel was moved and forged in a way to take advantage of its maximum ability.
“I believe I had about 2,000 hours into it by the time it was complete, and overall it took about a year’s time,” he said. “The elephant wasn’t my idea, and it was based on history here in Wheeling. In the beginning, after I was I asked about it, I had to ask myself if I could do what they wanted. I had only sculpted birds but never a mammal at that time.
“Almost immediately, I was confident that I could do it, though. There are a lot of times when I’ve taken on something that I have never done before, and most of those times it took me every single experience I’ve ever had, but as an artisan I believe you are always doing that.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)