PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Elisha Daniel, center, removes one of the stained glass panels of the Space Whale at Reno City Plaza Jan. 9. The iconic cetacean, born at Burning Man in 2016, was installed at the plaza the following year and is being repaired.

After spending four years basking on the concrete sea of Reno City Plaza, the battered Space Whale and her calf are getting a makeover.

The stained glass and steel sculpture of a humpback whale and her baby, born at Burning Man in 2016, has had about a quarter of its 1,800 glass panels broken since it was installed on city property in 2017. The piece was to be on display in downtown Reno for a year, but when the lease was up, Reno officials negotiated to buy the celebrated cetacean.

In October 2021, the Reno City Council voted to buy and repair the artwork. The whales had a $62,500 price tag; repairs cost $75,000. The broken glass is being replaced with Lexan, a polycarbonate material used for bulletproof glass and other products that must withstand high impacts. City officials said the material “is more durable than glass and will help deter vandalism.”

An epoxy coating will be added to the glass panels that have remained intact, making them stronger.

New glass, better lights

Artists and craftspeople from the Pier Group, the artists collective that created the 50-foot sculpture, have been replacing the panels and upgrading the lights inside the artwork this month. While the extensive damage to the sculpture has been described as “vandalism,” the project’s lead artist believes that much of the breakage was inadvertent.

“Most of the damage to the whales was to the baby and the parts of the mom that are at arm’s reach or where people would climb,” said Matt Schultz, a monumental sculptor and creator of the Space Whale. “I believe about 90% of the damage was accidental.”

The mother whale, with her tail fin in the air and her calf at her side, weighs about 30,000 pounds – about half the weight of the real thing. It was built to last, Schultz said. The structure is able to withstand sustained winds of more than 100 miles per hour. Although the panels were touted as being able to stand up to impacts, the damage began shortly after the piece was installed.

PHOTO/JOVAN ROSCOM: The Space Whale at Reno City Plaza. The Riverside Hotel and the Virginia Street Bridge are in the background.

The sky is their ocean

Cathy Harrison of Reno, who works downtown, said the creatures were a great addition to the plaza, particularly at night, when the stained glass is illuminated from within. “It’s kind of surreal,” Harrison said. “I hope it is better protected in the future. If it was me, I’d put a fence around it to protect it.”

The repairs may include a “short fence,” Schultz said, “something designed to keep rolling objects from colliding with it.”  The plaza is used as a skateboard park and skaters occasionally smack into the sculpture.

The whales’ frame is in very good shape, he said, but the lighting system wasn’t designed for a 4-year-long installation. “We will upgrade the lights to make them much brighter and more durable to the weather,” Schultz said. “After the repairs, the whales will become part of Reno’s art collection. Our goal is to make sure the whales only need basic maintenance over the coming years.”

Damage in the dark

Dianna Sion, an artist who lives in the Riverside Hotel lofts across Virginia Street, suspects that a lot of the broken glass was the result of deliberate vandalism. She doubts that the skateboarders had much to do with it.

The skaters who use the plaza have been the sculpture’s “guardian angels,” she said. Sion, who has a seagull’s-eye view of the plaza from her apartment, said some of the unsheltered people who frequent the plaza late at night vandalize the artwork as well as some of the surrounding buildings.

“It’s not the skater kids doing the dirty work. It’s the drug addicts running the streets downtown with their bullwhips and knives and gunshots. The whales have been fine ever since the city recently installed skate board obstacles in City Plaza for the skaters. They protect it.” – Dianna Sion, Reno artist.

 “I love the space whales,” Sion said. “I dislike the fact that we should have to consider using unsustainable materials to keep the beautiful steel cetaceans intact. The sculpture was made with glass, it should stay glass. Perhaps if the City is going to have to continue maintenance on the amazing piece of art, they might want to put some police officers downtown near City Plaza to help protect the sculpture.”

She said more late-night police patrols in the area would protect both the sculpture and residents who walk in the area after dark.

A symbol of the city

Other passersby at the plaza who were asked about the whales said they approve of the city’s decision to give the artwork a permanent home. “Next to the Reno Arch, the Space Whale is a symbol of the city now,” said Addison Cartwright of Sacramento. “I’m always happy to see it when I come to Reno.”

Schultz said the brightly-colored sea mammals were a labor of love when they were built for Burning Man and deserve to have a prominent place in downtown Reno. “It’s very humbling to hear about how much people enjoy it,” said Schultz, who noted that the creatures also serve as a metaphor.

“The whales are about our need to preserve and care for the environment we live in. I believe that the damage the art has taken is mirroring the damage that our environment is taking. We have a responsibility to preserve our oceans, end our use of fossil fuels and help all of the people who are currently struggling in our modern world. Let’s build a future together where everyone has a home, in partnership with nature.” — Matt Schultz, creator of the Space Whale.

The whales undergoing repairs in January 2022 at Reno City Plaza.

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