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Boxer lore galore

A new 'heavy metal' sculpture on the Pacific University campus replaces one that came from China and was often swiped by students

Perched atop its large concrete base at the northwest corner of the campus, Pacific University's new Boxer sculpture appears to be a cross between ancient Chinese mythology and hi-tech science fiction.

According to Asian tradition, the seven-foot-tall steel 'qilin' snarls ferociously to ward off malevolent spirits. But if you take a closer look, the statue deviates strongly from antique Oriental style.

'My goal was to make it look like a onetime functioning biomechanical piece that could have jumped up here on its own,' says Tim Tanner, the Boxer's creator.

Beneath the sculpture's façade - made of small cast-off steel disks and retired horseshoes - lurks a robot-like skeleton. The structure of the beast's shoulders and arms is formed from soil cultivators and automobile suspension systems, its powerful upper torso is reinforced with tractor and car parts, and its intestinal tract consists of hydraulic pumps.

Tanner even welded on a water faucet at an anatomically correct place, and filled the creature's cranium with interlocking gears.

'It is a college campus,' he explained, 'so you want to see something working up there.'

Tanner enjoys working in steel because it allows a great deal of creative flexibility, similarly to working in clay. If a portion of his creation doesn't suit him, he can simply take it apart, rearrange it, and weld it back together again.

'There are no limits, except for your imagination, really,' Tanner says.

The medium also provides him with a wide range of raw materials - everything in the sculpture is made from recycled steel, both metal scraps and pieces of machinery. He scours garage sales for useful objects, and relies on donated junk that most people are tempted to throw away.

'People call me and say, 'I've got something for you.' I'm very happy when they say, 'Hey, I just want it out of my yard,'' Tanner says. 'I find shapes that I find interesting and work with anything that speaks to me.'

Not only is the Boxer the largest outdoor sculpture on the Pacific University campus, it's also the largest piece Tanner has ever created. Most of what he sells could be categorized as 'yard art,' although many customers display the work inside their homes or offices.

Tanner's creative career spans decades. Before starting his metal sculpting career about seven year ago, he worked for more than a decade at Portland's Will Vinton Studio, collaborating on animation projects. Before that, he made horseshoes and worked in construction and remodeling. Currently, Tanner lives in Mountaindale and teaches art at Portland Community College.

Pacific University commissioned him to create the Boxer statue two years ago, when members of the student government noticed his sculpture of a rearing horse at Valley Art Association's downtown Forest Grove gallery. Tanner's style seemed to fit perfectly with the university's goal of promoting its long-time Chinese mascot, named after the Boxer Rebellion.

The $10,000 sculpture was funded by the Pacific Undergraduate Community Council and its subsidiary, the Residence Hall Association.

'It's a one-of-a-kind piece,' says Steve Klein, director of University Center and Student Activities.

The Boxer's story began in the late 1800s, when a Pacific University graduate gave the institution a bronze 'qilin' incense burner he had acquired while serving as a missionary in China.

The monstrous sculpture of the mythological dragon-like Chinese creature was kidnapped by students as a prank a few years later, which instigated a tradition of students pilfering the object from one another.

'People who had it would try to hang onto it, and people would try to swipe it from each other,' says Klein.

At one point, the original piece disappeared completely and a replica was made in the early 1980s. University administrators began worrying about students getting hurt during one of the regular 'tossing' competitions, in which they violently clamored for ownership of the Boxer.

Pacific now holds tamer contests, in which students strive to earn points, with the winners permitted to keep the statue for up to one year.

As a part of Boxer's more civilized image, the university hopes to increase the larger community's appreciation of the mascot - which is where Tanner's sculpture comes in.

'We're trying to give it some exposure so it's not just one piece that's hidden from the public,' Klein says. And since the statue weighs a ton, literally, it won't be stolen and dangerously tossed around.

'It's definitely heavy metal,' he said.