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Meet Tualatin's 'mastadon artist'


Brian Keith sets out to give Tualatin another roadside attraction

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Sculptor Brian Keiths sketches of the bronze mastodon that will stand in the Nyberg Rivers shopping center.This fall, when shoppers flock to Cabela’s, the outdoor retailer and Nyberg Rivers’ anchor store, they will be welcomed by the beatific gaze of a bronze mastodon.

“It’s going to be a life-size juvenile mastodon,” artist Brian Keith said. “We’re looking at around a 7- to 8-year-old mastodon, which puts that around 7- to 8-feet-high.”

Keith was commissioned by developer CenterCal Properties to create a life-like depiction of the prehistoric beast that has become something of an emblem in the city after bones of one were unearthed in 1962, in what is now the parking lot of Fred Meyer, 19200 S.W. Martinazzi Ave.

As CenterCal Chief Executive Officer Fred Bruning explained, they’ve opted for a younger take on the early elephant relative so as not to scare children.

To make the mastodon more accessible, and to endear him to younger shoppers, the bronze display will also include a contemplative, but awestruck, human boy — the idea being that the child is wondering what it would be like to live in prehistory, Keith explained.

“It’s the old meets the new,” he said. “I know there’s going to be a children’s book, too. We’ve got a gifted author working alongside us.”

As of Tuesday, Keith was in the final stage of sculpting the Tualatin spirit animal, a well engineered mass of foam and clay.

“It looks like a complete mastodon,” Keith said. “He looks like he’d be a little cold, because he has no hair yet.”

The mastodon, of course, was less wooly than the mammoth.

Keith has worked with CenterCal before, creating large-scale installations. But this is the first time he’s had to work on a subject that has been extinct for more than 10,000 years.

“I had a lot of work ahead of me when I was given this opportunity,” he said.

He approached his research the way many of us do, with an information tear across the Internet. And then he found his research group, although he’s at a loss to explain how exactly he found the group of paleontologists and metrology and palaeogeography specialists he’s consulted with.

“I’m a Christian, and I put my faith in God. So he was just able to match me up with them,” Keith said.

“One of the main teams I worked with are some scientists out in Spain,” he said. “I was able to get some sketches (to them), and I worked with them on getting some hard facts.”

Then he set to work, sculpting Tualatin’s newest installation in his studio: a converted three-car garage at his home in San Ramon, Calif., a suburb of San Francisco. From there, the father of three manages to strike an impressive work-life balance: his oldest is 8, and his youngest just turned 3.

“You have to be disciplined with studio time,” Keith said. “When I’m in the studio, I usually go in right in the morning, after the children go to school. I’ll work a full day in the studio, and I’ll be able to cut out at 4:30.”

He admits the setup might not work for every artist, but for Keith, a quick walk through the laundry room door delivers him to a creative space.

Now Keith is in demand as a commissioned sculptor. But he originally set out to be a fine art painter.

Early in his career, at the suggestion of a mentor, Keith took a live model sculpting course, and almost immediately knew he had found his medium.

“I have a lot more confidence in it,” Keith said of sculpting. “I’m very systematic in my research and my execution of how I sculpt, so I didn’t have an ounce of hesitation.

His first paid project was to create a bust of then-president Ronald Reagan for the Orange County Republican Party in California. He then oversaw the production of 200 identical pieces, which are still in circulation.

“Recently, when Romney was running for president, he was holding one in a photo,” Keith laughed.

CenterCal Properties has long argued its Nyberg Rivers development on nearly 32 acres on Nyberg Road will prove a boon to the city. Not only will it replace long-shuttered Kmart with a revitalized retail spread, it is estimated to bring 1,500 part-time and full-time jobs.

The city’s Architectural Review Board had a list of complaints about CenterCal’s master plan for the property, including a few charges of aesthetic inconsistencies and concerns about too few indigenous trees in the landscaping. While contending with this, CenterCal has promised to do its part to help Tualatin claim its rightful place on the Ice Age Trail — partly through bronzed visual clues as to the region’s impressive prehistory.

It is a position many of the city’s local historians have tried to cement in what they believe is a burgeoning trend: Ice Age tourism.

In many ways, a catastrophic flood approximately 15,000 years ago may prove to have been a happy accident for the city. When an ice dam broke, about 250 cubic miles of water were expelled from Glacial Lake near what is now Missoula, Mont. Over the course of three days, the flood spread across 16,000 square miles, often at depths of more than 100 feet. The water coursed into Oregon as far as Eugene.

The floods displaced nutrient-rich soil, which proved a boon to the Willamette Valley — and its modern-day wine industry. But the waters carried with them “erratics,” non-indigenous rock formations, as well as non-native animals — many of which have been excavated in and around Tualatin.

And Tualatin defends its position heartily, especially in the face of Seattle’s giddiness over last week’s discovery of a more than 20,000-year-old mammoth tusk in its South Lake Union neighborhood. As Heritage Center board member and local historian Yvonne Addington points out, our neighbor to the north ain’t got nothing on us: mammoth tusk? Tualatin’s got that, too, and it’s on display at the Heritage Center.