Local sculptor’s anti-nukes protest piece meets its demise in Texas
How’s this for irony? A 12-foot, 2,000-pound metal sculpture made in Chico 17 years ago to protest nuclear power and weapons ends up melted down for scrap years later after being dispatched to a nuclear research center in Austin, Texas.
The startling discovery of the sculpture’s fate was made this past January by Robert Seals, the Forest Ranch artist who designed and built the piece. Seals, an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church, said he wanted the sculpture back to serve as the icon for his church.
The piece depicted a mushroom cloud overlaid with the image of an embryo and was much celebrated locally and nationally when it was first unveiled. The artist and his metal mushroom were the subject of stories in papers from as far away as Canada and Hawaii.
Somewhat of a renaissance man and a local legend, Seals is a musician (that’s his sitar/guitar playing at the Farmers’ Market), race car driver, bicycle racer, inventor and artist. His multi-purpose and patented bike tool—the Cool Tool—is sold in bicycle shops across the country. And he’s pulled any number of stunts in the name of art, including twice racing a horse on foot around Lower Bidwell Park in the 1980s and a self-crucifixion on the Chico State University campus in the 1960s.
His most recent sculpture is a 25-foot-tall crucifix draped in the U.S. flag to protest America’s aggression toward the rest of the world.
A few weeks ago the piece was ordered removed from the Chico State University campus out of administrators’ fear that it might topple over and hurt members of a tent camp of war protesters on the Free Speech Area, leaving the already financially troubled school legally liable.
“The abortion issue was red hot at the time,” Seals said of his mushroom-fetus cloud. “The piece wasn’t to be confused with that, though some people tried to make the connection. I was talking about the abortion of all life on earth, with the exception of cockroaches. It was the most powerful piece I’d ever done.”
Seals said the piece took the labor of five people working around the clock for 14 days in his welding shop.
“When Chernobyl went off I was already thinking I needed to address this nuclear issue,” he said, “but it just hadn’t clicked in my mind yet.”
He said he studied photos of the Hiroshima atomic-bomb blast and different stages of a mushroom cloud: “I kept looking and thought it looked alive, almost embryonic.”
He said when he picked up an anatomy book that belonged to his girlfriend, a registered nurse, he realized his vision. “I did a line drawing of a fetus and overlaid it on the mushroom cloud and there it is. If that doesn’t represent the annihilation of all living species, nothing does.”
Seals hauled the finished work around in a trailer, hitting places like the troubled Rancho Seco nuclear power plant near Sacramento. At the time the plant was experiencing technical difficulties, and the boisterous Seals, who was met by federal agents when he tried to wheel the piece onto the plant grounds, offered to grab his welding gear and try to fix the problem in the reactor.
“I was dressed like the tourist from hell, with a straw hat, a bright-orange shirt and pink knee socks,” Seals recalled. “I’m walking around trying to talk into [the agents'] radios and saying, ‘Are you listening in there? I want the director to come out because I understand you have a broken valve in there and I happen to have my welding truck here and I’m a real good welder. I’ll come in and fix that.'”
The agents were not amused.
Seals also took the piece to the 1987 World Expo in Vancouver, where he hoped to place the work in the United Nations pavilion. Though the U.N. people showed interest, Seals said, the piece proved too tall to fit inside the building.
“Hundreds of thousands of people saw the piece, and then we ran out of money and I had to go back to work,” Seals said.
But in time Seals was back on the road, dragging the piece to the Nevada nuclear-test site for a planned protest, where he met with actor and activist Martin Sheen, singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson and actor and future accused-murderer Robert Blake.
Also on hand was the late famed cosmologist and writer Carl Sagan, who signed the sculpture.
“I carried a set of steel stamps and a small sledgehammer, and people were free to write something on the piece, their name, a statement,” Seals explained. “There was a half-inch steel plate, 5 feet by 5 feet, at its base. And there was a tombstone on the bottom that had fallen off of a truck. I got it real cheap and thought it was perfect because it was damaged—destroyed at ground zero. A brass plaque said, ‘Dedicated to the innocent victims of the nuclear age.'”
As Sagan was signing it, Seals said, an “ominous man” appeared.
“He looks like Johnny Cash, big black coat, black hair, and he comes up and he’s hanging out with everybody important. He says, ‘I’m John Stockwell, and I understand that you’re the one who made this incredible piece of art.'”
Stockwell is a 13-year veteran of the CIA and a former U.S. Marine Corps major. He resigned from the CIA, saying he was determined to reveal the truth about the agency’s role in the Third World. Stockwell is a founding member of Peaceways and ARDIS (the Association for Responsible Dissent), an organization of former CIA and government officials who are openly critical of the CIA’s activities.
The CIA turncoat offered to take the sculpture to his hometown of Austin, where activists were building a peace encampment across the street from a facility that made nuclear warheads.
“It was not supposed to go home and sit in my yard; it was supposed to be on public display,” Seals said.
On a rainy night in early 1988, Stockwell showed up at Seals’ house. He was in town to give a talk at Chico State University. A few days later, Stockwell hauled the piece to Texas.
Some time after that Stockwell told Seals he knew a man who was going to try to get the sculpture onto the campus of the University of Texas.
Seals lost track of Stockwell and his sculpture, satisfied it had found a home on the campus of the Austin-based university.
A few months ago, with chances of war heating up in Iraq, Seals thought he’d retrieve the piece, bring it back to Chico and launch another tour before setting the piece at his church, which he says he’s operating out of his home. He had another contact in Austin named Shay Baker, a bike shop owner who sold Seals’ Cool Tool. Baker traced the sculpture to the J. J. Pickle Research Center, home of the University of Texas Nuclear and Radiation Engineering Program.
According to the university’s Web site, the school has offered a “nuclear option” to its students for the past 40 years. Graduates have gone on to jobs with the likes of Exxon, Lockheed-Martin, the Bhaba Atomic Center in India, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and the U.S. Nuclear Navy.
“He tried to get in to see if it is still there but was stopped by security,” Seals said of Baker’s efforts on his behalf. “So he got in touch with Randy Worley, head of planning and construction for the University of Texas.”
Seals learned his artwork had been removed from campus on someone’s orders and then hauled to a storage yard next to the research center.
“They have what they call bullpens,” Seals explained. “We call them boneyards. It’s where they keep scrap stuff, spare stuff. I finally get hold of Worley. It took me a few weeks to get him on the phone, and when I do he says, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that piece. What a pain in the ass.'”
Worley’s boss, a Richard Brown, had told him to, in Seals’ words, “Get this thing off campus.”
“Worley says he remembers hauling it because it was too high to go under an overpass. He said he’d set it in this yard two to three years ago, he wasn’t sure. I e-mailed him a picture before I went any farther. He mailed me back this very simple answer: ‘Yes, that’s it.’
“What happened here is they took our icon,” Seals said. “We don’t use crucifixes, we use the real deal, and that was our icon for the mission of peace. They melted it down at a nuclear-research facility. There’s a real interesting twist there to me. The piece gets melted down by the very thing that we’re protesting.”
A few weeks after talking with Seals, I called the Planning and Construction Department at the University of Texas and asked for Worley. A man named Ray answered and said Worley was on vacation.
I told him what I was after.
“I’m the assistant here, and I work under Randy,” Ray said. “All I can tell you is that that sculpture was taken away more than 10 years ago. They took it off campus because they didn’t want it anymore.
“They told us to get rid of it, so we took it to PRC [Pickle Research Center]. We have a bullpen out there where we take things like bricks and other stuff we can’t use. We sent a couple of crews out there, and it ended up in one of the salvage yards here in Austin.”
Seals says he still wants to know the exact timeline and who is ultimately responsible for destroying his work. He says he’s contemplating legal action.
“Why did they keep it for three years if there was no value? Where am I going to get Carl Sagan’s signature on my art again? For me to build a new one…”
Seals stops as if he doesn’t even want to ponder the thought.
“The only weapon I really have is probably how they feel about what they’ve done,” he says.
In the meantime, as the possibility of war in Iraq heats up, Seals plans to tour the country with his flag-draped crucifix.