Giant cat head to take over Downtown corner

Artist Jesse Carson Smigel holds a clay model of his cat sculpture in his studio Tuesday, August 26, 2014. The actual sculpture, background, will be over 10 feet-tall, he said.
Photo: Steve Marcus

We’d like to think that somewhere in an alternate universe, a brash, cigar-smoking grub worm wearing a cowboy hat and pink velvet suit is promising the unconventional artist Jesse Carson Smigel a street corner for his giant sculpted cat head —a scenario that would plant the public artwork Downtown with a mere blink of an eye.

But in reality, which isn’t completely different, Smigel’s public sculpture “Snowball in Vegas” has been two years in the planning and a half-year in the making, with the installation delayed while Smigel applies the finishing touches: ears, paint, hard coat, etc. At some point this fall, his 10-foot-tall sculpture will be placed permanently on the southwest corner of First Street and Coolidge Avenue as the inaugural sculpture for the city’s First Street Art Trail, connecting the Arts District to Fremont Street. Smigel's $14,000 sculpture is the only one to be scheduled for the corridor at this time.

The Las Vegas artist—known for his Grub-Baby rescue video, a cats-versus-Borg piece and other unconventional narratives—is sculpting the cat head with its tongue out as if it's cleaning its paw. Visitors stand in front and act out the illusion of being cleaned (or slobbered with love). “It’s human nature to expect a tactile experience,” Smigel says. “I want them to touch it, to interact with it, to get out that primal urge.”

Smigel originally considered a giant tardigrade, a micro-animal that looks like a bear and can “withstand the vacuum of space,” but instead opted for the first cat he bonded with as a child, a proposal the Arts Commission pushed through for its whimsical and lively nature. He had already wooed the city in 2012 with his 9-foot-tall gnomes, temporarily placed in the Boulder Plaza Sculpture Park before being displayed at City Hall and then going into the hands of a private collector. The gnomes were, as Smigel had hoped, a popular photo op drawing attention to the Arts District.

The artist, who works in carved Styrofoam (“the poor man’s marble,” he says), prefers the interactive idea of public art. When he was a child it was turtle sculptures he saw at the park, shooting water. Now, in a world where selfie-ism is a way of life, he wants to create works with which people will interact via their iPhones, à la the giant shoe at the Cosmopolitan or the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign on the Boulevard.

“Maybe the more adventuresome will say, ‘I saw this f*cking thing that’s a giant cat head. Why don’t we go check that out,’” Smigel says. “People need photographic evidence of whatever they’re doing. The piece doesn’t work without your interaction.”

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Kristen Peterson

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