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Wisconsin sculptor’s works helped shaped Jamestown’s skyline

JAMESTOWN, N.D. -- Elmer Petersen is best known in Jamestown for one of his biggest sculptures, the World's Largest Buffalo. The body of his work is much larger and covers a wide variety of subjects. He and his work were the subject of a program ...

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Elmer Peterson, sculptor of the World's Largest Buffalo and the big iron eagle in front of the All Vet's Club building, talks about his work Wednesday while visiting Jamestown. (John M Steiner/Forum News Service)

JAMESTOWN, N.D. -- Elmer Petersen is best known in Jamestown for one of his biggest sculptures, the World’s Largest Buffalo.

The body of his work is much larger and covers a wide variety of subjects.

He and his work were the subject of a program at the Arts Center Wednesday, and he was honored at a reception at the National Buffalo Museum on Tuesday.

Petersen, 87, is a Racine, Wis., native. He said he tried different art forms, mainly drawing and painting, growing up in Racine.

He said he wasn’t particularly inspired by the art classes he took while in high school, but he did find he had the ability to draw images from his imagination.

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He attended Dana College in Blair, Neb., where he earned a bachelor’s degree. He went on to earn a master’s degree in applied arts from the University of Wisconsin. In 1957, Petersen got a job teaching art at Jamestown College, now the University of Jamestown. He taught for two years, and it was in 1959 that he was hired by Harold Newman to create the World’s Largest Buffalo.

Petersen said he used his experience as a student using plaster and steel bandage armature to create the large work of art.

“Moving to I-beams rebar, mesh and blown on cement wasn’t that much of a stretch,” he said about creating the sculpture.

The World’s Largest Buffalo is 46 feet long and 26 feet high. The sculpture was created to attract tourists off of the then recently built Interstate 94, a fact that didn’t escape Petersen’s attention. When he talked about the sculpture, he said it was his first commissioned work, and he referred to it as the “tourist attraction.”

After he completed the work, Petersen said he attended Luther Seminary near St. Paul, Minn. After touring Europe with an all-male choir from the seminary, Petersen said he went returned to the University of Wisconsin to participate in the university’s inaugural Master of Fine Arts program. He graduated with a MFA in 1961.

He said while he was completing work for his second master’s degree, he showed a picture of his World’s Largest Buffalo sculpture to his major professor, Leo Steppat, a picture that had appeared on the Minneapolis Star-Tribune picture magazine.

“‘Good taxidermy,’ he said,” Petersen said. “He turned and walked away, I thought I saw the hint of a smile.”

He opened his own studio at Lake Geneva, Wis., in 1967. He said he met his wife to be, Carol Mortvedt, from Dell Rapids, S.D., soon after and taught art and became head of art departments at universities and colleges in Texas, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.

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Petersen also created the eagle sculpture that graces the front of the All Veteran’s Building in Jamestown in 1974. He said Kent Horton, who was teaching architectural and engineered drawing at Jamestown College, contacted him about doing a sculpture for a new building that Horton had designed. Petersen came up with the overall design, including the eagle, but didn’t know what to put in the middle. He remembered a Bible story about Jacob wrestling with an angel and not letting go until he was blessed.

“It reminded me of the people of North Dakota,” he said. “They won’t let go until they are blessed.”

To see examples of Petersen’s work, go to http://www.sculpture-in-metal.com/sculptor-bio.html .

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