On the road with O.V. Shaffer

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Dennis Hines | July 15, 2015

BELOIT — Ever since his childhood, Verne “O.V.” Shaffer has found his greatest satisfaction in building things.

That interest has led him to a 60-year career building sculptures for businesses, universities, hotels, libraries and museums throughout the Midwest and the United States.

Many of Shaffer's well-known sculptures can be seen throughout Beloit and Janesville. Shaffer, 87, had lived in Beloit for about 40 years and worked as the director of the art center at Beloit College from 1956 to 1961.

Shaffer's pieces are featured at several local studios throughout July including the Beloit Fine Arts Incubator, 502 E. Grand Ave.; Wright Museum of Art, 700 College St., on the Beloit College campus; Janesville Woman's Club, 108 S. Jackson St. in Janesville; and University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, 800 Algoma Blvd.

“There are so many pieces that you can see right in the city of Beloit that people don't know about or go by it without thinking about it, which usually happens,” Shaffer said. “Especially along the river and up near the (Hendricks) bridge, there are quite large pieces.”

One of Shaffer's largest is hard to miss. “Celebration” is 32 feet tall and weighs 8.5 tons and is installed on the east side of the Hendricks Bridge.

Shaffer said most of his work has been done by commission.

“What the sculpture ends up being depends on where it's going to be located and who it's for,” Shaffer said. “Sometimes you can just tell by the atmosphere.”

To go along with the exhibits,  there is a 13-city, self-guided tour where people can view Shaffer's sculptures throughout Wisconsin. The art incubator has developed a two-sided map to go along with the tour. One side includes sculptures that are featured in Beloit and Janesville, and the other side includes sculptures that are located in other cities in Wisconsin.

“(The sculptures) are all on this map for the Beloit loop, then you got the Janesville loop and the rest are throughout the state,” said Jerry Sveum, director of the Beloit Fine Arts Incubator. “It's pretty cool stuff, and most of it is right here in Beloit.”

An interactive Google map of the tour also can be found online at BeloitFineArtsIncubator.com.

People can click on navigation on Google Maps to download GPS directions for each sculpture. The incubator also has established a QR code, which can be downloaded to listen to videos of Shaffer describing his sculptures.

“So if you click on navigation for the piece in Green Bay, (the directions) will take you right there,” Sveum said. “In the background, you can see Verne and it's got a play button, and you push the play button and you see him and hear him talking about that specific piece. It's really cool. The technology we've used on this is just amazing.”

“I've got to go see that,” Shaffer added. “I have to buy a smartphone.”

Sveum said Shaffer was very talkative while describing his sculptures for the video recordings.

“You wouldn't believe the editing we had to do,” Sveum said. “We told Verne we just needed two or three minutes (for a recording), 19 minutes later he finally took a breath, and they edited it down to 2 minutes and 37 seconds, but that little piece has such high resolution. We have these wonderful reproductions of these recordings.”

Shaffer started sculpting during the late 1950s and early 1960s during a building boom in Beloit.

“All these companies started building. The college started to double in size. Someone would do a building and they would suggest to their board to do something to enhance the building,” Shaffer said. “Sometimes they wanted something that was large. Sometimes they wanted something small. Sometimes it was just a guy who owned a company who wanted something outside.”

Sveum said many people were impressed with Shaffer's work, and they would ask him to build a sculpture.

“When he left the college in 1961, he struck out on his own to live off his art. It was a risk he took, and he takes a great deal of pride in that he never had an agent,” Sveum said. “He just did it himself. It was pretty amazing. He never marketed himself.”

Shaffer said he enjoys working on sculptures and seeing them take shape.

“Sometimes it just grows as I work on it, and that's the best way,” Shaffer said. “If you have too many questions answered before you start, it's going to be dull to anyone looking at it. So, I get excited as I see it grow, and that's the only thing that keeps you going after 60 years.”

Shaffer works on his larger pieces in stages. He said he does most of his work by himself.

“I've always worked alone, even on the great big pieces,” Shaffer said. “They're all done just by me, so I've had to lift them or carry them and figure out how to build them. It's like building a boat in a basement. I want to make sure I don't make it bigger than what I can get outside."

Shaffer said he mostly works on his sculptures in a relaxed setting with quiet music playing in the background.

"I never carry my cellphone. I never want to be interrupted," Shaffer said. "I always had music, but it was classical music that was played on public radio. THe main thing is it didn't have any lyrics, because it was public radio they didn't talk much. I never wanted to be distracted by any kind of noise because I could be distracted very easily."

Shaffer said because of his age, he no longer works on large sculptures, but still works on small pieces.

“I'm getting too old and having too many aches and pains to stand and sit over a bench. I still have the strength, but I don't have the stamina,” he said. “I still do smaller pieces. I like to do the smaller pieces because I can start them and finish them. They don't take a lot of time. And I get to whittle a piece of metal around."

Shaffer said he appreciates the support that his work has received in the city of Beloit and throughout the state.

“People have supported me. It's all these little things that build up to an income,” Shaffer said. “I feed off a lot from what Beloit taught me.”

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