The Daily Tofu

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Art: Oskar J.W. Hansen - The Art Deco Sculptures at the Hoover Dam

Art, HistoryTrey TakahashiComment

"They died to make the desert bloom" a power inscription reads on the memorial for those who died building the Hoover Dam. Photo: Trey Takahashi

Between 1931 and 1936 Americans from around the country flocked to the Colorado river raging through the desert sands. Carving a deep path between stone and rock, the river that had made the Grand Canyon over millions of years was to be tamed. In an effort made by the governments of the United States, Nevada, and Arizona one of the largest and most significant engineering projects of the modern era was underway. A monumental task to provide water and energy in a baron wasteland while the country was deep in a great depression was realized in the construction of the Hoover Dam, a task so great that artist Oskar J.W. Hanson would cite as being as impressive and important as the great Pyramids of Egypt and something that would inspire him to create some of the most iconic features at the Hoover (Boulder) Dam.

WASH-No-2332: "The dam structure as seen from the control tower of the 150-ton cableway on the NV rim of Black Canyon. Top forms at Elev. 795. - USBR

Hason had a point, the dam itself cost $49 million dollars in the 1930s (equivalent to 700 million today) making it one of the most monumental public works projects in Americas history to that date. Spanning from wall to wall of the canyons the dam itself is 1,244 feet (379 meters) long and an astonishing 725 feet tall (221 meters). Itself the dam is made up  of three and a quarter million cubic yards (2,480,000 meters cubed) of concrete making it one of the largest concrete structures made by man, and the largest as the time it was built. In building such a monument with new techniques never tested, there were great risks involved, and in that there were a host of tragic deaths during construction. During her construction 112 people perished in building the dam, and upon its completion their lives needed to be honored.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation who oversee the dam's operation commissioned Oskar J.W. Hanson to work on a memorial to honor the accomplishments and sacrifices made by those who worked and died in building the dam. For Oskar the sculptures represented "a monument to collective genius exerting itself in community efforts around a common need or ideals." Hanson in many ways adopted some of the core tenets that inspired many of the great Art Deco artists and architects, looking at the very power of humanity to achieve greatness in the face of adversity. When looking at the two large winged figures that stand tall next to the walls of Black Canyon, they "can be read as the characteristics of these men [who build the dam], and on a larger scale the community of which they are part. Thus, mankind itself is the subject of the sculptures..."

A side view of one of the two Winged Angels of the Republic standing tall next to the canyon walls. Photo: Trey Takahashi

Oskar J.W. Hansen was a a naturalized American after emigrating to the United States. He had served as a merchant marine, before enlisting in the United States Army, all before settling down and building his art studio outside of Charlottesville, VA. For the remaineder of his life he worked on writing and researching subjects of the humanities and sciences (such as astronomy) which may have inspired such work at the Hoover Dam containing astronomical elements, and such profound thoughts and representations of mankind in his sculpture work. Aside from his work at the Hoover Dam, it is quite interesting to know that Hanson was not a very prolific artists, having only done a few other well known commissions or works, leaving the work at the Hoover Dam as his most well known examples of work.

This narrative of "mankind" as featured in the Winged Angles is also represented in the text featured on the main memorial piece which reads, "They died to make the desert bloom" on a banner representing the curve of the dam itself. In the middle a man with strong defining features rises up from the lake waters with lighting showering down above his head and wheat blossoming along his arms.

There is no better place (well aside from the new Smith Center) in Southern Nevada to witness such powerful examples of Art Deco architecture and art. While the Hoover Dam is arguably one of the greatest accomplishments and engineering wonders of the 20th century, it is undeniable that Oskar J.W. Hanson's work at featured at the dam is a perfect representation of those very accomplishments.

Winged Figures of the Republic by Oskar J.W. Hansen stand tall on the Nevada side of the Hoover Dam. Photo: Trey Takahashi

-Trey Takahashi