Two of Sam Gendusa’s former students recall the sculptor behind the Dinosaur Bones
When the Dinosaur Bones play feature at Avery Park reopened last month after a long-delayed renovation, it introduced a whole new generation of kids to the large-scale, climbable sculpture that has delighted the children of Corvallis for 44 years.
It also stirred memories of Sam Gendusa, the late Oregon State University instructor whose imagination, energy and infectious enthusiasm drove a public art project that became a beloved local icon.
The Dinosaur Bones, as the project came to be called, is a series of three abstract curvilenear shapes resembling sections of bleached brontosaurus spine. The largest, laid out in a rounded horseshoe shape, is about 125 feet long, with two smaller assemblages facing the open end of the horseshoe.
All three structures stand about 7 feet high, and their swelling organic forms invite the limber to clamber.
In a 1975 article for the trade publication Concrete Construction, Gendusa recalled the sculpture’s creation.
“The project to build these sculptures began as a class in basic sculpture at Oregon State University in the spring of 1969,” Gendusa wrote. “Thirty men, women and students were chosen from several departments because of their interest in welding, metal work and constructing with portland cement mortar.”
The article outlines the construction process, which began by placing concrete footings and attaching an armature of shaped and welded channel iron following the contours of Gendusa’s scale model. Heavy wire mesh was draped over the framework and covered with several layers of mortar.
Gendusa also answers a much-debated question about the origins of the design:
“‘Looks like a bunch of dinosaur bones’ might be the typical reaction to this group of playground sculptures. As a matter of fact, the inspiration did come from dinosaur bones at the Field Museum in Chicago.”
Gendusa went on to create other works of public art, including “Interlocking Forms,” an 8-foot-high metal and concrete construction depicting a pair of cupped hands.
Built with the help of students and teachers at the Oregon School for the Deaf, the sculpture was a gift from the school to the people of Salem and stood for many years in a garden area at Boon’s Treasury, a historic building that is now a brewpub owned by the McMenamins chain. The cupped hands, thumbs linked together, symbolize friendship in American Sign Language.
Gendusa also was an accomplished and highly imaginative pumpkin carver. His book on the subject, “Carving Jack-O’-Lanterns,” was published in 1988.
Late in life he suffered from Parkinson’s disease. The degenerative nerve condition forced him to give up large-scale constructions, but the artistic impulse still moved him. Working in pencil, ink and watercolor, Gendusa produced a series of portraits titled “Faces of Alzheimer’s.”
He died on April 20, 2006, one day after his 67th birthday.
Janet Hessel and Dale Donovan, two local artists who worked on the Dinosaur Bones as students, recalled Gendusa as an animated leader who kept things light while keeping his volunteer crew on task.
“What I remember about him is he was really witty, kind of a wise guy type; very funny and a good teacher,” said Hessel, a painter and retired editor who lives east of Corvallis on Peoria Road.
“I saw a lot of his drawings, and they all had those bone shapes. And he had a couple of bones lying around his office.”
“He was the artist, he was the designer of the project,” said Donovan, a potter who has a ceramics studio at his Christmas tree farm off Southwest 53rd Street. “He had a vision, and he got all of us kind of hooked into his vision.”
The job took several months to complete. Donovan remembers doing a lot of welding and other work on the metal frame, while Hessel was primarily involved in mixing and applying the cement mortar.
Both now take their grandchildren to play on the Dinosaur Bones and take pride in having had a hand in their construction.
“I was thrilled to work on something like that. I thought, ‘Wow, this is real art,’” Hessel said.
“It was an opportunity to put art in the world and it would be there, be pretty permanent — and it has been.”
Got an idea for a “Story Next Door” profile? Send your suggestions to email@example.com with “Story Next Door” in the subject line.