Trisha Johansen, front, and other Southern Oregon University students move Johansen’s “Swamphorse” sculpture up a flight of stairs Friday in the Stevenson Union. - Jamie Lusch

'Swampy' makes the big move

ASHLAND — How do you move a giant, 7-foot high "Swamphorse" across the Southern Oregon University campus?

Carefully. And with a little help from your friends.

The creation looks like a big Clydesdale horse, but maybe with the head of a leopard and the skin of a lizard, with nostrils in its back-hump. Its creator, Trisha Johansen, a senior in art, says it combines qualities of many species — lion, dog, horse, even bits of dinosaur.

Johansen and her friends wrestled the creature from the Hannon Library across the quad Friday on wheels, then, after removing some door jambs, hefted it by hand upstairs next to the Stevenson Union gallery, where it will remain for a few months.

"I wanted to do a life-size one, just to see it standing there," she says. "It's hard to feel it's done because I worked on it so long. It's a relief, but kind of sad it's over. Now I look at it and say, 'Whoa, who did this?' "

"Swampy," as she affectionately calls it, is one of those art objects that makes viewers do a double-take, as they slowly realize it's not a horse, not a stuffed animal but clearly a creation of someone's fancy — someone who knows anatomy and has a sense of humor.

The 500-pound project took eight months, about $500 in materials and a helpful and patient boyfriend, criminology senior Matt Zimmerman.

"It started a couple terms ago as a box of wood," Zimmerman said. "I didn't think it was possible."

Swampy won Johansen an "A" in her sculpture class, where her teacher, Marlene Alt, fed her with ideas, crafting tips and leads for materials.

"The art department here is very enabling. If you want to make something big and ambitious, you can," Johansen said on the placard attached to her exhibit.

With a minor in biology (emphasis on zoology), Johansen, a New Mexico native, learned the details of anatomy and how to articulate muscle, tissue and bone, so the creature would have an authentic look.

As its name suggests, the Swamphorse, an adult female, is a dweller in swamplands, though maybe not on this particular planet, says Johansen, who took a keen eye to the evolutionary adaptations it would have in order to thrive in swamps.

The hooves are gigantic and wide, for stability in mucky pools. The nostrils are on top of its lungs (on its back) so it can submerge its head and browse aquatic plants without having to come up for air over extended periods.

Johansen framed the armature (basic shape) of the creature out of 2-by-4 wood, then covered it with glued-on Styrofoam and a shell of plaster, which she shaped with sanding. Couscous gives the skin a granular, reptilian feel and it's covered with latex, painted gray and white.

"It was a huge mess in the sculpture studio," she says.

Reaction to Swampy covers the spectrum, but everyone has some kind of reaction, from thinking it's cute to feeling it's scary.

"I like it," says Casey Pyke, an art senior who helped on the project. "It's a herd animal, ferocious, but not like a carnivore is."

"It's really amazing," said senior Christine Silva, who also helped on it. "It has the look of something moving — and kids love to run under it and look up at it."

With Johansen set to graduate, the big question is: Where does this big piece of remarkable art go? Galleries and ScienceWorks in Ashland have said they don't have room for it, so she's thinking about a children's museum, large, indoor civic space or perhaps a private sale.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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