The Duck behind the Duck
Alison Brown’s hands are fully in control of the double wire end, slowly and deliberately scraping away the deep brown clay—a mixture of potter’s clay, beeswax, and mineral oil—one flake at a time. Slice by slice, the hulking shape in front of her begins to come alive. A feather. A pupil. The crimped end of a sailor’s scarf.
The pliable mass yields to her focused direction, an eight-foot-tall behemoth completely at the mercy of the five-foot-four sculptor’s will. Over time, the clay becomes a familiar face making a familiar pose. The bill. The cap. The “O.”
For 195,000 Ducks worldwide, the University of Oregon’s mascot is a quirky, beloved symbol of the UO. For Alison Brown, BA ’11, whose finished sculpture was unveiled to fans on January 23 and now resides in front of the Ford Alumni Center, the Duck is, quite literally, a way of life.
Brown grew up in Gresham, Oregon, a town just 120 miles north of the University of Oregon and not far from the banks of the Columbia River. Almost from the beginning she was drawn to the art world, even if her passion sometimes interfered with the real world.
“I’ve drawn my whole life,” she said. “If we’re going really far back, in Montessori school I would be the kid still painting when we were supposed to be doing other things.”
As a 10-year-old, a visit to Will Vinton Studios in Portland opened her eyes to a world of art she never knew existed, and put her on a path that changed her life. Academy Award-winning Claymation pioneer Vinton was responsible for the California Raisins, the talking M&Ms, and the characters in the Eddie Murphy TV show The PJs, and showed Brown a three-dimensional world that surpassed the scale of the 2D one she had been painting.
“That was really my first inspiration, stop motion animation,” said Brown. “The part I really loved was sculpting the characters. I remember thinking if there was a way for me to do a sculpture and have it be the way I wanted it forever, that would be what I would want to do.”
Inspired by Vinton’s work but unsure of how to turn it into a career, Brown enrolled at the UO to study Spanish. Appropriately, another field trip—this time to sculptor Rip Caswell’s studio in Troutdale—gave her another burst of inspiration, further stoking the fire that was lit in Vinton’s studio years earlier. Bronze sculptor Caswell’s work can be seen everywhere from the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero in New York City, to Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor, to Riverfront Park in Salem, and it was all created in a studio just five miles from where Brown was raised.
“It was my junior year at the UO when I walked into his gallery and saw his work for the first time,” Brown said. “I thought, ‘This is what I want to do, here’s an example of it.’ I really felt like the seed was planted in me. I finally saw it in the world, and was really inspired by it.
“That was my inspiration to decide I’m going to be an artist.”
A resident advisor in the UO’s Living Learning Center, Brown transformed her room into a makeshift studio. On one side of the room were textbooks piled high; on the other, clay and sculptures. In the middle of it all was Brown, struggling to adapt to a new form of art while also trying to finish her Spanish degree. And serve on the EMU board. And work in student government through the ASUO.
“It was a learning curve,” she said. “I’d always said I’d just pick up the clay and go, and I was in for a surprise in how much I didn’t know. There’s anatomy, there’s all these elements that go into creating good artwork that I had to get serious about fast, while trying to graduate.”
After graduation came the biggest dilemma of all, a problem much harder to solve than how much to crook an elbow or raise an eyebrow in clay. As any alumna or alumnus can tell you, graduating from college means it’s time to worry about bills, rent, loan repayments, and more.
It was time to get a job.
Fortunately for Brown—who describes herself as “the kind of kid who in fifth grade was worried about making a living and paying for college”—she was ready.
“I went to Oregon, and athletics is doing so well and we’re so strong as a university, it’s cool to be a part of, but I was thinking this was an opportunity for me to plug my artwork into the excitement here,” she said. “I combined the passion I’d just discovered for my artwork with my passion for where I’d attended. I just kind of mashed the two together, and it’s cool—it’s an honest expression of who I am.
“My excitement has kept it going, but in the beginning I was thinking, ‘What is it that’s larger than me that people would be excited about?’ That’s definitely the Ducks.”
The first step in the process for Brown was to get licensed so that she could officially reproduce the Duck. This meant gaining approval not just from the University of Oregon, but in the case of one sculpture—the original version of the Duck bursting through the “O”—from Disney as well. Brown worked Matt Dyste, Lisa Cannell, and Nita Nickell at UO Brand Management to make sure the Duck was represented accurately, a process she found just as exacting as learning to use clay in the first place.
“It took me a while to get both the Disney contact and the Oregon folks happy with the design,” she said. “They were so specific, and it had to look exactly like what they wanted it to look like or else it wasn’t going to move forward. I’ve been able to grow on that and continue that, and my artwork has improved quite a bit because of them, and I really appreciate the opportunity to work with them.
“They have a brand that they protect pretty closely. It needed to match not just the Duck’s physical appearance but also his personality; the content, the poses, everything ‘Oregon’ needed to be right. It was cool because I had been so much a part of the Oregon culture as a student that it came really naturally to say, ‘I’ve actually seen this at a game, I’ve felt this because I’ve seen this.’ It wasn’t just, ‘Make the eyes bigger over here, make the arm longer here,’ or whatever, it was, ‘Can you portray this emotion?’ That was the fun part.”
Brown did not have formal training in running a business, but she did have one advantage many other young entrepreneurs did not: she had been on the Duck Store’s board of directors, and had learned about running a business from the same people who provide books and clothing to UO students.
“They taught me the whole goal of being in business is to value people, employees and customers, the same,” she said. “Basically, it’s the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you'd want them to treat you.”
In addition to giving her a background in business etiquette and strategy, the Duck Store opened up its locations for Brown to give live demonstrations of her work, introducing her to countless potential customers. As well as floor space the Duck Store also opened up shelf space, and allowed the young alumna to sell her work directly to fellow Ducks.
“I've stayed in touch with many of them—it's been wonderful to build lasting relationships with my customers, and fun to share customers with the Duck Store,” said Brown. “I wouldn't have gone anywhere if it weren't for the Duck Store.”
Brown found space to work in Caswell’s studio in Troutdale, and founded her own company, Campus Sculptures. She began creating statues of the Duck, and it wasn’t long before she sold her first piece, a fifteen-inch-tall version of the Duck throwing the “O.” Titled Yell “O,” the Duck was purchased by Ed Maletis, BS ’76, at an auction; another version of the same sculpture was later presented to Nike co-founder Phil Knight, BBA ’59, upon his induction into the Oregon Hall of Fame. Following a live demonstration of her work at an Oregon Club of Portland event, Brown met a Duck named Ron Sauer, BS '80, who purchased Yell “O” and has gone on to become a collector of her work. In 2013, Sauer was visited by friend Tom Clarey, BS ’72, setting in motion a chain of events that culminated in the statue’s unveiling on January 23.
“I bought an 18-inch version of the Duck throwing the O and of the push-up Duck,” said Clarey, who together with wife Molly, BS ’82 commissioned the piece. “I look at them all the time, and I thought we needed one for the University of Oregon. This mascot is known nationwide. It just represents what the university stands for.”
“[Tom] saw the sculpture and thought it was perfect, and said, ‘Where did you get that? I’ve never seen anything like that,’” Brown said. “He came out to the gallery and wanted to tour the foundry, and was really excited about the artwork and bought a bunch of sculptures. He has a large personality, he’s over the top, a great person, and he said, ‘Gosh, I really want this eight-foot Duck.’ It was a commission, that’s where it all began.”
By “all,” Brown means more than a year spent carving the sculpture out of clay, then casting it in bronze using the lost wax method. The lost wax method involves making a rubber mold from the clay, then a shell mold from the rubber one. Then, the bronze is heated to 2,000 degrees in a crucible and is poured into the hollow shell mold to create the pieces that are assembled to create the final sculpture. Once assembled, the seam lines are sandblasted, sanded, and grinded, and finally a patina is applied to give the sculpture its colors.
It’s a painstaking process, one that takes countless hours and a number of people to complete—while Brown can sculpt with the best of them, the bronzing and patina application is handled by a team of experts at Firebird Bronze in Damascus, Oregon.
Finally, on January 23, 2016, the sculpture that was originally commissioned in 2013 was finally unveiled to the public at a ceremony at the Ford Alumni Center. Otis Day performed; Clarey, vice president for university advancement Mike Andreasen, and athletic director Rob Mullens spoke—Clarey dubbed the day, January 23, or 1-2-3, “Duck Day”—and then, in front of a large crowd of UO fans, the black cloth was removed from the Duck, revealing Brown’s sculpture to the world.
Standing eight feet tall and weighing approximately 1,000 pounds, the Duck has a wingspan that puts Luke Jackson’s to shame, and despite being bronze is green and yellow through and through. On display between the Ford Alumni Center and Matt Knight Arena, the Duck has quickly become a beacon for UO fans, a steady stream of whom stop by throughout the day to pose for photos, all throwing the “O” themselves.
But while the bronze Duck has a permanent home, Brown never stops moving. There are fifteen UO sculptures available through Campus Sculptures, and the University of Oregon is now one of four universities she is licensed to sculpt for. In addition to her campus mascots collection, Brown also creates wildlife sculptures, and her work can be seen in galleries through the Northwest.
But the one that started it all, the one she will forever most visibly be known for at the UO, is the Duck throwing the “O”—the iconic mascot of her alma mater, and the link to the UO for the 195,000 alumni worldwide. The Duck, cast in bronze, who now resides in a special location on the UO campus, where prospective students begin campus tours, graduating students march past on their way to commencement, and where alumni return for events and reunions.
No pressure on an alumna just five years removed from graduation, right?
“It’s not a stressful pressure, but the UO’s standards are pretty high,” Brown said. “If they weren’t, I wouldn’t be interested, so I’m glad for it.”