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June 17, 2003

Bay Area sculptor let his metal statues do the talking

From: Oakland Tribune, CA - Jun 17, 2003

Douglas Tilden, who was deaf, used his art to connect with world

By Daniel Lavoie, STAFF WRITER

FREMONT -- The giant bronze bear in front of the California School for the Deaf is mad.

Really mad. So mad, in fact, she's biting into the arm of an American Indian attacker.

For many visitors to the serene, rolling campus, the life-size statue of two American Indians being mauled by a bear -- just steps from the main administration office -- seems a bit ... well, out of place.

But the statue is more than it would seem.

In fact, it's an inspiration -- the work of a famed alum.

The statue, formally known as "The Bear Hunt," was created by acclaimed sculptor Douglas Tilden -- a member of the 1878 class at the California School for the Deaf.

Tilden's mammoth metal works line Market Street in San Francisco and pepper the Bay Area. They've been exhibited throughout the West and even in Paris.

For Tilden -- who lost his hearing to scarlet fever when he was 5 -- art was a way to connect with a hearing world that, at the turn of the 20th century, wasn't always so understanding of the deaf community.

"There is no other field in the struggle of life which can do more for the deaf than art, to secure recognition from the public and through this to bring them upon a common footing," said Tilden, who died in 1935 at the age of 75.

For Tilden, the struggle for acceptance in a hearing world paralleled the struggles of American workers, where courage and determination were paramount.

Modeling his piece on a famous German sculpture, Tilden's "The Bear Hunt" -- which shows a mother bear protecting her cubs from two American-Indian hunters -- shows the prototypical American challenge, he said.

The statue itself has endured its own struggles.

When the school for the deaf moved from Berkeley to Fremont in 1980, many in the deaf community fully expected the statue -- which had been on the school's campus for nearly eight decades -- would travel down Interstate 880 with the school.

But the University of California, Berkeley -- which gobbled up the deaf school's Berkeley campus -- wanted to keep the statue because it features a bear getting the best of some American Indians.

The university's mascot is the Golden Bear. Arch-rival Stanford University had recently changed its mascot from the Indians.

But, rumor has it, the deaf community thought the deaf artist's statue should stay with the deaf school. So, late one night, school sympathizers simply took it. Or so the legend goes.

Some of Tilden's best works are scattered throughout the Bay Area, particularly in San Francisco. "

"The Mechanics" sits at Market, Bush and Battery streets. "The Baseball Pitcher" and a statue of Father Junipero Serra both are in Golden Gate Park.

Tilden's "Football Players" statue, which sits on the UC-Berkeley campus and features two sinewy young men grappling in a football game, became an icon of the gay-rights movement.

Tilden's impact on the deaf and artistic communities was tremendous, as well.

A column written in The California News in 1935, six weeks after his death, shows the scope of his influence:

"The ages will bear witness to the achievements of (Tilden's) great mind and skilled hands. He was of this world and yet apart from it. His soul soared to great heights. He sought to create on these western shores a second Athens, where art and learning would find their fullest encouragement and fulfillment."

And where a bear can eat an American-Indian hunter for all eternity.

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