By Pat McKnight —
Elmer Petersen’s aesthetic influence on the La Crosse area is likely to endure as long as the materials he used to make his sculptures. The steel, bronze, painted clay and cement statues he created for public and private display not only showcase Petersen’s talent, but also the sense-of-place where they are displayed.
Having entered into his 10th decade, Petersen has become more reflective of his life’s work and is exploring the possibility of publishing a retrospective of his work.
“I’m not looking for any new commissions,” said Petersen. “I’m not too sure, but at some point I might get old.”
Born and raised in Racine, Petersen received his Master of Fine Arts degree at UW-Madison. His teaching career took him to colleges in North Dakota, Minnesota, Ohio and Texas.
In 1978, Petersen resigned as chair of Texas Lutheran University’s art department, and he moved to Onalaska, along with his wife, Carole, to become a full-time sculptor.
Petersen can look back on a portfolio of 153 sculptures and art pieces dating from 1955. From wearable pendants to a monumental bison, his three-dimensional pieces reveal his versatility.
Petersen’s 26-foot-tall, 46-foot-long bison stands at the National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown and can be seen by drivers traveling across North Dakota on Interstate 94.
In addition to his skill with various sculpting materials, Petersen has proven he has a masterful grasp of the abstract as well as the representational.
Working with new materials, Petersen creates forms by welding bent sheet steel and using the welded bead as part of the aesthetics of the piece. With other pieces, Petersen smooths the weld lines so they blend into the form.
He also repurposes scrap such as the metal used in his “Woman Waiting,” on display on the fourth floor of Gundersen Health System’s Onalaska campus. Some of the steel used in the life-size piece had previously been used as a steel drum and tire rims.
He also works with bronze to create his cast works. A number of his cast pieces include busts and full body figures of La Crosse notables such as former Mayor Pat Zielke, businessmen D.B. Reinhart and Charles D. Gelatt, as well as historic figures of 19th century lumberman Gideon Hixon and Cadwallader Washburn.
Petersen’s art even extends to function as is the case of a 1997 cast golf-putter’s head. The putter head has a bronze golf tee pointing toward the golf ball, helping the duffer line up the shot. He not only uses the putter when he hits the links, he sent one to cartoonist Charles Schulz.
“I traded ‘The Pugilist’ for one of his original signed ‘Peanuts’ strips,” said Petersen, “and I gave him one of those putters to keep in touch.”
Along with his sculpting, Petersen has been involved in La Crosse area art promotions, serving as chair of the City Vision 2000 Sculpture Project and the Downtown La Crosse Sculpture Project Committee.