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Katie Ohe: The artist behind Zipper

Artist Katie Ohe, LLD'01, with a conceptual model of 'Garden of Learning'. The full-sized sculpture is located on Swann Mall, Main Campus. Photo by Serita Rana

By Serita Rana

Generations of UCalgary students have relished in rotating Zipper, the shiny, undulating metal loop in Science Theatres. According to university lore, giving the sculpture a quick spin before writing an exam will secure a passing grade.  Along with The Norris Sculpture (colloquially known as ‘Prairie Chicken’) and the rock, Zipper holds the distinction of being one of a handful of landmarks that embody the campus experience for thousands of alumni, students and staff. Despite Zipper’s fame, not everyone knows the name Katie Ohe, the sculptor behind the beloved artwork.  

It was a happenstance meeting between Ohe and Bill Perks, founding Dean of the Faculty of Environmental Design, that brought Zipper to the university. Ohe was working on the piece in her studio when it caught Perks’ eye. He asked the artist to keep the university in mind when it was completed, but it took some time. Ohe recalls “That piece took about three years to complete only because I would put it aside and work on other things. Technically it became monotonous because of the repetition. There was a lot of welding, grinding, cutting and assembling of that configuration.” The university purchased and installed the sculpture upon completion in 1975.

When asked about Zipper’s iconic status, Ohe is characteristically modest. “I think that part of its magic is its location. It could have been put in a corner but it’s right in the middle of a traffic area.” Pressed further she concedes the work’s timeless appeal. “When I see it, I’m always really, really pleased that it sustained time. It continues to look very fresh, very new. There are no regrets. I see it working and fitting the context of the space.”

Zipper is one in a series of steel and chrome kinetic sculptures exploring Ohe’s fascination with form and movement. “I was interested in the columns and how that would alter the centre space when it was rotated” says Ohe. The sequence begins with Oval (1973), a jagged distant cousin of Zipper and culminates with Montova Arch (1979-80), a formation of refined, elongated waves that dominates the far end of a gallery space in Ohe’s home. There is even a Zippper #2 (1978-79), a boxy and chunkier version of its namesake, on display in Edmonton.  

Ohe’s associations with the university are extensive. In 1968 she married Harry Kiyooka, Professor Emeritus of Art. Kiyooka began teaching at the university in 1961 when it was an outpost of the University of Alberta. Although he left in 1988, he continues to be an engaged member of the art department. Ohe taught sculpture in the same department for a year starting in 1979 to cover a sabbatical leave. Her relationship with the university has continued over the years through a number of commissions.

When the university sought an artwork to occupy a space on Swann Mall in the 1990s “to be symbolic of a place of higher learning,” Ohe proposed Garden of Learning. Naturally, the process behind each sculpture is labor intensive but for Ohe, arriving at a concept can be equally as demanding. “The original idea took time because I continued to think about the halls of learning, the communication aspect of the university and the outreach concept. Ultimately I settled on the chairs of learning. There were also concepts based on the left and right-side of the brain, but that didn’t go anywhere.” After two years working through the conceptual elements, Ohe spent nine months constructing Garden. It is made of three distinct components representing the seat of learning, the tree of learning and the cradle of learning. Garden, like Zipper, is a kinetic sculpture that passers-by can interact with.

It’s hard to imagine Ohe wielding power tools and moulding industrial-grade materials, but she pulls out a photo album evidencing the physical efforts that her work demands. One particularly arduous project was Earth Probe (1990), a piece commissioned by ESSO Resources in Research Park. There are images of Ohe and a small crew assembling parts of the almost 30ft structure, working with fibreglass and aircraft composite material. “There was a period of three days when I went without sleep” she recalls. “I was up all night grinding and polishing the stainless steel. You get dirty and you can’t be sensitive to that.”

Ohe’s commitment to her craft was formally acknowledged by the university in 2001 with the award of an honorary doctorate. Having taught at Alberta College of Art + Design for decades and with a prolific body of work to her name, she shows no sign of slowing down. Her energy is currently focused on the Kiyooka Ohe Arts Centre and Sculpture Park (KOAC), a joint venture with her husband. The couple intend to gift their home, and the art collection and library contained within it, to the public in perpetuity.  The collection includes not only their own output, but pieces by Picasso and Monet amongst others.  It is testament to the open and generous spirit for which Ohe and Kiyooka are renowned for in the arts community.  

At the university Ohe’s legacy is secure: to this day, students still succumb to superstition and give Zipper a lucky spin with crossed fingers and optimism.