With the death of their creator, a look at how Kansas City’s shuttlecocks came to life

Claes Oldenburg, the Swedish-born artist whose monumental renderings of everyday things — a clothespin, lipstick, binoculars and, of course, shuttlecocks — made him a leading force in pop art, died July 18 at his home in New York City. He was 93.

To remember him, we revisit some of The Star’s earlier coverage of those 18-foot badminton birdies, which debuted outside the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in 1994 to mixed reviews locally and are now a beloved city icon.

They weren’t always going to be shuttlecocks.

Husband-and-wife team Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen took one look at the Nelson-Atkins Museum — beautiful, symmetrical and serious — and knew immediately that they wanted to lighten it up.

Early sketches reveal concepts of socks, long underwear and Mickey Mouse. The couple then moved on to the idea of play, toying around with a basketball as it falls through a net. The two New Yorkers explored Kansas City and the Midwest, dreaming of a sculpture that would capture feelings familiar to the region. Words scrawled across coffee-stained notepaper read “comet,” “tornado” and “basketball.”

The family of Kansas City businessman and philanthropist Morton Sosland had commissioned the couple to produce a work of art for the Nelson grounds. It was up to the sculptors to come up with an idea.

After an exhausting day of brainstorming, van Bruggen (who died in 2009) was relaxing in the museum and found herself drawn to a Frederick Remington painting of American Indians. More specifically, she was drawn to the feathers.

From there, the creative process exploded.

Birdies of a feather flock together, they say. Some Canada geese proved that as they gathered among the shuttlecocks in 2014.
Birdies of a feather flock together, they say. Some Canada geese proved that as they gathered among the shuttlecocks in 2014.

Bringing shuttlecocks to life

Oldenburg and van Bruggen examined all things flight and feather, drawing inspiration from the winged sphinxes outside of the Liberty Memorial, Amelia Earhart, windmill blades — and badminton birdies. Once they decided on shuttlecocks, the artists talked about calling the sculptures “Yardbirds,” the nickname of jazz legend and Kansas City native Charlie Parker.

The artists became obsessed with shuttlecocks, photocopying pages out of different dictionaries, purchasing a badminton kit and cutting out the picture of the shuttlecock from the box. They tore off feathers from a regulation tournament shuttlecock. They crafted models using found objects such as coffee filters, clay and Styrofoam.

The couple began factoring in a slouchy net — right where the Nelson-Atkins building stands. Suddenly, a breakthrough: the rigid and old building is the net, the game has just ended on the 22-acre court, and four shuttlecocks have been strewn to the side.

In 1994, husband and wife artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen created the four shuttlecocks, made of fiberglass, plastic and aluminum, for the Nelson-Atkins.
In 1994, husband and wife artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen created the four shuttlecocks, made of fiberglass, plastic and aluminum, for the Nelson-Atkins.

Where and how to place the shuttlecocks was the next order of business. Careful to avoid the symmetry and precision of the building, they settled on three shuttlecocks on the south side and a fourth on the north side of the building. The lone Shuttlecock No. 1 that sits perched on the tippy-toes of two feathers was a point of contention. The artists originally had it evenly distributed on its feathers like a tepee, but — as with the museum itself — they deemed it too static.

When it came time to construct the shuttlecocks, art was forced to give way to pure science. Drawings reveal the precise angles, lines and balances that are rarely considered when admiring such beautiful, giant objects from afar.

Artists and engineers worked together to make the four 5,500-pound sculptures look as light and airy as the real thing. Three different feather molds were cast with varying slits, each one perfectly measured. All together there are 36 feathers, weighing in at 450 pounds each.

The giant molds were created in New Haven, Connecticut. From there, the casts were manufactured by a Rhode Island yacht factory familiar with durable and lightweight materials that can withstand the high seas or any Kansas City weather.

Being out in the elements, the Nelson-Atkins shuttlecocks need regular cleaning. In early 2010, Anna Zimmerman, a sculpture technician at the museum, wiped down winter’s grime.
Being out in the elements, the Nelson-Atkins shuttlecocks need regular cleaning. In early 2010, Anna Zimmerman, a sculpture technician at the museum, wiped down winter’s grime.

Mixed reviews

Trite. Superficial. Clutter.

All words used to describe the shuttlecocks upon their debut on the lawn of the Nelson.

After two years of conflict among museum directors and the Board of Parks and Recreation, it took just five days to install the shuttlecocks under the hot sun of late June 1994. At 546 times the height of a standard shuttlecock and made of fiberglass, plastic and aluminum, they permanently changed the aesthetic of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

The Nelson hosted a housewarming party for the sculptures, “Shuttlecock Sunday,” on July 10, 1994. Hundreds of people attended the event, which featured live jazz, parades and celebrity badminton.

Pop artist Claes Oldenburg, who, with his wife, Coosje van Bruggen, created the shuttlecocks outside the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, has died. The sculptures had mixed reviews when they debuted but have since become a city icon.
Pop artist Claes Oldenburg, who, with his wife, Coosje van Bruggen, created the shuttlecocks outside the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, has died. The sculptures had mixed reviews when they debuted but have since become a city icon.

Many visitors were surprised to learn the shuttlecocks were permanent.

The sculptures met with the approval of many. But others, including members of The Star’s editorial board, had vociferously campaigned against it. Star readers labeled them “stupid” and “silly-looking” and compared them to “putting a Ferris wheel in front of Versailles.”

But what went on in the pages of the newspaper was supremely civilized compared with the museum’s mail.

“There were letters to me and the Soslands,” then-museum director Marc Wilson told The Star in 2006. “Some were nasty and got personal. A mother in Independence sent a note with a soiled diaper saying this was her daughter’s work of art and (she) felt it was comparable to the shuttlecocks.”

In 2002 the shuttlecocks underwent a restoration, their first since they were installed eight years earlier. Workers with the museum and Belger Cartage Service used a crane to reinstall this one on the north lawn. Each shuttlecock weighs 5,500 pounds.
In 2002 the shuttlecocks underwent a restoration, their first since they were installed eight years earlier. Workers with the museum and Belger Cartage Service used a crane to reinstall this one on the north lawn. Each shuttlecock weighs 5,500 pounds.

But from the start, Oldenburg and van Bruggen’s “Shuttlecocks” was well received in the art world.

Stories on “CBS Sunday Morning,” in the Sunday Times of London, the Boston Globe, the New York Daily News and Art in America helped put the Nelson on the national and international map.

It took many Kansas Citians a couple of years to warm up to the big birdies.

“Once they were there and the shock of the new was over with, people began to fall in love with them,” Wilson said. “I knew it was a fantastic success when people started being playful around them.” But the clincher, he said, was when the shuttlecocks appeared on Monday Night Football as “one of the signature logos of KC.”

The shuttlecocks are now a favorite for wedding photos, family picnics and Instagram influencers.

Morton and Estelle Sosland and their family commissioned a work by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen for the Nelson but left the details up to the artists.
Morton and Estelle Sosland and their family commissioned a work by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen for the Nelson but left the details up to the artists.

Back when the artwork debuted, the Sosland family said they simply wanted to give Kansas City something to enjoy.

“Each of us, I suspect, has a very different reaction to the shuttlecocks,” Morton Sosland (who died in 2019) said at a preview of the new sculptures that summer of 1994. “As someone who has looked at them on numerous occasions, I find a brand new perception each time. Yet, there’s always that amazing invitation to look up, to scan the sky, and to wonder whence these wonderful pieces came.

“It is that lifting of our vision and spirit that I — and my family, too — hope will be one of the many happy benefits of this gift. We invite you to smile and even to laugh — how wonderful — when you now look upon this museum’s grounds and its new inhabitants.”

Compiled by The Star’s Sharon Hoffmann from stories by Alice Thorson, Rachel Skybetter and Laura R. Hockaday.

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