A Penny for Your Bear

An Alameda couple built a giant bear covered in pennies for this year's Burning Man.


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Lisa and Robert Ferguson with "Ursa Major."

Photo by Pat Mazzera

Lisa and Robert Ferguson met at Burning Man 2008 dancing to the Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll.” Love was in the air, and from there they collaborated on a series of romance-inspired steel sculptures for the festival: a giant candy box heart, a three-story wedding cake, and in 2011, a 12-foot heart-shaped vine of roses that they were married alongside.

Three years ago, the couple, who live in Alameda and work out of Robert Ferguson’s welding shop in Hayward, moved on to pennies. Lisa Ferguson, a photographer originally from Calgary, got inspired when Canada phased out the penny from its currency. “Every penny has a story, tucked in pockets and purses, locked inside piggybanks, lost on the ground waiting to be found,” she said. “It got me thinking about what we could do creatively.” Her answer: a Canadian goose covered in the one-cent coins called Penny, of course. Penny made two appearances at Burning Man and last year found a permanent home at a drug and alcohol treatment center in Lake County. “The goose with its wings expanded resembles a phoenix—a symbol of hope for the residents,” said Robert Ferguson.

When Lisa Ferguson proposed a giant standing grizzly bear covered in pennies this year, Robert Ferguson responded, “What!?!” But Lisa Ferguson was persuasive, and the project received an honorarium, so Robert Ferguson was hooked. He built the bones by welding a steel A-frame for the 14-foot bear, named Ursa Major, and covered it with layers of 6-inch-thick Styrofoam. Lisa Ferguson shaped the figure using a hot wire sculpting tool, knives, and a wire brush. Then they laid the bear horizontally and rotated it like a pig on a spit as they applied a skim coat of concrete and stuck in pennies standing up with a dozen volunteers helping. Three-quarters of the 180,000 pennies were donated, and Lisa Ferguson assiduously directed the placement of the coins by color from shiny new ones to dark patinaed old ones and every shade in between to make them look like fur. Start to finish, the bear took over 400 man-hours to complete. “That’s how it happens,” said Robert Ferguson, “penny by penny by penny.”

Published online on Sept. 2, 2016 at 8 a.m.

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