Stephen Whisler, dressed in a suit, pulls a replica of a bomb on a cart
For his performance piece "Walking the Bomb," Stephen Whisler (B.A., art, '76) pulls a sculpture based on "Little Boy" behind him. "Little Boy" was the codename used for the atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945.

UC Davis Art Alum Created a Large Body of Work About Nuclear Weapons

With the movie Oppenheimer drawing big crowds to see the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the development of the atomic bomb, it’s a good time to catch up with UC Davis alumnus Stephen Whisler (B.A., art, ‘76), who created many works connected to the bombs dropped on Japan. These include a sculpture the same size as the original “Fat Man” bomb and a version of the “Little Boy” bomb that has been part of performances and many drawings and prints. 

A paper mache sculpture of the Fat Man atomic bomb
Whisler's sculpture is based on "Fat Man," one of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. It is the same size as the actual bomb.  

Whisler’s fascination with the bomb had a long gestation. The son of a U.S. Navy pilot who later did military intelligence work, he grew up in the Cold War era of the 1950s and 1960s.

“I was exposed to all manner of military life, military bases, uniforms, ships, aircraft and munitions,” he said. “As a small boy, I was enthralled by this life that I was immersed in. I did drawings of dogfights and military battles.” 

But like many other people, especially young ones, he became disillusioned with the military and U.S. policies during the Vietnam War. 

He returned to military subjects in 2012, but these are far different than from those he created as a kid. In one series, he posted, guerilla-like, signs on a highway that read “Speed Enforced by Drones” with an image of a drone. Whisler was prompted to use bombs as a subject when he learned about his father’s military intelligence job choosing bombing targets in North Vietnam. The most iconic bombs he could imagine were atomic bombs, starting with the first ones that were codenamed “Fat Man” and “Little Boy.” 

"Walking the Bomb" is a performance piece for which the artist pulls a sculpture based on "Little Boy" behind him. During the performance, Whisler wears a dark grey suit with a white shirt, serving as “a kind of contemporary version of Buster Keaton's everyman,” he said. 

“It is essentially an absurdist gesture, but one that points to the daily threat caused by nuclear bombs and bombs of all kinds,” Whisler said. “We are all towing our own bombs, every day, without realizing it. We are all complicit in the creation of these objects of destruction: Creation and destruction made manifest in one object.”

Whisler expanded the bomb subject matter to include other deadly components of the U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals, translating the subjects into sculptures, drawings and prints. The drawings are composed of fingerprints, “like thousands of bits of evidence, evidence of the horrible potential of human creations,” Whisler said. 

A pastel orange portrait of Robert Oppenheimer wearing a hat with a cigarette in his mouth
This portrait of J. Robert Oppenheimer was created by Whisler in 2017, using only fingerprints.

After attending several colleges, Whisler said he came to UC Davis, “attracted by some of the most interesting faculty in Northern California, notably Robert Arneson, Wayne Thiebaud and Manuel Neri. I also had the distinct pleasure of taking a class from the photographer Robert Frank, who was a visiting professor and taught a film-making class that was extremely influential on my work at the time.”  

At UC Davis he met his future spouse Sabine Reckewell (B.S., textile design, ’76), also an artist. They lived in New York for many years, relocated to the Napa, California, area, and a few years ago settled in upstate New York. 

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science

Images courtesy of Stephen Whisler.

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