14 Mar Otter Fence: Playful art at the Nature Play Area
A gift to families of the community.
Art at North Mountain Park.
A collaboration between Daniel Cooke
and Jack Langford.
“Otter Fence” installed November 2019.
Photo essay published March 2023.
“An otter crossed the road …”
“The original inspiration came late one night driving home after closing Evo’s when an otter crossed the road in front of my car on a small bridge over Bear Creek. Its eyes were stunning emerald green in the headlights. It got me thinking about how we take creeks and rivers for granted. I saw the fence as a way to show our kids how much incredible life our local waterways support.” This note from Daniel Cooke inspired me to meet with Daniel and artist Jack Langford at the Otter Fence in North Mountain Park.
What do you see in the Otter Fence (Part 1)?
There are so many river critters to see in the Otter Fence. Take a quick look. What do you see?
Later in the photo essay, I will describe what I did not see on my own, what I only noticed when Jack and Daniel pointed them out to me. I hope by “seeing with the artists’ eyes,” you will be inspired to visit the Otter Fence in person at North Mountain Park.
“I wanted this to be a gift to the families of the community.”
I met Jack, Daniel, and Daniel’s wife Brigette at the Otter Fence on March 2, 2023. As they were beginning to describe the animals carved in the “fence,” a group of parents and children came along. The group was exploring North Mountain Park, and stopped at the Nature Play Area for a few minutes.
2008: Otter Fence was first at Evo’s Coffee Lounge
“The Otter Fence was originally commissioned as one of four panels installed outdoors at Evo’s Coffee Lounge in 2008.”
Let’s go back to 2008. Daniel and Brigette had just purchased Evo’s Coffee Lounge, a wonderful community gathering place on East Main Street (now the location of Hither Coffee & Goods). Daniel had the idea of river-centered artworks that would be a gift to the families of the community. Four “Otter Fence” panels were made and installed at Evo’s: one long “fence” and three square panels.
2008: The challenges of working with wood
Daniel asked Jack Langford to help him with the project. As we looked together at the artwork, they pointed out how they adapted to the challenges of working with wood.
- Otter Fence was designed for the wood to crack and still look good. Daniel said that the cracks developed in the first year after it was made. He said it looks almost the same as it did in 2008 or 2009 after being up for a year at Evo’s. He and Jack even looked at pictures of wood carvings from ancient Egypt, which had cracks but still looked good overall.
- In addition to cracking, wood also expands and contracts when it is exposed to moisture, cold and heat, as it is in the park. Jack designed and built the Otter Fence with double protection against expansion and contraction: the artwork panels “float” inside a wooden frame; the wooden frame in turn “floats” within the steel frame. This allows the wood to expand and contract not only up and down, but also sideways, for a longer life.
Daniel had a vision of artwork that would feature local river animals. Now that they knew the size of their wood pieces that would be carved, it was time to bring the vision into three dimensions. He and Jack hung a long piece of butcher paper on the wall at Jack’s studio and began drawing images on it.
When they were satisfied with the design, it was time to lay the butcher paper over the wood and begin cutting.
Daniel describes working with Jack
When I asked Daniel about his collaboration with Jack, here’s how he replied: “Jack Langford used to come into Evo’s, sip coffee, and quietly work on his many creative ideas. When I discovered how very talented he was and is, he became my go-to guy for developing ideas to artistically enhance the coffee shop. Regarding the Otter Fence, he took a sketch of mine along with some of my rather vague notions and turned them into a fully installed project! Jack patiently made numerous artistic adjustments and worked out every step of design, construction and installation. I just went along for the ride, learning, helping as much as I could, and of course, making sure there was a budget for it. I could never tell you how much I enjoyed working with Jack.”
2019: Otter Fence moves to North Mountain Park
Daniel and Brigette had moved the four wood-carved panels from Evo’s Coffee Lounge to their house in 2010. The three small panels found new decorative spots to bring them joy. The long “Otter Fence” panel was so large, however, that it ended up in storage for many years.
Since Brigette worked at the North Mountain Park Nature Center in the late 2010s, Daniel was aware of the Nature Play Area project from its early fundraising days to its completion in 2019. As construction finally began after years of tireless fundraising by Nature Center Director Libby Van Wyhe, Daniel approached Libby. He offered to donate the long Otter Fence piece to the Parks Department. Libby was thrilled – another stunning educational artwork for the park. Daniel was also thrilled. His original vision in 2008 had been for Otter Fence to be a gift to families in our community. Now that would be realized!
Moving day was November 13, 2019.
What do you see in the Otter Fence (Part 2)?
Daniel described the artwork as “an image of a fantasized Bear Creek showing the various creatures that really do inhabit the creek.” Let’s dive deeper into the animals of the Otter Fence at North Mountain Park:
Here’s a question for you: Do you see the animals in the negative spaces (the cut-out spaces)? I didn’t see them until Jack pointed them out to me. Take a look at the three birds towards the center of the artwork.
Then Daniel showed me the heron – which immediately became my favorite part of the entire artwork. He first pointed to the large, dark heron foot at the top-center of the carving. Then, going to the right three feet or so, he pointed to a heron’s head and beak angled down into the “stream.” Now that you have seen the heron’s foot and head, you’ll have to fill in the rest of the bird (which is outside of the fence) from your imagination. I love that.
Do you see otters swimming … many otters?
Do you see an otter holding a fish?
How about turtles and frogs?
Do you see dragonflies, including a dragonfly in “negative space?”
Shafts of light coming down through the water?
Can you find bear tracks, or are they wolf tracks?
How about the egret coming in for a water landing on the river?
Here are the three smaller panels
Our focus in this photo essay has been the long “fence” at North Mountain Park; now I want to show you photos of the three smaller panels that are still at Daniel and Brigette Cooke’s house.
These three panels are also magical. One got the name “Messiah Otter” from people who came to Evo’s. When the sun shone just right, a shaft of light would illuminate the otter as if it were standing on the water. The dragonfly and the entwined otters are also very sweet.
Visit the Nature Play Area, with or without children
Libby VanWyhe described the Nature Play Area at North Mountain Park as the largest project she ever attempted. During a period of five years, she raised $280,000, had the park designed and constructed and opened.
Libby sees the Otter Fence as the perfect artwork to greet children as they enter the Nature Play Area. She is grateful to Daniel and Brigette for donating the artwork and to Jack for making it.
North Mountain Park is full of ART
Here are links to photo essays about other North Mountain Park artworks:
Cooke, Daniel and Brigette. Interview and personal communications, March 2023.
Langford, Jack. Interview and personal communications, March 2023.
VanWyhe, Libby. Interview and personal communications, February 2023.