Triceracopter Essay


Triceracopter: Hope for the Obsolescence of War

Laura H. Chapman, December 2010     
(The following narrative is a heavily edited and updated version of the original catalog essay, copyright 1977, Contemporary Arts Center  ISBN 0-917562-06-2 )
"War is a dichotomy. It seduces our dream self through heroic fantasy while threatening our physical self with extinction." Patricia A. Renick

Patricia A. Renick’s Triceracopter: The Hope for the Obsolescence of War (1977) combines the form of a triceratops dinosaur with an Army OH6A Cayuse combat helicopter that was flown in Vietnam. Triceracopter alludes to actual and possible mutations killing machines that may result from sophisticated technology.

The sculpture began as a Bicentennial project, but with no certain venue for exhibition and without the benefit of a commission.  The artist said she “did not see the work as a celebration but as a cautionary tale, a hope for the end of war.

Although the forms of a triceratops and a helicopter are unlikely candidates for a single sculpture, the artist has combined them to invite wonder and nudge reflective thinking. The work is immediately recognizable as a formidable bio-mechanical presence, part animal and part machine, momentarily at rest but menacing. In contrast to the stylized curves of the animal are the unmodified parts of the helicopter.

Here we can imagine the enormous destructive power of the long pointed horns. These long shafts could stab and fling. The lower tusk could lift and batter, and plow and pound. The massive rill flares outward, guards the deep-set eyes, and protects the most vulnerable organs. In addition to this fortress-like head, a powerful destructive force is latent in the muscular legs and the several tons of body weight available for a charge. One of the last dinosaurs to become extinct, triceratops had highly developed systems of defense.

Humans do battle by different means. We invent instruments for self-defense. We also engage in battle to defend ideas, not just to save our hides. The OH6A Cayuse helicopter in this sculpture was first used in the Vietnam War. It was small, agile, and known as the versatile low flying “Little Bird.” Fitted with an intense light and flying at night over treetops, it was often deployed as bait for locating the enemy, especially at night. These flights drew enemy fire making a visible target for attack by larger helicopters or jet fighters.

Unlike instinctive killing in the natural world, human warfare is governed by a conscious plan. The Vietnam war—its necessity, its strategies, its modes of combat, its cost in lives—caused a secondary political and ideological battle to rage at home. In Triceracopter, the artist expresses the hope for a time when warfare becomes extinct, obsolete.

Renick spent about three years gathering the materials and completing the work under the umbrella of working on a Bicentennial project. With extraordinary help from the U.S. Army, she secured a badly damaged Vietnam-era helicopter fuselage, reconstructing most of it in fiberglass. Other helicopter parts were found and contributed by U.S. Army National Guard units in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut.

In addition, the artist solicited and received contributions from major corporations such as Ashland Chemical Company (fiberglass), PPG Industries (paint), Ford Motor Company (automotive modelers clay), and local donors such as Reece-Campbell (wood for the base), Formica (covering for base). She created the work in a 5th floor loft at 12th and Central Parkway donated rent-free by Dr. Raymond Fine. She was allowed to work with the professional fabricators  at the facilities of R. L. Industries (Fairfield, Ohio).

Renick was physically involved in every stage of the three-year project except for the operation of the fiberglass gun and painting of the work. Those who assisted in the labor recognized that no person could manage the job alone. Many who worked at the intersection of military and industrial ventures offered technical advice or performed operations that required special equipment. Their contributions remain as a testament to the inspirational power of the concept, the underlying metaphors, and the artist’s personal commitment to the project.

Among many volunteers who helped on the project, combat veterans were the most passionate. They grasped the artist’s message. “War is seductive as well as threatening,” she said, “It is seductive because it says I will make a hero out of you…but it really kills. I want people to see that ambiguity. From the front, its an animal, but then you see the rivets and the markings and then you see the helicopter.” Renick said that the eyes and sculptural forms in the head were inspired in part by “the helmet and face of a Samurai warrior. They were very much into psychological warfare. If they couldn’t kill you they would scare the hell out of you.”

There are several postscripts to the story of Triceracopter. First, the artist’s hope for the obsolescence of war is unrealized. In fact, variants of the OH6A helicopter are being used in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in about the about the same way as Vietnam. In addition, they are often deployed for quick insertion/extraction missions by Special Operation forces.

Second, there is growing evidence that birds, the prototype for all of our flying machines, evolved from dinosaurs. In February 2009, PBS featured the program, The Four Winged Dinosaur, in which the world’s leading scientists discussed their research on the evolution of birds from dinosaurs, with recently discovered fossils in China providing the evidence for this lineage. Those claims about lineage are not entirely new. In 1986, J. A. Gauthier examined 100 characteristics of birds and dinosaurs. He concluded that birds belonged to the clade of coelurosaurian dinosaurs. [Gauthier, J.A., 1986. Saurischian monophyly and the origin of birds, in The Origin of Birds and the Evolution of Flight, California Academy of Sciences Memoir No. 8].

Third, Triceracopter was last exhibited at the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, early in 1977. This one-person show included Self-Portrait: She Became What She Beheld. This sculpture is a body cast of the artist sitting on a chair, dressed in work clothing, and holding a small concept model for the larger work. Instead of the expected life-size human head, the artist has portrays herself with the head of her progeny, Triceracopter. The self-portrait was placed a short distance from the larger work and facing it, as if musing about its birth and destiny but also “becoming” what she is beholding--artist as dinosaur.

When asked about the fate of these two works, Renick expressed concern about their ultimate destinations. She hoped they would find a home in an academic institution, or be buried deep in a cave where they might later be discovered. It is fitting that Triceracopter and Self-Portrait have a home at the University of Cincinnati, where students can be engaged with them at many levels, making their own connections among the arts, sciences, humanities, technology, and life in the 21st century.

Supplementary Information.
            Patricia A Renick, was born in Lakeland Florida in 1932. She retired from the University of Cincinnati in 2000 as Professor Emerita in Fine Arts, College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning. She died May 7, 2007.
            Triceracopter is engineered in sections. The overall length is 30 feet. It is 11 feet high, without the platform. (Coincidently, a mature triceratops and this helicopter both measure 30 feet). The overall width of the body is 8 feet, not counting the rotor blades, each about 10 feet long.
            Asked why she created Triceracopter, with no commission or promise of a show, Patricia said: “I was determined not to be among those rocking chair people on the front porch of the future saddened by what might have been. So I made a Triceracopter. It is as simple and as complex as that." She also wanted “to prove to herself” she could complete more than one large-scale work with a timely metaphor. (In 1974, at the peak of the first major gasoline shortage, Patricia had created a large work combining the forms of a stegosaurus dinosaur and actual Volkswagen Beetle. Called Stegowagenvolkssaurus, this sculpture is now on extended loan to the W. Frank Steely Library at Northern Kentucky University). A 2003 interview with the artist can be accessed at
            Triceracopter is a donation to the university from Laura H. Chapman.