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Arts & Culture

Rubber Worker Statue Arrives in Akron for Thursday Unveiling

Wide of Zanesville studio with Alan and Miriam and statue 020620 CR SLT.JPG
Sarah Taylor
Sculptor Alan Cottrill talks with Miriam Ray of Akron in his Zanesville studio on Feb. 6, 2020. Ray spearheaded the effort to create the statue honoring the workers who toiled in the city's rubber industry. The statue, in progress, can be seen at right. It will be unveiled in Akron Thursday, May 13.

The rubber industry once made Akron the fastest growing city in the country. A new tribute to that industry and the people who worked in it will be unveiled in downtown Akron Thursday morning.

The cover photo from the book "Wheels of Fortune" by David Giffels and Steve Love.
The photo on the cover of the 1999 book "Wheels of Fortune" inspired the new statue.

The 12-foot-tall sculpture of a rubber worker is accompanied by an interactive kiosk where people can hear personal stories.

It’s been years in the making.

“I joined the rubber industry as a 20 something in 1977,” Joel Neilsen said, recalling his early years as a tire development engineer at BF Goodrich. When we talked with Neilsen, of Broadview Heights, in 2019 he shared that when he saw the cover of the 1999 book "Wheels of Fortune," which chronicled the rise of rubber in Akron, he thought “This photograph on the cover would make such a great statue.”

Miriam Ray read Neilsen's suggestion in a newspaper column. The Akron mom and grandma shared it with her husband, "And he goes, ‘I could see you doin’ that.’”

Ray loves history. She began pursuing the idea. "I just started asking friends where their parents worked or grandparents worked and I started getting amazing stories.”

The stories have become an integral part of this project. But first, came the statue.

Photos of sculptor Alan Cottrill working on Akron rubber worker statue in his Zanesville, Ohio studio
Sarah Taylor
Alan Cottrill began his career as a sculptor at age 38, walking away from a successful pizza franchise he'd started. He returned to Zanesville and opened a studio in 2003. He was surprised when 150 people a week visited. There are about 500 of his bronze pieces on display there.

“I knew about Alan. I knew he’d be perfect for it," Ray said. Alan Cottrill is a sculptor in Zanesville, where Ray’s mother grew up.

Cottrill was born and raised there as well. We visited his studio in February last year right before the pandemic shut things down.

“I was born on the hill behind us and grew up about four hills out in the country, " Cottrill said. He has sculpted more than 350 life size or larger bronze statues that can be found all over the country. But this was not his first career.

“I was a truck driver like my dad for a couple of years. Then I was a tank driver in the Army at the latter part of Vietnam. Then I got out and went to the unemployment office and they said, 'Well, we’ll put you in the deep mines.' And I didn’t want to go to the deep mines…”

He got into the pizza business with his father and eventually started his own chain, opening international locations when he was 28 years old. A decade later, he tried something that changed his life.

“Once I touched clay at age 38, I walked away from the business world and moved to New York City and studied 13 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week. What is it about clay, when you first touched it, describe the feeling. It was like the first time I kissed a girl," he said.

After a dozen years in New York, Cottrill made a decision. “It was either New York City, stay there or come back to Zanesville. It was a toss-up, but I chose Zanesville.”

He’s built a successful studio that’s become a tourist attraction with 500 sculptures on site. He started a foundry. He gets an average of 12 to 15 commissions each year.

“When you’re born without any connections or not much education, you have to outwork and out think and be more honorable than any of your competition. That was my goal.”

When asked if he'd named the statue he's crafting for Akron, he said "Well, they call it the Akron rubber worker. Just a hard-working regular Joe who cared about his job, performed it well and took pride in his work, went home to his family at the end of a work day and took care of his family. So his name is Joe? I'm not sayin,'” he replied.

The identity of the rubber worker is not known. But Cottrill relates to him and says it’s a special piece.

Sculptor Alan Cottrill with Miriam Ray in his Zanesville studio 020620 CR SLT.JPG
Sarah Taylor
Miriam Ray talks with sculptor Alan Cottrill at his studio in Zanesville, Ohio in February 2020. The pandemic pushed back the installation of the rubber worker statue he crafted.

“It's one of the largest and one thing I love about it is the honor that we’re paying to the "common man." The people that rarely get cast into bronze.”

This everyman will represent thousands of workers who came to Akron to make a living. They built a life and a community. Miriam Ray worked with the late architect Craig Thompson designing a proposal to put the statue in the new roundabout on Main Street downtown. When they presented it to city leaders in 2018, Mayor Dan Horrigan and others were immediately on board.

“It was kind of an ‘aha’ moment for a lot of people as we were talking about it," Horrigan said.

The city is paying for the statue and agreed on a plan for the organization Akron Stories to sell commemorative bricks to fund the kiosk where people can listen to some of the amazing stories Ray has heard. She teamed up with Akron artist Mac Love who developed the Akron stories web site and has recorded hundreds of stories. The kiosk is in place and so far more than 1,000 bricks have been purchased to pay for it. They remain on sale at the Akron Stories website through June 18.