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Steel sculpture of Ray Bradbury astride a rocket silhouetted against blue sky.
Necktie and book pages flapping, Ray Bradbury soars into Waukegan blue.

Ray Bradbury Rides a Rocket

Field review by the editors.

Waukegan, Illinois

The two most famous people to ever come out of Waukegan, Illinois, were comedian Jack Benny (1894-1974) and author Ray Bradbury (1920-2012). The city erected a bronze statue of Benny in 2002, labeling him "Waukegan's favorite son."

Sculptor Zachary Oxman rides the steel Ray Bradbury rocket sculpture in his studio.
Zachary Oxman gives the rocket a test ride in his studio.

Bradbury -- author of fantastic tales such as The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, and Something Wicked This Way Comes -- seemed to have been forgotten.

Twelve years later, in 2014, Richard Lee (a now-retired director of the Waukegan Public Library) was having lunch with Hank "Mr. Waukegan" Bogdala (a now-deceased civic booster). "Hank's mind had somehow got onto Ray Bradbury," Richard recalled. "Hank told me, 'We've got something for Jack; now we gotta get something for Ray.' And the next thing I knew, I was chairing the Bradbury Statue Committee."

The basic idea was to install a sculpture in front of the library -- Bradbury's favorite spot in Waukegan -- but of what? Bradbury's fiction could be whimsical, but it could also be dystopian and terrifying. Early ideas ranged from a simple typewriter to a Fahrenheit 451 book on fire with a gas-fed eternal flame. Did Waukegan really want a burning book in front of its library?

Sculpture of Ray Bradbury astride a steel rocket with library building in the background.
The retro-style sculpture was designed to compliment the mid-century building behind it.

The committee sought outside help. Over 40 U.S. and international sculptors expressed interest; three were chosen to present their concepts. "One was a pretty traditional bronze statue," said Richard, "the other was a bust and it showed all these things coming out of the top of Bradbury's head." Then Zachary Oxman presented his idea. "When Zack showed us Ray Bradbury riding a rocket, man, that was it," said Richard. "We were all blown away."

Twelve feet tall, made of several tons of stainless steel, the completed sculpture -- titled "Fantastical Traveler" -- features a middle-aged Bradbury astride a retro-style rocket, book in hand, its pages and Ray's necktie flapping in the wind. Zachary sketched the original design on a sheet of looseleaf paper, and three years later it remained recognizably similar to the sculpture unveiled on Bradbury's birthday, August 22, 2019. "When you're casting with stainless steel," said Zachary, "there is no improv."

Ray Bradbury sculpture's left hand holds a copy of his book Fahrenheit 451.
First edition of Fahrenheit 451 in stainless steel.

Zachary pointed out some of the details. "The rocket is the library, the visible gears are the curiosity that books inspire," he said. "It's a rocket that children would build if they went into a back yard and said, 'Let's build a rocket!'" Zachary gave it an airplane steering wheel and an old-style metal tractor seat with vent holes, after realizing that a saddle would have blocked the view of Bradbury from below. "The seat is the kind of thing a Waukegan kid would've found in a junk heap," said Zachary. "It's the perfect seat." Bradbury himself was made middle-aged, "His most recognizable age," said Richard; "a seasoned writer, but the joy is still there," said Zachary.

Richard said that the only part of the sculpture discussed by his committee was the book in Bradbury's hand. "Some people thought it should be The Martian Chronicles, since he's on a rocket." Richard said. When the decision instead went to Fahrenheit 451, Zachary sculpted it to mimic the cover of the 1953 first edition. The choice of stainless steel was also deliberate, said Zachary; it fit with the mid-century library building behind it, built at a time when people might have imagined that all statues in the future would be made of stainless steel. "Stainless steel is just cool," said Richard. "At night, with the lights on, it just makes the sculpture surreal."

After the unveiling, some critics fussed that Rocket Ray reminded them of Slim Pickens astride the bomb in Dr. Strangelove. We looked at it with our Roadside America eyes and instead thought of vintage postcards of people riding giant fish (An image celebrated in attractions in Minnesota and South Dakota). Zachary told us that he envisioned neither bombs nor fish; he was simply trying to create a sculpture that told Bradbury's story, promoted book-reading, and would bring smiles to adults and kids.

The sculpture's pedestal includes a plaque with a Bradbury poem, "If Only We Had Taller Been," which Zachary said championed "the rocket ship between our ears" that can take us wherever we want to go. Richard said that he appreciated the artwork's cosmos-scale vision, but also gave it the ultimate Waukegian complement. "Hank Bogdala would be proud."

Also see: Man sits on Giant Typewriter

Ray Bradbury Rides a Rocket

Waukegan Public Library

128 N. County St., Waukegan, IL
Waukegan Public Library. Downtown, on the southwest corner of N. Country and W. Clayton Sts.
Lit at night. Local health policies may affect hours and access.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
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