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9-year-old welcomes popular sculpture back to the Jewel

A different kind of dignitary has been chosen to welcome “Hammering Man at 3,110527" back to the Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla.

The sculpture, an 18-foot black Corten steel silhouette with a motorized aluminum arm, was to be unveiled at a special ceremony April 19. Nine-year-old Wesley Metcalfe will flip the switch to put the mechanized hammering arm in motion. His classmates from the Gillispie School will attend also.

“I think it’s going to be fun,” Metcalfe said.

The second-grader was invited to perform this honor because of his appreciation for the sculpture. When the piece was transferred from La Jolla to the museum’s downtown location, Metcalfe wrote a series of letters to Museum Director Hugh Davies asking when it would be brought back.

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“I really missed the Hammering Man when he went away,” Metcalfe said. “I really liked the sculpture. I liked the way his arm went up and down.”

Wesley lives in La Jolla with his parents, Stephen and Claudia Metcalfe, and his 15-year-old sister, Olivia. During trips through the neighborhood, he would take time to admire the sculpture. Even after it moved downtown, his parents would take him to visit the sculpture.

“He’s always taken a keen interest in art, but this sculpture attracted him for some reason,” Claudia Metcalfe said.

Wesley Metcalfe’s fascination with the sculpture became pivotal in his life, his mother said. In ways no one could imagine, the mechanical man gave her son a means to communicate and connect with his peers, she said.

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At 4 years old, Wesley was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a neurobiological disorder that falls under the spectrum of autism. A “mischievous scamp with a charming sense of humor and wit” who beguiles every adult he meets, Claudia Metcalfe said her son has greater difficulty dealing with kids his own age.

During floor time - therapy with care givers or health care providers in which the child leads the play - the Hammering Man became a central theme between Wesley and his speech therapist. During one session, he wrote a letter to Davies saying how much he loved the sculpture and asking that it be returned.

“We received the most lovely reply,"Claudia Metcalfe said. "(Davies) said he didn’t want the Hammering Man to be bored. He wanted to keep him seeing fresh things.”

When it was decided to bring the sculpture back to La Jolla, Wesley was invited to flip the switch to set his arm back in motion.

“It’s something the director and the museum staff wanted to do for him to recognize his enthusiasm for the art,” said Stephanie Hanor, curator at the museum. “It’s nice to see someone so young so enthused.”

Following the activation ceremony, Wesley and his classmates from the Gillispie School will enjoy an interactive art project.

This event is an opportunity for the museum to make an impact at a community level, Hanor said.

“It’s a chance to do something meaningful for the community and a young boy,” she said.

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Claudia Metcalfe said the event would be a big day for her son.

“This is the kind of emotional sharing that is so important to Wesley,” she said.

“It’s this kind of reaching out by other people that lets him know he is part of a richer tapestry. It gives him a sense of belonging that is important, and it opens the door for reciprocity and engagement.”

For some Asperger children, incorporating imaginative play into everyday life is challenging. Interacting with peers can be difficult.

“This engagement began in his imagination and now it’s spread throughout the community and the Gillispie School,” Claudia Metcalfe said. “It was a way the kids could connect to Wesley and say, ‘He must be very special.’ It’s as if Hugh Davies has let Wesley be John Kennedy at the White House for a day.”

Before his unveiling, “Hammering Man at 3,110527" will get a paint job and new motor for his mechanized arm.

The sculpture was created by Jonathan Borofsky, an American artist known for his public art. Similar versions ranging in size from 18 to 70 feet in height are on display in numerous private and public collections.

The museum received the work as a gift from Matthew and Iris Strauss. It is now part of the museum’s permanent collection. The sculpture will be displayed on the Strauss Plaza outside the museum building.

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The museum was founded in 1941 and is dedicated to the collection, exhibition and interpretation of contemporary art. There are two locations: 700 Prospect St. in La Jolla and 1001 Kettner Blvd. in downtown San Diego.

For more information about this and other artwork on display, programs, admission prices or museum hours, call (858) 454-3541.