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From horror to art: re-creating one 'beautiful' atomic bomb

'Fat Man' stirs debate, revulsion at Dallas gallery

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bob Pool
Los Angeles Times / July 26, 2008

LOS ANGELES - Libya wanted to build one. Some fear Iran and North Korea still do. But a man in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne has actually done it.

Built his own atom bomb, that is. Sort of.

Robert Wilhite has reproduced "Fat Man," the atomic bomb that the United States dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, 63 years ago. The devastation from that blast - coupled with that from another bomb dropped a few days earlier over Hiroshima - prompted Japan to surrender, ending World War II.

Instead of a steel-clad, 5-ton teardrop packed with plutonium, Wilhite's bomb is 135 pounds of molded poplar, mahogany, and airplane-grade spruce plywood. It's more a thing of beauty than an instrument of horror.

At least that's the way he sees it, says Wilhite - an artist whose work in the past has ranged from the design of furniture and flatware to paintings made from dye and metallic powder on handmade paper.

"I wanted something the opposite of heavy," Wilhite said. "I wanted it really light and transparent. I wanted something people would react to. I want people to think about their own values: 'It's beautiful, but wait a minute - this is a weapon of mass destruction.' "

The bomb art caused a stir in the neighborhood where Wilhite spent six months building it in a studio that previously served as a machine shop for the once-thriving aerospace industry.

For the past few weeks the finished bomb has stirred debate at a Dallas gallery, where it was on display. Some viewers have been horrified. Others have remarked that the real Fat Man perhaps saved their fathers and thousands of other GIs who were poised to invade Japan as the war dragged on.

Wilhite, 62, said the idea for the bomb took root in the early 1970s when he was a professional water show diver working in Japan. There, he visited Hiroshima Peace Park.

He made a special trip to the National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque to measure a leftover steel bomb casing similar to that used for Fat Man before drawing full-size construction plans that take up one studio wall. Next to them are photos of the real Fat Man and an atomic bomb blast.

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