Crusoe Umbrella

Larry Bradshaw


Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation

Educational and Family Resource

born Sweden, 1929
Art Type
Year Completed
Commissioned by Civic Center of Greater Des Moines
Information Resources
Latitude & Longitude
41.587411,- 93.621402
Location Description
Cowles Common: Southwest corner of Locust and 3rd Streets, Des Moines
Lesson Plan
Interdisciplinary Connections
Dowloadable PDF

Crusoe Umbrella

Artwork bio

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, partners in love and art, were inspired with the idea of creating a public work of art after visiting Bruggen’s father, who began growing a long beard. This beard reminded them of the castaway character, Robinson Crusoe, from Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel. Upon visiting Nollen Plaza (now Cowles Commons), the pair imagined a Cor-Ten steel umbrella in the space, which included a waterfall and large pool at the time.

“The playful and sketch-like sculpture is was inspired by an illustration from Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe, in which a castaway, stranded on a desert island for 28 years, builds a makeshift umbrella out of natural materials to remind him of the civilization that he was torn from.”

Also, during a lecture Oldenburg talked about his interest in the Travelers Insurance sign of an umbrella that looms over downtown Des Moines a few blocks from Cowles Common.

This artwork was installed and inaugurated in late November, 1979.

-adapted from

Artist Bio

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen collaborated on their art since meeting in 1976 and marrying the following year. With more than 40 sculptures around the world in the U.S., Asia, and Europe, their unique creations of large-scale “ordinary” objects have drawn delight from thousands. Oldenburg was a leader of the Pop Art movement in the 1960s, creating performance art and drawings through the early 1970s. The pair decided to concentrate on public art commissions in 1978 and have been designing these installations ever since. Van Bruggen was an accomplished art historian and curator before committing to making public art with her husband; she died in 2009.

Pre/Post-Visit Activities

(6-12 ELA) READ Robinson Crusoe

In anticipation of your visit and to put Crusoe Umbrella in context, read the novel Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe. Younger students or struggling readers can read adapted novels to serve their reading levels:

Students will be fascinated while watching two different videos showing the process of turning steel and other metals into artwork. Viewing these videos will help students get a “making of” feeling, which will be appreciated when visiting the steel sculpture in person:

  • (6 mins. 31 second) Watch an Artist Turn Scrap Metal Into Animal Sculptures. 17 Jan, 2017.
  • (7 mins. 10 seconds) Northwest Profiles: Painting with Fire (metal art). 29, Nov., 2011. “Travel to Coeur d’ Alene Idaho and meet Mike Schneider a ‘metal artist’ who melds grinding and heating techniques with his imagination to create jaw dropping three dimensional art forms.”

(6-12, Art) MODEL ART

Since working with steel in the classroom is unlikely, have students make a clay version of the Crusoe Umbrella, either directly modeling or using it as a starting point for their own umbrella sculpture. Take it further and select another Oldenburg-van Bruggen sculpture, or have students select an additional “everyday object” to create a miniature artwork.

  • Pose a challenge lifted from Robinson Crusoe: lead students on a nature walk, asking them to select materials from the outdoors just as the title character does. Challenge students to make umbrellas entirely out of these materials (allowing for glue), or require they utilize these materials with their clay.


Local artist James Bearden ( has been creating sculptural art for over a decade; his work has been featured in several galleries around the state and nationally. Bearden has been included in DSM Magazine, Interior Design Magazine, and Introspective Magazine.


Learn more about working with steel by touring or inviting into your classroom a local steel/ metal fabrication business:

Specializing in stainless steel and aluminum since 1987, this company designs manufacturing equipment, metal signage, and interactive displays – just to name a few of their undertakings!

Open since 1991, The Real Steel Guys have worked with everyone from large manufactures to hobbyists and artists. Their website includes a robust Steel Glossary and Fun Facts!

Discussion Questions

  • What are your first thoughts about this sculpture?
  • Why do you think Crusoe Umbrella is located in Cowles Commons? Can you find a connection between Crusoe Umbrella and Swirl?
  • How would you describe this artwork to a person who can’t see it? What sensory details would you use?
  • If your class has read Robinson Crusoe, how do you think this represents the umbrella Crusoe made in the novel?


This publication explores Oldenburg’s career from the late 1950s to 1970, highlighting the installations The Street and The Store with accompanying performances, and the public art sculptures of everyday objects beginning in the 1960s. Younger students will enjoy looking through photos; older students may enjoy also reading accompanying text.

Oldenburg’s sculptures, performances and drawings are featured in this comprehensive  anthology of his works. This out-of-print text is still available on Amazon (linked here); jointly published by the Guggenheim and National Gallery of Art to accompany a thorough retrospective of his entire career. Oldenburg’s own writing is included along with unpublished photographs. (10-12th grades for reading level, but younger students will be drawn to photos).

Over 90 blacksmith-artists’ works are featured in detailed color throughout this book of art in metal. Pieces are accompanied by the artists’ own discussion; the 4th in an ongoing series can be used as a reference guide and as inspiration.

Internet Resources

The artists’ official website hosts a very thorough catalog of every large-scale project created with histories and images. Biographies, selected publications and writings are also linked on this easy-to-navigate website.

Find information on artists and movements using this website, as well as timelines and an updated blog. Claes Oldenburg has a nice, thorough profile here, where his “Most Important Art” is highlighted, along with his influences and connections. This is a wonderfully organized resource for any artist study.

This recent NY Times Style Magazine profile on Claes Oldenburg digs into both early and latter points of his career. Personal anecdotes are shared throughout the article, as well as a description of his upcoming private commission and gallery showing in New York City.

“Gemano Celant, organizing curator of the travelling exhibition Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology, on view at the Gallery from February 12 to May 7, 1995, joins the artists in this lecture. In this recording from March 5, 1995, the trio discuss the art in the exhibition—the first survey of their art since 1969—and how it offers a sense of interaction unlike anything else in a museum.”

Art Activities

Stamp Your Local(ish) Cultural Passport

Stamp your National Cultural Passport

Visit additional large-scale art pieces of everyday objects by Oldenburg-van Bruggen around the country, like Flashlight (University of Nevada, Las Vegas); Clothespin (Philadelphia); and even a Knife Slicing Through Wall (Los Angeles, CA).

View all Oldenburg-van Bruggen national and international artworks with information and location in the artists’ Chronology of Large-Scale Projects.

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