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Sculptor's Playful Animals Pop up All Over the City

Academy graduate creates a menagerie of whimsical creatures to encourage optimism

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Sculptor and Academy of Art University alumnus Jihoon Choi's Giraffe in the heart of Union Square in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Jihoon Choi.

Last summer, you might have spotted a bright yellow, nine-foot tall giraffe resembling a giant Lego toy at some well-known San Francisco locations. Made from sheets of metal by sculptor Jihoon Choi, the whimsical creature elicited plenty of double takes and smiles when the artist took it on a photoshoot around the city. He photographed the giraffe in places such as the Civic Center, Pier 7, the cable car turntable at Powell and Market Streets and Hunters Point.

“I want to create sculptures that are big and fun and easy for people to approach in public,” said Choi, who is from Korea and earned a B.F.A in 3-D animation and modeling from Academy of Art University in 2012 and an M.F.A. in sculpture in 2015. “After the Korean War destroyed everything in my country, people didn’t care about art anymore. People easily forget sweet memories and only remember hard times, but I think we should be more optimistic.”

The ambitious giraffe sculpture was the first piece Choi made in his own studio after graduating from the Academy. It took several months to complete. Along with the giraffe, his menagerie of playful, pixelated-style creatures includes elephants, rhinos, llamas and deer. Choi is a fan of the clean, simple lines of cubes and constructs all of his sculptures from a series of the geometric shape, either by folding and cutting sheet metal or stacking pieces of plywood. Some of his sculptures are full-body versions of animals; others are heads mounted to plaques like hunters’ trophies. The latest addition to his colorful pop-art family is a turquoise buck posed in a watchful sitting position. And he is hard at work on his next creation, a wide, chubby version of man’s best friend—a dog.

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Academy alumnus Jihoon Choi with Pink Rhino at the Painted Ladies in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of Jihoon Choi.

While some of his sculptures are just meant to be fun, eye-catching versions of their real-life counterparts, others—like his hot pink rhino—have a more serious message. Choi was inspired to make the rhino after watching a documentary showing how rhinos and elephants are being illegally hunted in Africa for the sake of money. Disgusted by what he saw, he made the rhinoceros vibrant and cute to draw viewers in.

“I wanted people to enjoy the rhino,” Choi explained. “But I also wanted to get their attention so I could give them the backstory on how illegal hunting is wiping out elephants and rhinos. There are only five white rhinos left in Africa.”

Choi’s animal sculptures have been featured at a variety of venues in the Bay Area and other locales, including California Academy of Sciences and San Francisco galleries such as The Midway, Roll Up and 111 Minna.

Choi valued his time at the Academy for helping him grow as an artist and making it easy to connect with instructors who were professionals in the art field. “Especially in San Francisco, the art world is pretty small, and the faculty members are a big part of it,” he remarked. “After I finished school, I already knew lots of artists in the area.”

In addition to his sculpting, Choi is starting to explore other art forms. “As a sculptor, I already do a lot of sketching to pre-visualize a piece and throughout the process,” he said. “But now I want to do more painting and drawing just to spread my boundaries a little wider.”

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Academy of Art University alumnus Jihoon Choi with Giraffe at City Hall. Photo courtesy of Jihoon Choi.