Interview: Kyle Fokken

Interview: Kyle Fokken

Reflections on Art-A-Whirl and figurative woodcarving with sculptor Kyle Fokken

Now in its twenty-first year, Art-A-Whirl has officially transitioned from scrappy start-up to annual spring tradition, and local sculptor Kyle Fokken has been there almost since day one. Organized by the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association and featuring hundreds of its member artists in every nook and cranny of Northeast, the giant studio crawl (the largest in the nation) will bring tens of thousands of visitors into the neighborhood this weekend for art, beer, music, and food at dozens of venues.  

Fokken is known for his satirical, folk art-style sculptures of vehicles, but he is about to embark on a whole new body of work. Thanks to a recent grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, Fokken has a brand new studio at Casket Arts, one of the Arts District’s flagship studio buildings. And when I say brand new, I mean this space has never before been used as an art studio: the building owners have converted what used to be an old machine room for the Northwestern Casket Company into an awesome new studio with fifteen foot ceilings and its own personal entrance off the SE parking lot. In between moving in to the new space, dropping off some public art in Mankato, and getting set up for the weekend, Kyle took time out to talk about his upcoming projects, his strategies for successful grant-writing, and how Art-A-Whirl has changed over the years.

Song of the Flying Dutchman

Russ White: From what I understand of your MN State Arts Board proposal, you will be using your grant to develop a series of figurative wooden sculptures inspired by figureheads on old ships. What can you tell me about your plan and your process for these pieces? 

Kyle Fokken: That’s correct. The plan is to learn how to use wood chisels and focus on figurative woodcarving. I still plan to incorporate folk art, toys, and engineering elements into these pieces, but explore the human condition in a more literal human form. With the addition of a figure, I hope to achieve a greater sculptural vocabulary and explore nuances that can happen through costume, body and facial expression. 

I’ve been itching to explore this for a while. The original idea came to me on a trip to Nantucket, MA. While in a whaling museum, I noticed that these figureheads that graced the whaling ships were of simple people – sons, daughters, wives, and benefactors versus gods, goddesses, or kings. My interest in sculpture comes from a folk art perspective and my aim is to explore concepts from a common person’s perspective. So this seemed to dovetail nicely with where I think my work is headed. I also am interested in the other meaning of “figurehead,” i.e. the powerless representative of an organization like a business or government. That in itself will be interesting, but I also plan to throw in other bits of imagery from art history and political cartoons. Stay ‘tooned’….

The Artist

RW: How will these pieces relate to your existing body of work?
KF: My work has always been somewhat political, but it is hidden under layers of engineering, found objects, and toy-inspired works. I generally make pieces that fuse very diverse images together into hybrids that offer a new way of looking at human issues and culture. With this new body of work, I hope to open up new conversations between the audience and the artwork through relatable ‘characters’ and adding another tier to relating to the work.

The House on the Rock

RW: Do you have any thoughts on what makes for a successful grant proposal?
KF: It still all seems like a magical process, but the judges are our peers and hopefully are reasonably unbiased. I think primarily the grant needs to be grounded and show a clear direction from where you are and where you want to go. I’ve been fortunate to get funding for all three MSAB AI grants, and that’s generally the feedback that I get from the jury. 

Develop a strong body of work. I learned long ago that it’s best to work in a series exploring a form, or theme, or anything that shows that you’ve put in the time producing your work. The more you make, the more you’ll develop your voice and it’ll show in your work. Another benefit to working in a series is that eventually you’ll get stumped. I’ve found it best to keep at the problem until I’m bored out of my mind with it. Then the magic happens and you suddenly find a new solution or way of looking at the problem. Those are the times I live for as an artist. 

Having clarity of work progression. Take an honest assessment as to where you are with your work and think about where you want to be and what is holding you back. I often write “Who, what, where, when, how, and why?” at the top to remind myself to address these questions in my proposal.

Good images are a must. Starting out, I took scads of slides and had a hard time at it. I then hired a professional photographer to take photos of my work that greatly improved my chances getting into galleries and shows. I now take most of my artwork photos myself but still use my photographer for special and larger work. 

For grants, good images don’t mean anything if they don’t fit the focus of why you want the grant. For one grant, my challenge was that I was running out of printed tins for my work. They were becoming more rare and expensive, so I proposed to find a way to make some of my own. I had good images of my bigger works, but I also used images of minor works that showed how that metal was used even though they were not big strong pieces. The point was that they related to what I was trying to accomplish. 

Finally, I’ve found that working safely or in an appropriately sized space is a genuine need that is a good reason for getting a grant. I’ve had the misfortune of working in an ad hoc garage space with low ceilings with a mixture of welded steel and combustibles in the same space. This presented a real need to get an air filtration system for welding and now a separate studio space dedicated to woodworking reducing the danger of a fire. Another challenge was that my low ceiling prevented me from making large work. This limited my ability to be chosen for large public artworks. So, for safety reasons alone, the grant money helped me improve my working situation and made it safer for me and those around me. 

RW: You are in the process of moving into an as-yet-unused studio space in the Casket Arts Building.  What was in there before, and how much work has it been to make it into a working studio?

KF: From what I understand it was where the boiler that operated the central pulleys to operate the various machines in the building was located. Instead of a motor at each machine station, there would be a strap that would run down from a central driveshaft up by the ceiling. This strap would go around a pulley and would power the machine. 

Difficult to Fathom

RW: I’m guessing it will be a step up from working out of your garage.  Do you think being able to work on a larger scale will be the biggest change in your studio practice? 

KF: Absolutely! I’ve already got a couple of large commissions in process and one of the pieces I’m making will be 15ft tall, so this space couldn’t have come at a better time. 

Think Tank

RW: And you’re right in time for Art-A-Whirl, too!  Will you be open that weekend?  What can people expect to see when they come to your studio?

KF: Yes, I’m still moving in. I’ve been working on a number of public art projects lately, so I haven’t had as much time in the studio making works to show and sell during Art-A-Whirl. I will have a number of pieces that I’ve shown around town in the past like “Song of the Flying Dutchman” plus models of past and upcoming public art commissions, drawings, etc. I also plan on having some examples of my progress in wood carving for display. I intend to explain my process and talk about where my work is going for this grant. 


RW: Have you participated in Art-A-Whirl in the past?  What is your take on how it has changed over the years?

KF: Yes. I guess I’d now be considered one of the ‘old guard’ since I was at one of the first meetings for Art-A-Whirl and participated in the second AAW back in 1996. My studio was in the Tyler Street Building – the same complex as Bauhaus Brewlabs is in now. I’ve participated every year in some fashion but mostly in the form of showing work in multiple locations. 

In the old days, it was a little more raucous and edgy. There were a lot of great parties in illegal spaces and it seemed a little more ‘freewheelin’. It wasn’t as big an event and less bars and restaurants participated. The bands were there, but primarily in studios. The artwork seemed a little more experimental and edgy as well.  

But obviously it’s grown up, and the neighborhood’s a lot better. It used to be kind of a rough area. It used to be that Saturday morning at 9am, here comes a middle-aged guy riding by on an old bike carrying a case of beer. And that was Northeast, just a lot of that sort of scruffiness. I miss parts of that, but at the same time, it’s so much bigger than it used to be. There’s a lot more artists, you see a lot of younger people, it feels like a safer neighborhood, there’s more families with kids now, and there’s not just the one or two corner shops anymore.  I mean, there used to be a casket company here that was pretty quiet, not much going on, and now all of a sudden Casket Arts is this cool, burgeoning place.

The East Friesian Express (on of three parts of a commissioned piece for the Union Depot in St. Paul)

RW: You also do a lot of public art installations. Where can people see these pieces, and do you have any upcoming public projects in the works?

KF: I’m still fairly new on the public art scene, but I’ve got a few pieces here and there in and outside of the metro and beyond. I’ve got a small piece owned by the City of Hopkins, 3 big wall mounted train pieces in the Union Depot Railroad Station in St. Paul, an image of one of my works is included in a frieze in the Northeast Minneapolis Public Library. Outside the metro I have a large bench in Sartell (by St. Cloud, MN) and another piece displayed on the grounds of an insurance company in Sioux Falls, SD. I’ve got another big one that is still in the throes of funding approval and redesign that I really can’t talk about yet, but it’s coming down the pike this fall. I’ve got another number of pieces being leased temporarily in the cities of Bemidji, Stillwater, Mankato, and maybe another place or two. I guess we’ll have to see. 

Russ White

See Kyle’s work on his website or in person this weekend at Art-A-Whirl at Casket Arts in Studio 120.  Check out more Art-A-Whirl happenings. 

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