Welcome back to The Art Force Academy podcast! This past week, we sat down with Kyle Fokken, a Minneapolis-based sculptor who has an eclectic mixed-media practice. Kyle grew up in a small town of Minnesota and received his BFA from St. Cloud State University. With an entrepreneurial and ambitious spirit, Kyle has received numerous grants and awards, and just earlier this year he received the Minnesota State Arts Board Artist’s Initiative Grant. We visited Kyle at his new studio in the Casket Arts Building, located here in the Northeast Arts District, where we talked about the growth of his career, the challenges he has faced, and the unique genre of art he creates.
Why art? What led you towards a career in the arts?
That’s one of those nebulous things that artists always get asked. There was never an a-ha moment. Generally, I’ve always been curious about the world and how I can change it. If you ask most artists, I think most would say they have always been an artist ever since they were little kids. My mother used to draw quite a bit, and she would teach me how to draw – mostly people and animals. My dad, on the other hand, would tend to draw and make mostly buildings and structures. Neither was a trained artist; they just had an interest.
I grew up in a house where there was not a whole lot to do – small town.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a town called Clara City, which has about 1,500 people, and we don’t have a stoplight. We would just ride our bikes. There was a creek where you could get crayfish or crawdads. It was a cool, bucolic existence, but at the same time, there were no other outside forces. We had one television channel. So you spent a lot of time outside, or in your room, or just making stuff.
So then what was your first more formalized experimentation with art?
As far as formality, I was the first person in my family to go to college, which was kind of a big deal.
I went to St. Cloud State to study painting, and I wound up not taking a single painting class.
Really? What did you take instead?
I wound up taking some clay and ceramics classes. I got kind of a ceramic bug, and I started making vases and pottery forms but also wall sculptures, reliefs. I’ve always had a science fiction bent, so I would do something that looked like it was torn off of a submarine or off a spaceship. That is more my aesthetic, which has been throughout my whole life.
Had you done anything with clay prior to school?
We had some clay when I was in high school, but not very much, and everything got cut. I did some painting in high school.
To summarize this whole journey…you always talk about artists when they start off at 5-6 years old, figuring out what they want to do. If you see my work, it’s all mixed-media type of stuff – it’s something I call make-do aesthetic. What that means is that it is a kind of pioneer spirit. You might not have the perfect thing to fit, but you might have something else that will fit. That sort of scrounging around for things has really led the direction that my work has taken. I don’t consider myself a junk sculptor because I think junk sculptors are all about the junk. I try to find something that fits my ideal and submerse it in the whole.
I refer to my work as a three dimensional collage.
Going back to school…clay, ceramics…how else would you characterize your experience in art school?
With every college, you get out of it what you put into it. I was really aggressive with working really late hours in the clay studio and being active in discussions with other artists. Also, I was on the student activities, or union, programming board. I was an officer. That was a really good experience. I learned a lot about management with recruiting volunteers, managing people, managing time, budgeting – those types of things. I also got a business minor. I figured I needed that to broaden my perspectives. I think it’s really important to talk to the people that you’re selling to.
Being an artist, you wear many hats. How do you manage being the seller, the maker, the marketer?
For one thing, you have to give interviews. [haha] You can’t be a solitary artist. As much as I want to be in the studio, I would say at least 80-90% of my time is spent either designing work or looking or new opportunities and commissions, writing, and also selling. You know, following up on leads. The people who may be interested sometimes need a little extra help to know that they’re interested.
I’m also a stay-at-home dad so I have to work either when my kids are asleep or at school.
You don’t seem like a stay-at-home dad, you seem like a working dad.
How many kids do you have?
I have two. My son is 11 and my daughter is 8.
Do they ever come to studio?
Yeah! Actually, my daughter was with me this morning. She was working on this piece with me.
Oh nice! Did you cut the wood for her?
Yeah, actually this is a piece that is going to St. Cloud. It’s a part of a temporary sculpture loan. I do these outdoor sculpture walks to test new ideas, test new materials. And I am pretty good at it. I’ve gotten a lot of awards and sold a few pieces. It’s been a good balance. It’s been a chance to try something different than something that is strictly for indoors.
So you said a sculpture walk? What exactly is that?
It’s when you have public sculpture in your town that you change up every year. I’ve seen some real economic changes in many of the communities that are doing this. Most notably, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. What they do is that they offer stipends to artists to show their work. A lot of times they’ll put them up for the night. They’ll have receptions, meet and greets, those types of things. And they also facilitate sales within those communities. It’s almost an extension of a gallery.
What kind of economic changes have you seen?
I did my first show in Sioux Falls in 2004, and when I went there, it was kind of a ghost town. There was a diner, a jewelry store, and maybe a couple of other businesses. It was kind of dead. And then all of this started happening and people started coming out. All of a sudden you start seeing bars and restaurants opening up. I’ve seen a lot of really good changes.
It’s one of those things that people know. They know that the arts can help the community and help the economy, but it’s hard to really demonstrate that and convince people that “Yes! The arts can have a huge impact on other parts of life too!”
How did you evolve from clay and ceramics into doing work like this?
Necessity. When I was in college, I lived about two miles from school. I would walk to class, pick up tin cans along the way, and deposit them at school. I started noticing pieces, shapes, or things that would fall off of cars. I started incorporating them into my ceramic works. The idea of incorporating a man-made element into all this other sort of stuff I found to be very interesting.
Has having a background in sales, even if it was in a different industry, helped?
Absolutely. You can’t be afraid to talk to people. You have to be proud of your work.
If there’s one piece of advice that you would give to someone considering a career in the arts, what would that be?
I would say, don’t give up. Persistence pays off. The more you work, the harder you work, and the more that you bump into problems and you overcome them, the better off you are going to be. Creative roadblocks are an essential part of making good work. When you hit that creative block that is when your inspiration will happen. You have make work and make work and make work. Then you have to promote that work. You can’t be afraid to promote your own brand. You have one life to live and you may as well go for it.
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