Landscape Architect-turned-Sculptor Will Kurtz on the Things that Inspire Him
When did you know you wanted to be an artist?
I started making art in my mid-30s. I carved wood of St. Nicholas’ and tried selling them at Christmas craft fairs. That didn’t go so well. So I tried selling alabaster sculptures of body torsos at local Michigan art fairs. I drove around in a van from fair to fair and had one of those easy-up art tents and stackable pedestals. Some weekends I would sit there on a tall deck chair with my straw hat and not sell anything. I also made big cardboard sculptures of things like a giant Walleye fish, a mermaid, and a big Santa Claus. I would take them to the winter festival to race them down the local ski hill. I remember making a small gingerbread house with yellow siding, a scalloped red roof, flower boxes, and even a picket fence. My kids and I were in the gingerbread house and rode it down a hill until it smashed into a fence.
What are some things that inspire you?
Some of the things that inspire me are: a dead rat that has been run over by a car, women fighting on the steps of the apartment building across the street, the Hispanic women selling those long sugar pastry things on the subway platform, the crack heads selling found furniture and crap on my street corner, the guy pushing a shopping cart of bottles, the Chinese guy playing that one-string instrument, a baby pig’s head on a platter with a birthday hat, a group of black kids with their matching YMCA shirts and backpacks, the little Hasidic sisters running to their father in their plaid dresses, and the row of ants on my studio floor.
Do you ever experience artist’s block? What do you do to overcome it?
I get artist’s block all the time. I have the ability to visualize a piece before I start it. This can be good and bad as I am very hard on myself and keep second-guessing if the piece is the right one to make. I cannot make a piece if I am not in love with the subject. Sometimes I get artist’s block when I visualize too large of an installation or theme. I think it is because it actually narrows my possibilities to make who or whatever I want that doesn’t fit into the larger theme.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
A highlight of my art career was my first solo show in New York. I was right out of grad school and had a big show in Chelsea. The opening was so big that people lined the street, and some had to leave before more could come in. It was one of those profound moments when I knew I was doing exactly what I should be doing.
If you weren’t an artist, what do you think you would be doing?
If I weren’t an artist, I probably would be a healer or message therapist. I was born with an exceptionally strong sense of touch. I might also be a musician because I love performing in front of people. As a musician, I would love the attention with the immediate audience that now only happens at art openings.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment, I am finishing a sculpture of a tiny woman in Bedstuy who is about four feet 10 inches. She is wearing a scarf and a coat that looks way too big for her. She is hanging on to a walker with hand breaks. She just went out to get takeout that is on the seat of her walker. I was thinking of my great grandmother when I made her, so I call her “Nettie.” There is a big photo of Lauren Bacall on the lower left part of her coat and some hands from a Jesus painting on her butt.
You recently went back to school to get your MFA. How do you think this decision affected your development as an artist?
I really liked being the old guy when I went back to school at 50. When you think about becoming an artist for as long as I did, to get the chance to make art all day was such a pleasure. I was older than many of the teachers and could talk to them on a personal level. I took big risks in school, and did well in drawing, painting, and sculpture. I was selected to do a third-year fellowship and started doing really big erotic paintings of penises and vaginas. It didn’t take me long to figure out that was going nowhere. I then made a life-sized paper sculpture of my mother. It was one of those epiphany moments when subject and materials came perfectly together.
You began your career as a landscape architect. In what ways does this influence your work now?
I used to think that there was no correlation between a landscape architect and my sculptures. But now I see that I start a landscape design the same way that I start my sculptures. I came up with landscape ideas by creating shapes and an underlying order, drawing on paper with a big black marker. This relates perfectly to the underlying armatures of wood and wire inside my sculptures that set the tone and mood of a piece.