When Art Takes Us to a Place Beyond the Limitations of Words: A Discussion about the Public Art and Sculpture of Lutsen Artist Greg MuellerOct 04, 2023 09:26AM ● By Content Editor
By Kimberly J. Soenen for Boreal Community Media - October 4, 2023
Soenen (KS): You participated in the Art of the Lake 2023 Fall Studio Tour. What did visitors find when they arrived at your studio in Lutsen and what was your favorite aspect of the tour?
Mueller: Visitors saw the physical environment of a blue-collar scholar. The making or blue-collar side of the building features welders, foundry equipment, power tools, vises and anvils. Side B of the studio coin belongs to thinking: the journals, the books, the drawing boards, the realized and (un)realized visionary concepts.
KS: How long have you lived in your studio in Lutsen?
Mueller: I landed here in 2017. I was teaching sculpture at a women’s art college in South Carolina when artist Tom Christiansen called me asking if I was interested in buying his sculpture studio in Lutsen because he was moving up to Caribou Lake.
I had been seriously considering setting up my own full-time studio practice and with my mother back in Minnesota with fragile health issues, it seemed like the stars were aligning to embark on a new chapter. So, I left full-time teaching to pursue full-time making.
KS: When did you first decide large-scale sculptures were the modality and practice you gravitated to as an artist?
Mueller: The Minnesota River Valley in Southern Minnesota was my childhood playground. There, you will find the ruins of my first large-scale work of tree forts.
Fast forward to getting bit by the Big Sky Country bug, so to speak. I was accepted to grad school in Bozeman, Montana. The Art School-ism or mantra at the time was: “go big or go home,” as “Art on a Pedestal” was dead. The consistent theme was large-scale work that confronted the viewer. I don’t buy into that as a philosophy for all. I think monumentality and large scale are two separate entities. A piece of jewelry can be monumental, but small scale. That said, for me, one who initially started as an architecture student, and then gravitated toward large scale and public work was organic.
I am interested in participatory work, where the viewer completes the composition, so it was natural for me to jump off the gallery pedestal and into the streets.
KS: What is it about large scale and the materials you work with that you most embrace?
Mueller: My inseparable best friend since first grade, Mike, was accepted into Harvard’s Psychology School. When he got out there, he called me in Minneapolis and encouraged me to move to Boston. I showed up at Mass College of Art a day before classes started and attempted to register for Stone Carving. They said it was full, but there was a spot left in “Metal Fab and Foundry.” So, by happy accident, I took the course and fell in love with the process, materials, and other sculpture students. This launched a vision for public sculpture, and I came to realize I wanted to make art that served a social need.
In both my personal body of work and public pieces, reclaimed materials are a first consideration. A keen sensitivity drives my personal procurement of a palette consisting of neglected and decommissioned cast-aways. Thus, my studio practice is an instinctive, child-like curiosity of factory meets laboratory; building and breathing new life into the rescued reclaim and cultivating the spirit of the material.
KS: You’ve created many public art sculptures. There seem to be recurring themes of continuity, bridges, arches and circles. When making a commission, how much of your spirit and self can you insert?
Mueller: Preferring to work in public spaces rather than galleries is my authentic choice, an inherent passion, so my spirit and self is always present. I am not driven by ego, I am driven by a “we” mentality. How can “we” create the best artwork for the given opportunity?
I drive the project management, but a group of diverse engineers, architects, fabricators, and community stakeholders can be valuable in taking an initial idea to an even higher place, and to me that is a beautiful process.
I am fortunate to have worked with some talented collaborators. I am not naïve; it’s not all rainbows. I have had to overcome obstacles of perhaps too many cooks in the kitchen. Creativity by committee has its drawbacks as well. Navigating the fine-line between quiet creative Mueller time with the feedback and constructive critique of others is an expected nuance in the public art dance.
KS: How does your writing inform your art and vice versa?
Mueller: Writing for me is just like painting or playing guitar. Clear, concise writing can make or break winning a grant or commission proposal. Having an educator for a mother meant no homework paper left the house without a thorough editing process with her. And for that, I am forever grateful.
I guess that’s why I call them Sketch-Journals. I think we have this preconceived idea that a sketchbook is filled with beautiful drawings and journals are some kind of diary. I don’t do either.
The physical act of pen on paper, rather than a keyboard is therapy, its visionary, its reflection. What’s working? What’s not? How do I improve? For me I do a lot more of this in the Winter, or quiet season. Soon I will start adding to “Under the Hood,” a series of my writings on a platform called Medium.
KS: You’ve written your studio practice fits somewhere “between Zen Wabi-sabi and the animated “Island of Misfit Toys”. Your work ranges from a religious cross to a seat to watch hummingbirds to a spirit vessel and other spaces that summon contemplation and stillness. What is your interpretation of it aesthetically, and, are you the outlier or are your works the misfits?
Mueller: I am an outlier and a misfit and so are my works. I was born to a single 19-year-old Minneapolis girl who gave me up for adoption, and now lives on San Diego; yet we connect regularly. Although adopted by a beautiful Mankato family, I never really felt like I fit. My friends were jocks and stoners, freaks and intellects. I saw something compelling in all of them, but I never felt like a true member of any clique. Perhaps that fueled the artist in me. A comfort in being independent and alone. I loved high school woodshop. I wasn’t interested a trade school career path, nor was I attracted to just a life of intellectual desk work…so art seemed to be the perfect cocktail mix of thinking and making.
And yes, my all-time favorite Holiday animation scene is Rudolph’s visit to the Island of Mis-fit Toys. Like reclaimed materials. I see a unique beauty and soul in each of those discarded and seemingly flawed toys. Yes, trendy interior design can put the kibosh on Wabi-Sabi and Western-izing it as you say, but having spent time in Japan, I became deeply interested the modest, the humble, the unconventional.
Mueller: Yes, public art can serve to educate and heal, but working with memorials is an extremely challenging area that has deep emotions. In my work, I lean into Plato’s suggestion that we learn the most about another through the act of play. This has pushed my creative work into the area of gathering spaces, swings, bridges and for example, “Inspiration Exchange” outside the Art Colony, where visitors can take and leave objects and notes for another.
Mueller: I defer to Poet Kabir one more time: “…near your breastbone is an open flower, drink the honey all around that flower.”
I have lived in seven states, and taught sculpture in five Art Schools, so I am not sure this gypsy is the best at giving advice to emerging artists, but I do know 2 things:
1) Find someone who is doing what you want to do. For me I found Gustavus Sculptor Paul Granlund, who hired apprentices to work in his studio. I worked there for 5 years between undergrad and grad school. That is where I really learned the day- to -day reality of being a sculptor.
2) I would say, if a life/work of creative expression is truly in you and at the forefront of your every thought, then follow that curiosity with grit and conviction. Be willing to work harder than the person next to you. Show up even when the inspiration or pieces are not working for you. Through that work, the pendulum will swing back and epiphanies will emerge. Not daily or not even weekly, but they will appear, and when they do, you will seize and act on the idea. When the exhibit is over, the grant funding is gone, you go back to the studio and make better work.
So, the best part of my day is finding that work flow, when I lose track of time and mindfully engage in the creative act of making something that takes us to a place beyond the limitations of words.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Kimberly J. Soenen is a writer and producer specializing in Health Humanities and healthcare industry investigative reporting.