Steel City Turns Art: PCA Artist of the Year Tim Kaulen Exhibition Opens Tonight

This is a great article on Tim Kaulen and the fantastic work he is doing, transforming Pittsburgh’s heritage into timeless works of art. Check out the full article by Mary Thomas of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette below:

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Tim Kaulen extols Pittsburgh as he talks about his latest project, three welded steel sculptures inspired by antique mechanical toys that weigh in the neighborhood of 1,500 pounds each.

Kaulen is the Pittsburgh Center for the Art’s 2009 Artist of the Year and the sculptures will be installed on the grounds of the big yellow Shadyside building in time for the exhibition’s Friday opening.

“I know that I couldn’t produce this kind of work anywhere else,” Kaulen says, as he moves about the cavernous abandoned industrial space he’s using as a studio, side-stepping the accumulated refuse of construction projects and old buildings that he will in time transform into something magical.

In this case, that would be “one tin duck,” “one toy giraffe,” and a rearing steed complete with cowboy, “iron horseman.”

They “pay homage to classic American tin and wooden toys from the turn of the century,” Kaulen says.

The work space is appropriate for Kaulen, who earned his artistic chops as a co-founder of the Industrial Arts Co-Op, a then-underground group that created artworks in the rusting remnant buildings of the region’s once fire-breathing mills and factories.

Born in Greenville, Mercer County, the 43-year-old Polish Hill resident studied at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh with stellar innovators Henry Koerner, the late painter, and earth artist Angelo Ciotti. Kaulen says they inspired him to work outside the conventions of commercial art.

For Kaulen, the process of creating a piece, including the involvement of others, is as significant as the completed work, and through the years he’s developed a network that he can tap into. “It’s all about our local community, that supports itself, and their contributions allow this type of unconventional work to be successful.”

Kaulen says all his materials, for example, were donated by various local scrap yards and junk yards. The Massaro Corp., a Pittsburgh construction company, and Steffan Industries, a heavy equipment company that provided the crane to relocate the sculptures, made “substantial gifts,” Kaulen says, probably amounting to $8,000 if he had paid for it out of pocket.

P.J. Dick Inc. and Trumbull Corp. “gifted all the bigger material, what I would call substructure materials — stuff they use in big construction projects to brace the earth back.” Tube City, “a massive scrap yard in West Mifflin, gave all the wheels,” including the manhole covers for the cowboy and forklift wheels on the giraffe.

The three sculptures were built to hold plantings, thus the title he’s given the outdoor work, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” borrowed from the 15th-century painting by Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch. Kaulen hopes the plants will grow across the pieces’ surfaces throughout this season and in early spring, when the works are expected to be removed. “I’m calling it topiary,” Kaulen says, while acknowledging that’s taking artistic license with the gardening form. “It’s down and dirty topiary.”

To that end, he’s also received help from Bidwell Training Center, which gave him professional advice on which plants to buy for the desired effect, as well as which would be appropriate for the seasons the works will be displayed. “They have my plants in baskets ready to be picked up.” He also received input from graduate students in Chatham University’s landscape architecture department, who “weighed in with technical advice.”

Kaulen benefits, too, from the contributions of other artists and praises the “amazing team of fabricators and young artists” who have labored to produce the current work.

Inside the Center is a retrospective of Kaulen’s work from the past 15 years, including sketches, models and photographs that document his on-site pieces, many of which, like works exhibited at Three Rivers Arts Festivals, are now gone.

One wall is “a salon-style hang of photographs that I keep calling my family tree. A lot of my favorite pieces don’t exist anymore,” Kaulen says.

Kaulen is concerned that the general public, outside the arts community, may not be familiar with his body of public works and he hopes that the indoor exhibition will provide a context for where the outdoor works come from.

Also exhibited is some of his larger signage work, “actual pieces that have lived outside,” says Center Director Laura Domencic. These are the oversized colorful pieces made of recycled materials that occasionally graced galleries in decades past, and they caused a buzz when they popped up in other unconventional urban spaces.

The Artist of the Year award was begun in 1949 and has honored a venerable list of the region’s art stars, selected for their contributions to the greater community, as well as for their artistic achievements. The Center itself has been a pillar of support for local artists, and an educational resource for city residents since its founding in 1945 (it merged with Pittsburgh Filmmakers in 2006).

Kaulen, humbled by his inclusion in such lineage, says he is looking forward to reaction to the new work. “The thing I enjoy about these pieces, I think is they’re questionable as far as they’re being art. Is it craft? Lawn ornament? Folk art? On a high art level, it is debatable. I’m glad to be in that debate.”

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