Driving up the long drive to Ken Arthur’s home one immediately senses his artistic eye that sees beauty in unusual things. Pin blocks of several baby grand pianos, rescued from instruments given to Arthur over the years, make up part of the fence on the left of the road. This just begins one’s introduction to his intricate mind and clever eye.
On an old farmstead, he and his wife, artist Linda Chevalier, created a semi-underground green home. In the farmstead’s “playgrounds” his fertile brain recognizes and transforms odd pieces into meaningful works of art. Arthur finds objects which awaken in him memories of past events or friends, or new visions of what this gathered material can become: bone, wood, stone, ceramic, glass, leather, metal, paper, and plastic; and, of course, his collection of remnants of a dozen pianos.
His Piano Man Project, now at the Sandusky Cultural Center until March 24, 2013, realizes his vision of what a collection of old piano hammers and actions, from three pianos, could become. In these articulated piano actions he saw human structures. Starting with a box nominally six or seven inches by twelve to fourteen inches, most with a glass cover, and an assembled Piano Man hanging inside, he encouraged creations of actions, settings, and attire for his piano men.
While the opening of an art show often celebrates the expressions and creativity of one person’s talent, the Piano Man Project also celebrates Arthur’s ability to bring together a sizable group of like-minded artists to share his vision. This included people he knew who did art work, but never had a chance to get their pieces out there. People could to express themselves, people who never exhibited in an art show, never worked in three dimensions and who never participated in a collaboration. Each brought her or his artistic integrity and commitment to the project. They gathered around Arthur’s theme and his recognition of the human form in these found objects and added their own flesh to the bones he provided. His challenge to his 75 friends unleashed a torrent of ideas. Even though the various pieces of the project remain mere mixed media, the dynamics extend beyond material limits.
The project invited mixed ideas, mixed viewpoints and mixed generational thinking. Arthur created one Piano Man in a bottle; a couple of other younger artists developed their piano men with circuit boards. One depicted a mime trying to escape from a glass box. Liz Burgess, a fiber artist he met at a show in Mansfield created one of the most unique collaborations. Eight people from that show joined Arthur in his project. Burgess raises silk worms and uses the silk in her artwork. She first attempted to re-create some silk worm habitat around her piano man, but not satisfied with the result, she collaborated with her silk worms, turning them loose in her assigned box and letting them create their own habitat.
Arthur’s ability to, like a pied piper, call to his friends and release their tremendous creativity around his delightful theme, including a man in a carefully-crafted duck blind, a long-nosed Pinocchio, and a bull fighter in a brilliant red cape, showed the genius of the project for us. Some emphasized the piano man itself, like the one who kicked the glass and cracked it. Others used the figure to emphasize scene and color and a creative theme. And, of course, one had to exist outside the box, freely sitting on its outer edge.
Many gallery openings bring people to eye the works of art in depth, moving from piece to piece in contemplation but basically alone. We likened this exhibit to an orchestra, with the various pieces, visitors and artists interacting. Artist talked with artist, sharing inner thoughts about pieces. Visitors listened to serious, and lighthearted, discussions about what prompted an artist’s particular reasoning for his or her expression of Arthur’s “piano man” theme.
However, this project just scratches the surface of Ken Arthur’s uniqueness. A self-taught artist, he has exhibited in over a dozen different galleries or cultural centers, including many invitations from academic institutions. While Arthur produced many of his installations in areas of North Central Ohio, he has also exhibited at the Sculptural Center in Cleveland, at the Mt. Vernon Nazarene University Art Gallery, the LeFevre Art Gallery at the Ohio State University in Newark, The Dairy Barn Southeastern Ohio Cultural Arts Center in Athens, the Bead Society of Columbus and the Bead Museum in Washington, D. C.
In a concept entitled Winter Count Ken drew on the Native American practice of, not marking birthdays by month or day, but by reflecting “… each winter with an image drawn on a buffalo hide. As a man grows, additional drawings are added as a history and record of years past (including) the passage of the people I loved and the promise of rebirth.” Arthur continues, “For the mechanical side, the common thread is the hammer. I believe that, without exception, everyone has used a hammer.” You can see the panels from both sides, uniquely combining art and industry, with natural things on one side and mechanical things on the other.
His goal to create an assemblage a day for forty days extended to sixty-eight days. He grouped seven favorite pieces in his living room to represent seven religions of the world and grouped sixty additional pieces into three panels. In an old circular grain bin, turned into his gallery space, he placed one orphan piece. When we first visited Ken and Linda, one of the grain bins housed his workshop on the ground floor. The circular building also held his gallery at the top of a stairway that curved around the interior. Since then, Arthur refurbished a couple more grain bins on his farm for gallery space and added a new workshop, which also houses studio space for Linda.
Visiting an exhibit with Ken offers a different experience from a regular museum visit. His infectious good humor and excitement about his work, which so readily inspires other artists, motivates the spectator as well. Unlike many galleries that have limited appeal, Arthur’s exhibits attract all kinds of folks of all ages. Part memoirs, part discovery, part feelings for the people he knows, the work often elicits a response of, “I can do that.” Indeed, some of his Piano Man Project boxes come from people who requested a box and some piano hammers so they could exercise their own imaginations.
In our opinion his work needs a wider exposure and agree with Priscilla Roggenkamp, assistant professor of art at Ashland University, who said that his Winter Count panels deserve a showing in the Smithsonian. The gallery at Ashland University will host his Piano Man Project in May 2014, and will include perhaps twenty more pieces that did not make the latest opening.
Carole and Glenn Swope have written a "double byline" review column for 25 years on all phases of the arts for the Lewiston (ME) Sun Journal, the Bradenton (FL) Herald, the Sarasota Arts Review, West Coast Woman, and the Longboat Key News. View more articles by Carol and Glenn Swope.