- Kenneth Curran
|It's taken me 37 years to feel
but I sure wish I could locate my high school yearbook. Then I could
post an image of my high school sculpture teacher, the late Ken Curran,
who taught me to teach myself to be a wire sculptor. Well, the best I
can do for now is to post this image of the first wire sculpture I ever
made, in Ken Curran's classroom in 1968.
It's a cat. The head's at the bottom.
What follows is a portrait I made of Ken Curran, using words instead of
wire. It's a chapter of a novel I'm writing, a murder mystery set
within the community of working artists. I took the liberty of applying
my experiences with Mr. Curran to a teenage boy. Fashion statements
aside, most of it is as I remember -
years elapsed... and my long-lost classmate Wayne Felton, having read
the above, provided me an image from his old yearbook!
Mind you, it took another full year-and-a-half to get the moxie to do
Curran in wire... truly disconcerting. As I wended my way through the
tangle of ultra-fine wires, I could hear Curran muttering... "Getting a
bit fussy with the sleeve wrinkes, Berrien... do you really need to
include them all?
|Curran was polishing his glasses
classes when the new kid came in. So first Impressions were even hazier
then usual. He squinted up at the narrow, treelike object shifting
rapidly from foot to foot before his desk, vaguely wondering why it was
topped with a mass of magenta. Settling the glasses back on the bridge
of his nose, things leapt somewhat into perspective; the brilliant mass
of color was the boy's own hair, sprouting in an incandescent halo of
dreadlocks. The kid was definitely a fashion trendsetter; Curran hadn't
seen a T-shirt sporting a row of bloody gunshot wounds before. He
waited patiently to see if its wearer spoke English.
"Um... this the Sculpture Class?" the kid asked apprehensively, rolling
his eyes at the acetalyne tanks and potters wheels.
"You got it on the first guess. What can I do you for?"
"Well, I'm just looking at my class schedule and I see I got signed up
here for the semester. Nuttin' personal, but I just don't see myself
chippin' marble busts for six months. You think you could sign me a
"Listen, Magenta. It's fine by me if you opt out, as long as you stick
around for the first week. Otherwise there's some danger you might
trigger a stampede. You think you can hold out that long?"
The kid clutched the corner of Curran's desk with both hands, gaping
around the room and showing even more White of Eye. The bell rang; a
raucous motley assortment of adolescents clumped in sorted out seats at
the tables. Finally the kid gasped, nodded, and took a seat at the
farthest table from the front.
Isaac sat with the other misanthropes and sized up the situation. Sure
enough, worst fears were being confirmed; very first day in class, they
were instructed in the theory and process of mixing up plaster of paris
to pour in milk cartons. The results were naked white rectangular
blocks of plaster, one to a student. Curran walked among the tables,
dropping carving tools at random. Isaac perked up a little: some were
large and blunt, some were little and pointy, but all looked like they
could be incorporated into his more lurid semi-erotic Heavy Metal
Noting Isaac's air of mild inattention, Curran plunged an icepick-like
weapon into the table before him, leaving it there quivering as he
spoke. "All right, puppies. As soon as I have finished distributing
these Weapons of Mass Destruction, I'll be making a second pass to
scatter my personal collection of organic matter among you tables. We
have here skulls, antlers, sea shells, gourds, twigs, pebbles, lichens,
you name it.
"Your assignment is to chip and hack at your chunks of plaster until
you feel you've got something which also feels Organic, without being
any kind of copy or direct rip-off of the items in front of you. You
think you got that?" Stony silence. "Have at. We'll see who's got what
* * * * *
Halfway through class on Wednesday, the Wild Boy materialized in front
of Curran's desk, his hands behind his back.
"What's up, Magenta?
"Um, I gotta hypothetical question." The hands came forward, deposited
a corruscated chunk of plaster in Curran's outstretched hand. "You see,
I'm not sure what this Organic bullstuff means, but I been choppin' and
carvin' in good faith. I got these little pimplies running up this
surface, little spikies pokin' out over here, this big Flare Shape
wrapping around two sides. So far I thought I was runnin' along
alright, but now I'm stuck. I got this one big naked square corner left
over. I been starin' at it all day, can't think of a thing I can do
that'll make it look better instead of worse.
"So I'm gonna quit and hand it in now. Leastways it don't matter, what
with I'm outta here next week, but the hypothetical question is: if I
was to turn this in for a grade, seeing as I spent two thirds of the
time assigned, and carved up three quarters of the assigned surface,
would that mean I get a "B" on the project? Strictly hypothetically
speakin', I mean."
Curran rose to his full vulturine height. Giving his glasses one last
furious polishing, he massaged his thinly populated scalp and fixed
Isaac in his beady stare. "That is a complex question requiring a
complex answer," he replied drily. "Come join me in the supply, room so
we can discuss this unhindered."
Isaac had never been in the supply room before. His mind reeled at the
welter of colors and shapes leaping forth among the dust motes in the
narrow shafts of afternoon sunlight. Straw, string, bright coils of
gold, silver and copper wire. Calipers, anvils, tiny hammer, pliers and
cutters obviously stolen from elves. Can I come live in this room
forever? he wondered.
Curran broke the reverie, holding Isaac's plaster chunk aloft and
peering narrowly down at him. "Kindly distill your original question,
"Um... good enough for a "B"?"
The next thing Isaac knew he was dangling aloft, looking down at Mr.
Curran, who appeared to have picked him up by the shirtfront and was
addressing him intently.
"We shall strike a deal here and now, Magenta. You will never ever ask
me that question again, and I will give you an A for the course so's
you quit fretting and get down to business. Agreed?"
Isaac nodded mutely. Slowly, carefully, Curran lowered him, til the boy
could feel his feet making contact with the floor.
"Now then," said Curran, "the first thing I gotta tell you is what you
done right. You knew when to stop. I can't tell you how many artists,
myself included, never quite learned how to recognize that point before
we'd walked too far past it."
"So you liked it?"
"What does that have to do with anything? I'm not you. You don't want
to learn what I think of your work, you gotta learn what YOU think. I
never told a student yet if I liked their work, on account of it's none
of my business in the first place. My job is to teach you puppies how
to make stuff YOU like. So the next question is: what do you like
doing? What do you do at home?"
"Um. I play the bass with a garage band, do some heavy metal cartoonin'
like in case we got recorded maybe I could do the album jacket.
Sometimes I take strange junk and build like little shrines and maybe
space aliens, look at it & add to it for a week or so, have a
ritual and torch it. You know, usual dumb shit."
"It'll do. Magenta, you're the class monitor. That means you gotta know
how to use every piece of equipment in this room without breaking it or
injuring yourself. Let's go out front and I'll show you how to wedge
Class Wire Sculpture · Elizabeth Berrien (707) 445-4931
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