The Exotic Traveling Artist

Jeff and Carl in Zachmann Studios, photo courtesy of Scott Wagnild

Jeff and Carl in Zachmann Studios, photo courtesy of Scott Wagnild

Jeff and Carl just returned home to Fergus Falls from one of their whirlwind trips across the country. Though a bit tired, Jeff is happy to share his experiences and give a little insight into the life of a traveling artist. While we’d also love to hear from Carl, he’s a bit busy repairing a wall in the garage of the new house he bought with his wife, Krista… Ah, the life of an artist and a homeowner!

Jeff and Carl left on Tuesday, August 27th for Portland, OR. After days and weeks and months of preparation, Jeff’s giant van was packed and ready for action. The van looks a little like the Mystery Machine, though without the ridiculous paint or most of the seats, which have been removed for optimal sculpture storage and transport. The two left town in the late morning and made it about a mile out before the van broke down. It was turbo troubles, but as luck would have it, Jeff had an extra in his shop at home. They got the problem fixed and took off again around 5 pm. This time they made it all the way to Fargo, N.D. (about an hour drive from Fergus Falls) before Jeff realized he had forgotten his wallet. He drove halfway home to meet his wife, Deb, who brought the wallet and allowed them to continue on their way. Continue they did, switching off driving, talking in the car, and reaching Portland at 1:45 pm on Friday afternoon. Their setup time was scheduled for 2:00, so they made it with plenty of time to spare…

Setup example: Carl's booth

Setup example: Carl’s booth

“Set up”, Jeff says, “takes however long I have.” If he has 24 hours, it can take 24 hours. If he has 3 hours, it can take 3 hours, though that’s about the shortest amount of time in which he can still do a good job. And doing a good job is important, especially at shows that take place outside.
After checking in, he pulls his van up to his booth area, unloads everything he needs, and parks it elsewhere to leave room for other artists to unload their own goods. He sets up his tent, which shows do not provide. He puts 40 lbs on each leg to help hold it down, and often drills into the ground to secure his tent fully. He says he’s seen artists get complacent about nice weather, only to have their tent blown over in winds that start up later in the day. That isn’t just bad for their work, but for the work of the artists around them. A blowing tent can take out the tents surrounding it, too. Jeff and Carl are very careful, especially since their work is so heavy.
After the tent is up, Jeff lays down his carpet. The carpet plays several roles: it looks professional, gives his tent clear boundaries, and protects the glass balls that may escape a sculpture during the show. With the carpet down and the tent up, he’s finally ready to set up his walls and support bars and hang his sculptures. The physical labor is done, and he can retire to his hotel until the show begins. To take the edge off, he and Carl visit the legendary Voodoo Doughnut.

Voodoo Doughnuts in a box.

Voodoo Doughnuts in a box. Note the one being stabbed.

They wait in line and get a dozen to eat over the next few days, but after just one each they decide there is just WAY too much sugar for them to keep them all to themselves. They leave the rest in the Artist Hospitality tent at the show. Jeff still claims his favorite doughnut is the Bavarian Cream made by Service Foods in Fergus Falls.

Jeff’s booths tend to be really busy. To set himself apart from the milling patrons, he sits on a stool. That way, if someone wants to talk to him, they can find him easily. Check out his booth on a busy night below:

A busy night in Jeff's booth, St. Louis, MO.

A busy night in Jeff’s booth, St. Louis, MO.

Art in the Pearl took place over Labor Day weekend, and Jeff and Carl spent Labor Day evening making deliveries of sold sculptures. They left Portland on Tuesday morning and embarked upon what Jeff and some of his friends call the “Cannonball Run”, driving cross-country as fast as possible. They had 30 hours to get to St. Louis, MO and had to work in a delivery to Colorado. They managed it and made it to St. Louis with no problems. The drive on Highway 53 through Colorado, they say, was gorgeous.
They had planned to visit some patrons to make repairs upon their arrival in St. Louis, but cut it a little too close and had to make their visits after the show. That’s one unique thing about being kinetic artists: sometimes sculptures needs a little tweaking to keep working beautifully. Luckily, Jeff and Carl are flexible guys who take great pride in their sculptures and do everything they can to keep them looking good and working well.
[If you own a Zachmann that needs a repair, don’t hesitate to get in touch. Visit the Contact page for info.]

The St. Louis Art Fair kicked off without a hitch that first week of September. Jeff met a nice boy with a young sister who deciphered the secret to great art (or great anything): “It’s simple, you just figure out how to do it, then you do it.” Jeff was also characteristically embarrassed by a female fan who saw his work in the Brisbane Airport. “Oh my gosh! It’s you!” she said excitedly. “I saw your piece in Australia!” She then turned to her friend and said “It’s him!”. Jeff explained away the experience as “pretty strange”.
Honestly, I don’t think one can get much more Minnesotan than that when confronted with fame or recognition…

Fun Fact: Jeff and Carl do some restaurant exploration when traveling. They often ask visitors to their booths what’s good in the area, to get the local lowdown. Artists also share recommendations among themselves. In Portland they got sushi, and in St. Louis they visited a local diner one night and enjoyed some Italian on another.

The banner outside Jeff's booth in St. Louis, MO.

The banner outside Jeff’s booth in St. Louis, MO.

On the evening before the last day of the St. Louis Art Fair, a banner appeared outside Jeff’s booth declaring him an award winner. The only way to find out which award he had won was to attend the awards banquet the next morning. “They have to do that in order to get artists to come to the breakfast,” he explained to me. “It used to be the free food would get artists to show up, but now it’s like… It’s too early, they’d rather just sleep”. He managed to be there on time, and as the breakfast unfolded, he got more and more excited. “They gave out all the lesser awards first, and my name wasn’t being called,” he said. Finally, they got to the award that was chosen by the staff of the show in honor of the show’s founder, Sally Murdaugh. She was a gallery owner and lifelong art lover, and relatives of hers flew in from Colorado to bestow the award. Jeff was honored when they called his name. “I’m always amazed when I win an award. I mean, I win more than my fair share of awards. There is always such phenomenal work at these shows that it amazes me when I get chosen over other great artists.” Awards like the Sally Murdaugh Memorial Award are always exciting to win, because the juries are usually driven by taste to pick a winner. That means the people who run the show really like Jeff’s work, and it’s definitely nice to be recognized for greatness by those who are also working hard to bring art to the world.

The Sally Murdaugh Memorial Award, won by Jeffrey Zachmann in St. Louis, MO.

The Sally Murdaugh Memorial Award, won by Jeffrey Zachmann in St. Louis, MO.

The show over and another award under his belt, Jeff is ready to tear down and begin the journey back home to Minnesota. Packing up only takes about an hour. He and Carl do their deliveries and repairs and are back on the road. “I like to joke that I’m an over-the-road truck driver who sells art on weekends,” says Jeff. “People have this idea of the exotic traveling artist, but honestly, I sometimes just feel like a truck driver”. He laughs.
Two weeks and 4500+ miles later, he’s back home.

For The Young At Heart

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN

I have a challenge for you: name three artist (other than Jeff and Carl) that make kinetic sculptures without Google-ing “Kinetic Sculptor”. Honestly, I get as far as Duchamp and his bicycle wheel and I’m out. Not being trained in art history could be a factor in my failure, but I like to think it’s because theirs is a field not populated by many. Walking through the Minneapolis Institute of Art last week, I saw nothing that could compare to a Zachmann original. It was kind of cool to think about, but it also made me wonder if Jeff finds particular kinetic inspiration or feels “kinetic kinship” with any artists in any museums around the country. Turns out, he does!

The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY

The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY

Jeff’s favorite museum is the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Among other amazing works of art, they have a piece there called Calder’s Circus. Created from 1926 to 1931 by Alexander Calder, the piece is a sculptural, kinetic representation of a circus. Using wire, wood, metal, cloth, yarn, paper, cardboard, leather, string, rubber tubing, corks, buttons, rhinestones, pipe cleaners, and bottle caps, Calder made movable models that performed all parts of the circus. The circus has everything from a ringleader with an impressive top hat to a daredevil lion tamer. Check it out:

Calder's Circus, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY

Calder’s Circus, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY

Calder first started the piece in Paris, where he would perform it for friends with comments in French. The circus went back and forth with him from Paris to New York until it was finished in 1931. Each piece in the circus moved mechanically with manipulation by Calder’s hands. Jeff says seeing the circus was one of the things that turned him on to kinetic art in the first place. The energy and heart that went into the creation of such an intricate work is arguably what is most impressive about the circus, and the artist’s wholehearted involvement with his work really struck Jeff when he saw it for the first time. It inspired him to do what he loved and what interested him the most. “The guy never grew up,” he says of Calder. “He grew up just enough to use the tools.”

While Calder’s work is much different from anything made by a Zachmann, it still proves to be an inspiration and a peer to their form of kinetic art. Creating intriguing movement from static pieces in order to bring joy and/or excitement and/or childlike wonder to the viewer is not something most artists can do or even try to do. It is my hope that in a couple decades, someone will watch a video of a Zachmann or see it hanging in a museum and will think to themselves, “That guy grew up just enough to use the tools, and that’s where I’ll stop too.”

Below is part 1 of a video of Alexander Calder performing and explaining his circus. It’s really fun to watch, so I encourage you to take the time to do so. Then, leave a note about your favorite museum or your favorite piece of art and why you love it in the comments for this post!