Art+Culture Meet the Artist Merida

Meet the Artist: Joseph Kurhajec

Joseph Kurhajec
This interview was conducted in January 2015

“Sculptor Joseph Kurhajec is a wild and generous artist, working intuitively to give form to those dark, primitive and mysterious forces within myth, legend, self, dream and belief.”
– Art Critic Edward Bryant

Step into Joseph Kurhajec’s studio and you fall down the rabbit hole. It is a world where imagination knows no bounds, where wonder and delight meet with horror and death. On one shelf a mystical Mayan snake suckles at the breast of a fertility goddess. On another, a series of carved ceramic skulls patiently wait for the hands of the sculptor to give them life.

Jospeh Kurhaje
Jospeh Kurhajec©Agnes Pataux

What is it you hope people experience when they see your work?

When I’m working, I always feel I’m on the verge of a great discovery. Art is research and although I work on intuition, my work is informed by years of study and travel, and absorbing all that I see in art and nature.

In the 60s I saw an exhibition of Congo fetishes at the Art Institute of Chicago that changed my own work dramatically. I’m always trying to make something that has a soul, that speaks to people, that has power, and I hope others experience this when they look at my work.

Joseph Kurhajec
©Joseph Kurhajec

You have studios in Merida, New York and Paris. Is the work you create in each studio different?

Being a sculptor is in my DNA and I work with the materials that speak to me. In New York I sculpt more in ceramics and metal, in Mexico I carve in the beautiful indigenous stone, which is one of the reasons I came here. In France I do more etchings.

Each culture gives me something—the cathedrals in France, the Mayan art in Mexico and in upstate New York, I go fishing. Actually, I go fishing whenever I can—it’s another passion.

How did you end up in NYC as a young artist?

I got my Masters Degree at the University of Wisconsin then moved to NYC in 1960 because that’s where everything was happening.

Joseph Kurhajec
©Joseph Kurhajec

So, NYC in the 60s—you must have hung out with some pretty infamous characters!

All of them—Warhol, Oldenburg, Lichtenstein, Rosenquist. It was a very open scene, a hotbed of creativity and guys like Leo Castelli and Ivan Carp were instrumental in the emergence of it all.

I was doing tribal art which no one was doing. I showed my work to Alan Stone who became the biggest collector of tribal art in the world. Alan was showing Gorky, de Kooning, Klein, Cornell, and I was with him for 30 years. During my time in NYC, I also had a show at the Guggenheim and two exhibitions at the Whitney Museum.

You had all this success in New York but moved to Rome—was it for love?

She was an artist, she looked like a famous Italian actress, and she was a Countess…what can I say (smiles). I lived in Italy for 10 years and still go back to visit. One of my 3 sons lives in Rome and my ex-wife has an exhibition opening this spring that I hope to attend.

Joseph Kurhajec
©Joseph Kurhajec

What drew you to Merida?

When I finished my Masters, I came here for two months in 1961 to study the Mayan culture. Almost 50 years later, my love for pre-Columbian art, the Aztecs, the Mayans and a dear friend, all lured me back.

Do you have a favorite artist?

Francis Bacon—I think he’s a powerhouse! Anselm Kiefer, another powerhouse! Picasso, Miró, Léger! I love ‘em all.

What would you say to a young artist just starting out?

I’m 76 years old and most of my friends are dead and gone. It feels strange, but it makes me want to work even harder. I feel lucky to be alive so I don’t waste time. And that’s what I would say to any artist. “Don’t waste time, just make art. Follow your passions, trust your intuition, don’t be afraid.” The Dalai Lama once said, “Never give up, no matter what is going on around you, never give up.” I think that’s pretty good advice.

Visit Joseph and over 25 other artists on the Merida Artist Studio Tour on February 20, 2016.

12 comments on “Meet the Artist: Joseph Kurhajec

  1. Don’t waste time, make art, follow your passions! A fisher sculpture, what a powerhouse guy! Skype open off/on today Ali!

  2. An amazing force of art beloved by all of us in my family! A great snap of a real powerhouse of imagination and brilliance.

    • ‘A force of art’ is exactly what he is Lola! I have only known him for the 1 1/2 years I’ve been in Merida and we already have two of his pieces on our walls. My husband Ric Kokotovich is an artist and he and Joseph have become great friends…we miss Joseph when he leaves! Thank you so much for the comment; Joseph has a show here Jan 31 and it too, shall be a force of art. Besos!

      • Please tell him hello and give him a great big bacio for me!!!!!

      • Lola Scarpitta

        Oh! I’m the daughter of the artist Salvatore Scarpitta, our families have been friends for years!

      • Lola, I have just looked at your fathers work! I’m not much of a car person but I love love his other bodies of work, particularly the pieces done in the late 1980s. I can’t imagine what growing up in that hotbed of creativity must have been like for you, and so – you are an artist yourself!

      • Papa was with Leo Castelli and had many periods of change in his work. Of course I love them all! I’m now moving into abstract work from a very literal realistic 30 years of work so cross fingers! I was very much a part of papa’s work from his wrapped to his sleds…I was there watching him. A big influence was the wrapped pieces because I knew he started that with the idea of using my swathing clothing when I was a newborn in Rome. Joe is also a big part of my memory growing up as well and his amazing imagination in his body of work captured not only papa but all my family especially my stepfather, graphic artist Stanislaw Zagorski and Mamma Clotilde! We all love him and his work! We all have really grown up together including Prima Rosa (a marvelous artist) and his two amazing sons. All told, a great body of life all around!!!

  3. Peter Bosley

    Hi Joe great to see you are still creating wonderful pieces.I still remember the ” there’s an egg in there” one August day in Sperlonga 1975.As well as the fantastic package you gave Robin Elliott and I. Love peace and sandy feet Peter

  4. Marjorie Kurhajec Bialk

    How proud I am to have Joseph as by brother, my friend, and my role model. He has always been an inspiration to me, even as a child. When we were growing up in the country in Wisconsin, we had many opportunities to grow, to be creative, and to be challenged by our environment and family members. This truly helped us to be strong, to be courageous and even daring….we are risk-takers and adventurous that’s for certain. This was all tempered by a faith and trust in the Almighty! We knew where our strength came from, we knew who to thank for our talents, and we knew how important it is to give, to serve, to be a vital part of our society…work hard, never give up, be nice, and don’t forget to smell the flowers.

    • What wonderful words Marjorie – I love hearing from his friends and family. It only reinforces what a special man Joseph is. I am so happy to know him here in my new home of Merida 🙂

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