A conversation with Joseph Kurhajec
I asked Alexander Calder once, at his Guggenheim retrospective in 1964, how he got to making toys, and he said, “Joseph, I like making toys, and kids love them too!” But let me tell you, that wasn’t why. Calder started making toys in the late 1920s. He lived in Paris and was working on the mobiles, but he wasn’t being noticed yet. I know this because many years later when I had a restoration business in France, someone found a stack of Calder mobiles in an old chicken coop, covered in chicken shit—can you believe it? I had to re-paint them! Of course now Calder is one of the most famous sculptors of his time, but at one point, he made toys.”
Joseph Kurhajec’s Merida studio is more like Pan’s labyrinth, where one is confronted at every turn by devils, masks and monsters. “It’s true, I have my scary side,” Joseph tells me as we sit at the kitchen table surrounded by his collection of African fetishes. “But I also like a diversion from all that darkness, which is why I go fishing, and make my sardine can sculptures and my toys. I sold almost everything I made at my show in France last year, and on June 1st, I have an exhibition of toys in Treadwell NY, where I have a studio.”
People seem to love Joseph’s toys—maybe that says something about these times we’re living in. A longing for the object so obviously made by hand, by someone who’s always lived a little on the ‘outside’. “My parents never encouraged me to be an artist,” Joseph tells me. “In fact, they discouraged me. But I pursued it anyway. After graduating from art school and working for a time in New York, I was invited to be part of a group exhibition at the Whitney called, ‘Young America 1957: Thirty American Painters and Sculptors Under Thirty-Five’. At 26, I was the youngest of a group that included Warhol, Lichtenstein, Frankenthaler. My brother came to the show and I remember to this day, he said, ‘When are you going to do something with your life?’…maybe that’s where I found my sense of humour.”
If you have a creative child, encourage them! At 18, I was lucky to have discovered art school and had incredible teachers, yet many people go through life without having fulfilled who they really are.”
“My first memory of art was when I was 4 years old,” Joseph tells me. “My uncle painted a watercolour of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that I still have, and since then, I’ve painted over 500 renditions of the sacred heart.”
“We’re all inspired by something,” he continues when I ask who his inspiration was. “I personally think the idea of a naive artist is horseshit. Even Brancusi, whom I’ve admired my whole life, must have discovered, as I did, the pre-historic stones of Corsica. That said, I do believe we’re all born with an art gene—that naiveté just needs to be nurtured.”
By his own admission, Joseph Kurhajec is a lucky man, despite lifelong challenges of being a committed artist in a fickle world. That is why experiences like the Artist Studio Tour are so important in our appreciation and comprehension of both art and artist.
Joseph’s studio is just south of La Ermita, an area that includes artists Ric Kokotovich, Ivan Gabaldon, Benne Rocket and Bernardo Gervacio. Visit them on the Merida English Library Artist Studio Tour February 16 and 17, from 10am to 3pm both days. Go to meridaenglishlibrary.com for ticket and artist info.