Geppetto’s Workshop

A conversation with Joseph Kurhajec

©Alexander Calder

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.”

Sardine Cans ©Joseph Kurhajec

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.”

Jaguar ©Joseph Kurhajec

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.”

Sacred Heart of Jesus ©Joseph Kurhajec

“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.

 

Meet the Artist: 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.