The Rapidian

Artist feature from UICA: Curt Ikens

Curt Ikens created new work for this solo show. Ikens' recent work grapples with diverse issues such as environmental sustainability, the awkward merging of Eastern and Western cultures, historicism, and child labor.
Artist Curt Ikens

Artist Curt Ikens /Courtesy of UICA

Underwriting support from:

Learn more about Curt Ikens hereSee Curt Iken's work at UICA as part of Enmeshed on view Jan 19, 2018 – Mar 18, 2018.

Art by Curt Ikens

Art by Curt Ikens /Courtesy of UICA

Art by Curt Ikens

Art by Curt Ikens /Courtesy of UICA

Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts invites you to learn more about West Michigan's creative workforce, neighboring cultural organizations, and about ways to engage with Grand Rapids' art-scene with interviews and guest features highlighting our local and regional community members. Visit uica.org/learn for monthly interviews.

Tell us about yourself, Curt.

I was born and raised in Michigan, where at the age of ten I began working alongside my father installing, sanding and finishing wood floors. The experience established a strong work ethic in me and ultimately provided the financial means to attend university where I first earned a BS in Computer Science. I went on to work as a systems engineer specializing in computer graphics at Ford Motor Company. Unfulfilled in a corporate world, I gave notice at the conclusion of a particularly laudatory performance review that happened to fall on April Fools Day of my thirteenth year of employment. I was setting out to become an artist; my manager thought I was joking.

Having already earned a second bachelor’s degree (a BFA in Fine Art from Eastern Michigan University) during the evenings while working at Ford, I set about obtaining an MFA from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. In addition to numerous group exhibitions, I have had solo shows at Jersey City Museum, Hunterdon Museum of Art, Windows on Columbus, Domo Gallery and even once previously here at UICA. I have been awarded a Sculpture Fellowship from New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and the Emerge Fellowship from Aljira – A Center for Contemporary Art. I now live in Queens and maintain a studio in Brooklyn.

How would you describe your work? 

Over the years my work has varied widely in content and form, moving from printmaking to sculpture in paper and other materials, and now on to bamboo and wood.

In my latest body of work, I return to my roots in wood flooring construction. The work primarily consists of sculptural paintings and installations referencing traditional European parquet floor patterns. By employing dyes, stains and traditional finishes, I coax Asian-sourced bamboo flooring planks to mimic timeworn antique wood. But then things start getting strange. Absurdly aggressive hand scraping, bold splashes of color, meandering misaligned edges, and incongruous arrangements interrupt and violate the orderly geometric repetition and natural hues expected of classic parquets. The works suffer further defacement through abrading of the finish, breakage, erratic scratches and unskillfully scrawled words. Ultimately, a patina of heavy foot traffic, neglect and vandalism is oddly manifested in a vivid and vibrant palette. 

Who or what has been the biggest single influence on your way of thinking? 

If pressed to identify the single biggest influence on my thinking, I suppose that that would fall on my older brother, Glenn. He was my guide through childhood and into adulthood. Only two years older, but always wise beyond his years - innately just, creative and just a little bit smarter than I could ever hope to be. Since we’ve always shared nearly indistinguishable values, temperaments, interests and convictions, he refers to us as “twins born two years apart." My mother was also a crucial force in my development, encouraging healthy skepticism, and trust in my unique abilities, perspective and interpretations.

Do you have a piece of work which stands out in your mind as something you are exceptionally proud of or that is particularly important to you?

The piece that I created for my MFA thesis show was a great personal achievement. It was a mechanized piece titled Lil’ Boltzmann in the Reading Room in which I addressed life and learning as counter forces (however weak and outmatched) to the ubiquitous entropy permeating the universe. By effectively unifying concept and artistic expression, I was finally able to convince myself that I was truly deserving of the title “fine artist."

What new projects do you have on the horizon? 

After spending several months creating the two large scale works included in the Enmeshed exhibition, I am looking forward to making a series of small pieces using bamboo veneer mounted on various flooring substrates, allowing for rapid investigation of new compositions, forms, materials and methods. 

I’m also itching to get back to work on a series of wall pieces where I am exploring dynamic splashes of color with words and fragments of phrases scratched into the surface of the planks.

What do you want others outside of the creative workforce to understand about careers within the arts? 

An artist must have great confidence in the value of the artistic pursuit itself, because the monetary rewards for most artists’ efforts are not likely be great enough to sustain themselves. An artist’s measures of personal success are different than those working in most other occupations. Of course we desire to achieve success in the marketplace, but any artist of merit is not willing to compromise their personal artistic vision to gain it. A true artist would rather struggle and sustain prolonged hardship than sacrifice the integrity of their expression in order to appeal to a larger audience. 

How can communities, specifically Grand Rapids, better support the creative workforce? 

I must confess that I am not familiar with the particular issues confronting the Grand Rapids artists community, but I would assume that they face much the same difficulties as artists in other cities across the country. Encouraging artists and creative professionals to settle in the city by developing programs to offer reduced pricing for housing and studio spaces should be a top priority. There is abundant evidence that neighborhoods occupied by creatives will enhance property values and draw people from outside these neighborhoods to participate in the local economy.

Opportunities for artists to make proposals for both temporary and permanent public art installations and events benefits all by increasing community exposure to art and allows the artists an outlet for expression, while building their professional resumes. Local merchants should be encouraged to offer financial support, ad hoc exhibition spaces, artist residency workspaces and walls for murals, since they are sure to profit from the influx of visitors to their neighborhoods.

What are you passionate about besides your work?

Since many people note their religious faith when posed with such a question, I will start by stating that I am a proud atheist with a conviction that is equally as strong as the convictions of theists.  

Secondly, since I’m constantly seeking to better understand this strange world through reading and podcasts spanning a vast range of topics, I guess learning would also have to be regarded as one of my passions.

And last, but certainly not least, I absolutely love cycling. Not competitive or organized cycling, but riding itself - for the sake of the experience. I have been fortunate to be able to structure my life in such a way that riding my bicycle can be part of daily living, giving me great satisfaction and peace of mind.

What’s the best piece of advice you have heard and repeat to others? 

You only have one life to live, so choose it wisely, but remember you can always change your mind.

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