Sculptor Kevin Box transforms fragile paper art into enduring bronze
By Gussie Fauntleroy
Back before he was elected the youngest member of the National Sculptors’ Guild at age 27, Kevin Box was talking one day with the guild’s executive director, John Kinkade. Box’s striking, unconventional art was stirring up a buzz, and other sculptors had been asking Kinkade, “Have you met this kid?”
When they finally met, Box began ticking off the list of steps he had deliberately taken during the previous few years to learn to create large-scale pieces and to establish his best chances of being offered commissions for public art: First, work in a foundry and learn as much as possible about the hands-on process of casting bronze. Use the opportunity to mentor with experienced sculptors whose work the foundry is casting. Experiment and discover techniques best suited for his particular artwork. Finally, become familiar with the market to understand where various sculptural genres and styles are well received.
When Box finished speaking, Kinkade stared at him in disbelief. The young artist had just listed all the steps Kinkade recommends to sculptors entering the field with an interest in producing public art. But no one had laid out such a clear path for Box; he discovered it, for the most part, by himself.
That’s the way it has gone with the Santa Fe-based sculptor’s meteoric rise in the world of art. He sees opportunities for learning and creative growth all around him, where others might not pick up on such signs. His perceptive eye, combined with inherent talent and intelligence, hard work, and a self-reflective nature, have led the 33-year-old artist to quickly become one of the most successful young sculptors in the country, both in the private collection/gallery world and in the realm of public art. An amiable personality and self-effacing sense of humor no doubt play into the equation as well. (“I talk a lot. My parents used to pay me to shut up. I never earned a penny, though,” he jokes.)
Clearly, one aspect of Box’s work that captures the attention of viewers, collectors, and fellow sculptors is its unusual initial medium: paper. Often in collaboration with other artists, he sculpts paper by folding it origami-style or by crinkling, crumpling, balling, unfolding, and shaping it. He then employs a special process he developed for casting paper sculpture in bronze. As he has worked on this approach over the years, a pair of questions has propelled much of his artistic exploration: How do you make a material as fragile and light as paper last forever? And at the same time, how do you endow heavy, durable bronze with the characteristics of paper?
When it comes to making paper last forever, it’s important to go back to Box’s boyhood in Bartlesville, OK, where his mother worked as an archivist. Charged with the preservation of important paper documents, she sometimes took her son to work to expose him to the archivist’s skills. “I’d put on white gloves and look at old documents and books. I learned about acid-free paper and archival processes,” he recalls. “Plus, I was exposed early on to the idea that paper has been the medium for capturing ideas, beliefs, and history for thousands of years.”
Interested in graphic design, Box attended a design program at Pratt Institute in New York City the summer after his junior year in high school. He wanted to find out if he really had talent or if he was just a big fish in a little Oklahoma pond. A flood of scholarship offers came his way. After studying design for a year at a technical school in Oklahoma, he accepted a scholarship to the School of Visual Arts in New York.
By his second year in college Box assumed he would pursue a career in graphic design. After all, he had interned for several summers with an uncle in graphic design and already was working on accounts for such heavyweights as Coca-Cola. Then something happened that changed the course of his life: He went to Greece.
The chance to study art history for three weeks in Greece came at a time when Box was particularly open to discovering his place in the bigger picture of life. “I realized that all the stories in art history, going back 25,000 years, were real,” he relates, even now expressing a sense of awe. “I realized that the dialogue of art, in a historical context, was what resonated with me.”
Back at school, Box switched to fine art, reassuring his family he could always fall back on graphic design if necessary to make a living. Having been introduced to the nationwide Art in Public Places program by instructor Alice Aycock, following graduation he set off on his first step toward creating public art by taking a job in a foundry in Atlanta. Then he moved to Austin, TX, where there were six foundries. Over the next few years he worked with or for all of them, becoming production manager at Deep in the Heart Art Foundry. While there, rather than accept a raise, he asked for free casting of his own work.
As a result Box was able to experiment with new techniques, eventually developing what he calls an “organic burnout” method of casting paper. The original paper sculpture is destroyed in the process, burned out within the ceramic mold, creating one-of-a-kind bronze pieces. With growing demand for his work, however, he now also produces a few limited editions each year.
Central to Box’s art is the act of collaboration. While bronze casting is inherently collaborative, he also frequently joins forces with other artists in the creative process, as well as with public and corporate officials in the commissioning of public and private work. Among artists with whom he has collaborated is his best friend and business partner, Santa Fe-based sculptor Warren Cullar. One result of their work together is ROCK, PAPER, SCISSORS, which reflects on the decision-making process as a playful act.
Box and Cullar are currently developing a public sculpture garden on a spectacular 35-acre piece of property they purchased south of Santa Fe. Known as the Garden of the Gods, the land has massive rock formations that emerged from the earth over geologic time. Through this otherworldly landscape, the team has built trails that will be dotted with outdoor sculpture by Box, Cullar, and other artists. The sculpture garden is scheduled to open by the summer of 2011.
Box and Cullar will share studio space there; Box and his wife, Jennifer, are also going to build a house and studio on the property. Working on plans for his new home, where he dreams of settling in, has inspired Box to create a sculpture series called NESTING CRANES. Russian olive branches from his land are used to cast bronze branches with which the “folded paper” cranes are building nests. Another series among the artist’s diverse work features freestanding dresses, a collaboration with his wife, who is a dance educator. Box initially tried folding and crumpling paper to create a “reclining figure” as inspired by Matisse, Picasso, and scores of other artists over the centuries. “Jennifer looked at the first one and said, ‘That’s great, but if you stand it up it looks like a dress,’” he recalls. “She said it looked like [dance legend] Isadora Duncan, so we titled it ISADORA’S DRESS.”
One of Box’s most creatively stimulating collaborations has been with Dr. Robert Lang, a world-renowned physicist, mathematician, and master origami artist who over the past 40 years has taken paper folding to unprecedented levels of complexity. Together he and Box came up with a paper buffalo representing the White Buffalo of Plains Indian legend, a centuries-old symbol of salvation and peace. Lang created the sculpture’s fold-pattern using a single sheet of paper, white on one side and brown on the other. Folded into a half-white, half-brown bison, the piece was cast in bronze and finished in both white and traditional bronze patinas.
While Box’s sculpture is visually engaging, he believes its most important aspect lies just below the surface in the realm of ideas and meaning. Works such as CENTER PEACE—a multi-part wall piece—for example, tell a common tale of life. Beginning with a smooth blank page, it moves to a balled-up sheet evocative of feelings of worthlessness or despair, and finally to a piece of paper on which the shape of a star begins to appear. “It’s all about being at peace within the process of life,” the artist observes.
“The greatest honor for me is that collectors and public places that own my work have enabled me to continue being creative, and it all contributes to the story that will be told for generations to come,” he reflects. “I’m as interested in the conversation with those people yet to be born as I am with people at the shows. That’s art history.”
Selby Fleetwood Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Columbine Gallery, Loveland, CO; Dolce Gallery, Telluride, CO; Lovetts Fine Art Gallery, Tulsa, OK; Marshall-LeKae Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ; Niemi Sculpture Gallery & Garden, Kenosha, WI; Phoenix Gallery, Park City, UT; Ramey Fine Art, Palm Desert, CA; Shadid Fine Art, Edmond, OK; Thornwood Gallery, Houston, TX; Vickers Collection, Aspen, Beaver Creek, and Vail, CO, and Sedona, AZ; www.outsidetheboxstudio.com.
Featured in July 2010