A couple of them, actually.
One rests on a tall monolith with hieroglyphics carved into the side. Another, with a rock in its beak, perches on a long table. Two raven chicks face each other, their tiny talons squared off.
These are some of the clay, terracotta and bronze sculptures by the artists behind Larson Clayworks.
Pat enters their 16-by-20 studio with a cooler of apple cider, made from the fruit of a nearby tree. “We’re always running behind, so the story of our lives,” she says.
The entryway, where the various ravens roam, was intended to be a summer space, said Ken.
It evolved into a “terrible mess” of a wood shop. Now, they’ve updated it to be a show area housing their erosion wall tiles, a tortoise shell box, mid-sized terracotta monoliths — all made by the couple.
Step into the back area, and there’s a wood stove, hanging plants basking before wide windows, setting an outdoor scene of birch trees and snow-covered lawn.
Random unmarked clay-covered plastic jars. A metal bowl with whisks, a toothbrush, spatula. Many water bottles, sponges and brushes with unintended uses.
Ken Larson works on a sculpture that includes a dragonfly. (Steve Kuchera / firstname.lastname@example.org)
A couple of covered pieces dried on the table, a dropdown shade shielding them from the sun.
Storage racks filled with molds of wings, birds, dragonflies. “Ninety percent of those should be trashed or put into storage,” he said.
They hand-make their molds, which allows the artists to recreate original works and keep the costs at a manageable level while still making a profit, they said.
The artists’ workspaces are within feet of each other.
Seated at a long table, Pat ribbed inconsistencies out of a heron sculpture. At his nearby small desk, Ken used a wire brush to add detailing to a rectangular erosion sculpture.
Their inspiration is pulled from nature, trees, canyons, birds — influenced by the places they’ve been, largely on backpacking and camping trips. “We’ve seen things that nature has taken millions of years to sculpt, that if you put them in a modern art museum, people wouldn’t think them out of place,” said Ken.
The Larsons met at the University of Minnesota Duluth. They graduated, married, started looking for a house to fix. It was 1975, and the options were minimal. “It was either stuff that should’ve been burned down or just way out of our price range,” said Ken.
They ended up purchasing on his original family homestead.
Their studio has seen many iterations. They’ve expanded it several times, they moved the kiln to a nearby shed, where there’s one for raku firing.
They start by forming a slab roller on a potter’s wheel. They assemble, augment, clean and dry for a week before firing.
For raku, they’ll fit many pieces in for one load, and Ken will remove from the kiln that’s heated to about 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit. They add sawdust and wood shavings. Carbon dioxide smothers the fire, and carbon gets absorbed into clay surface.
They moved onto raku decades ago, a learning process that resulted in “too much driveway filler.” After a year though, they had a new body of work.
“As an artist, you’re trying to find this combination of what works for other people, but not sell out completely and make it your own and things that you’re interested in, as well,” said Ken.
They’ve done bowls, canisters, mugs. “We stopped making wine goblets when I fell asleep making wine goblets,” he said.
They wanted to make their process more efficient. “Otherwise, the process is going to eat you up,” Pat said. While they’ve added to their skill set over the years, adding bronze work to their repertoire would be a bigger investment in a space that doesn’t easily allow it.
So, they work with contractors for their bronze — someone who assembles, invests and pours it, someone who cleans and sandblasts the metal.
Creating over the years is tough on the body. By the time they’re done working with 300 pounds of clay, they’ve handled it four or five times, they said.
Finding efficiencies, like molds, has helped, and they added a hydraulic table for lifting and maneuvering their larger pieces.
“Our years doing this has been a lot of reinventing ourselves,” added Pat.
The Larsons art is often influenced by things they see on backpacking and camping trip. They began adding ravens to their art several years ago when the birds moved into the area near Larsons’ home. (Steve Kuchera / email@example.com)
They started sculpting ravens about 20 years ago because they have a population that lives near their home. They received such positive feedback, they continued.
People share stories about experiences with the birds. One-on-one interaction, the “synchronicity that happens” with the public is why they continue showing at art fairs.
Their raven pieces, tool use and how communicative their sculptures are are all assets, along with their “beautiful and sculptural storytelling facets,” said Waters of Superior gallery manager Aubrey Danielson. She has worked with the Larsons for many years, and the space has shown their work since 2002.
“There are blackbirds and crows and then there are ravens. They’re different than a bird. They watch the animals, they know a natural kill situation to look for the buzzards and follow the wolves. I can see how they would have been captivated by them,” she said.
The Larsons bring different skills, and they share a sure partnership within their craft.
As partners in business, art and life, the Larsons get along well, they said, amid a joke about throwing clay.
Once in awhile, they have to take a deep breath and speak up if a piece could be improved.
“I’ll tell her, and she grumbles,” Ken said.
“And then, I do it,” she said.
“She does it with me, too. The grumbling is obligatory.”
“Sometimes, you’ll see something from across the room the person right in front of it doesn’t,” Pat added.
It’s a lot of work, and you better love the work, she added.
You have to have the creative drive to start. Then, the validation from a good show, and you’re just flying, said Ken.
Of art itself, Pat said it help define where we’re at. “All the ancient civilizations, the Greek, Roman, Etruscan and prehistoric, there isn’t much left of them but their artwork, so I think art is so important to the culture that it’s growing with, and as a legacy.
“Everything else just seems to disappear, but the artwork lives on.”
ARTIST SPACES is a series featuring artists and where they live or work. If you are an artist or know an artist with a space worth showcasing, send your info to Melinda Lavine at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Several of the Larsons’ creations sit on a shelf in their studio. (Steve Kuchera / email@example.com)
See their work:
- Waters of Superior, Duluth
- Sivertson Gallery, Grand Marais
- Ripple River Gallery, Aitkin, Minn.