Out of the Woods: In Conversation with Aaron Spangler

Jun 6, 2017 12:37 pm

On June 10, the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden reopens to the public after two years of renovation and structural reinforcement. A partnership between the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board and the Walker Art Center, the Sculpture Garden is both a recreational area for visitors and a space for artists to take on new challenges; several artists made their first public projects on commissions from the Walker. Aaron Spangler joins their ranks as one of the six artists to make new work for the expanded Sculpture Garden. The Minnesota-based sculptor works primarily in wood, and his Bog Walker (2017)—a rippling, ruggedly lumpy abstraction slightly larger than human size, inscribed with runic lines and patterns—is his first bronze. It stands in a nook beside the museum, where the scattered geometry of the 2005 Herzog & de Meuron addition meets the brick monolith of the 1971 building designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes.

Spangler’s title sounds like a pun on the institution and its site. Refurbishment efforts were primarily aimed at strengthening the ground beneath the Sculpture Garden, which sits on a former marsh. (The Guthrie Theater once occupied the area where Bog Walker now stands, but the company moved to a new structure on a bank of the Mississippi River in the early 2000s because its old building was sinking.) The primordial area surrounding the park is consonant with Spangler’s work as a whole, which is inspired by encounters with wilderness. I met with the artist at the Walker ahead of the Sculpture Garden’s reopening to talk about the new commission and his life in rural Minnesota.


BRIAN DROITCOUR  The site of Bog Walker is interesting because the Walker has done a lot of new landscaping to complement the Herzog & de Meuron addition, including the creation of a new hill. Did you work with the Walker to choose the site? Did its shape influence the forms you generated?

AARON SPANGLER  They had a general idea. We worked on the exact placement, where three paths come together, and centered it on the wall of the museum, which really frames it. The site shaped my choice only in the sense that I wanted something organic to play off the angles of the building. It’s about ruralness and wilderness being pitted against modern urbanism.

DROITCOUR  How is the idea of ruralness realized in the work?

SPANGLER  When I lived in New York, I worked in bas-relief. Those pieces were more narrative and pictorial, dealing with breakdown of rural society and politics. It was something like commercial country music, which didn’t get created until people moved to the city, from a position of exile. In New York it made sense to make work on political, moral themes. When I started spending more time back here, I didn’t have that need anymore. The ruralness in my work now is more about the actual wilderness and my place in it. This sculpture is something new for me. It’s a beginning rather than an end.

DROITCOUR  Your older work has figuration in the carvings, whereas the forms in Bog Walker are more abstract. Is this part of the new direction you’re moving in?

SPANGLER  It is. Though I’m still using silhouettes of woodworking tools. I used to trace old tools to make a border, which became more abstract when I carved. Now I want to figure out how to make art that’s really out of the forest. My sense of how I am in the world is formed by my relationship to the woods. The forest has its own architecture. It has open spots and crowded spots. The height of the trees makes me think about older cities, like Brooklyn, where the buildings—the four-or five-story brownstones—are about the height of trees. There’s something about those proportions that always felt very natural to me. I’ve realized that the woods really informed my sense of being.

DROITCOUR  Bog Walker is situated near some groves of trees. Did that figure into your conception of it?

SPANGLER  A park is a containment of nature that’s pleasant for people. I’ve never really gotten that much out of parks. If I designed a park, I would plant poplar trees. The only way to kill a poplar tree is to let it die of old age. If you cut it, it stays alive. Little ones sprout from the stump-they call that “dog hair popple” up north. I’d let poplars grow in a half-acre section of the park, then have them cut down every forty years, so as soon as everyone gets used to the nice big trees, they are harvested in order for the park to stay alive 

People believe that they’re getting a true sense of nature at state parks, but those places are orchestrated. People get attached to old oak trees and think that is the height of what nature has to offer. But it isn’t. The height is the birth of the forest. They’re most alive when they’re new. When a forest reaches maturity, there’s very little underbrush. Fewer animals can exist there, fewer bugs. But as humans we think that’s really pleasant. We’re conditioned to that aesthetic, which probably goes back to English manors and John Muir and all that. But I think that the true forest is constantly dying and rebirthing and has this ferocity to it. It’s a beautiful thing.

DROITCOUR  You’ve been living in northern Minnesota for almost ten years now. Has that changed the way you think about the wilderness?

SPANGLER  I started out there. I first built the place that I live in now when I was twenty-three, twenty-four. It was very crude and very rough. I didn’t have electricity. The land was a jungle. I had to beat back the brush, get rid of bugs, and build a garden. Since then, the spot has definitely become more domesticated to myself and my needs. I had a neighbor who came over with a Bobcat to help me do some work, and he said an amazing thing to me. I kept saying, “Let’s open this up.” He said, “Aaron, the woods have to start somewhere.” I really thought about that: where in my realm do the domesticated things I’ve created, like the orchards and the garden, begin and end? I maintain trails for skiing and getting firewood because it’s too hard to get through the thick brush. Sometimes I abandon a trail and the woods take it right back. If I let my place go for a couple of years it would revert to hazel brush and chokecherry bushes.

DROITCOUR  Are you in touch with artisans and craftsmen in your area?

SPANGLER  I have good friends who are weavers. They grow their own flax, scrape it out, and make linen. But that’s a pretty recent phenomenon. I don’t really have an experience of rural craftsman around me who I identify with. There have always been chainsaw carvers making bears, eagles, and wizards. My main education was when I moved back north after college and worked at the sawmill, mostly with Native American guys and old Germans. That gave me an education about American history, the history of the area, and also about the woods, how forests grow, how to build things. It was my graduate school.

DROITCOUR  Are the forms you use in your sculpture related to that history?

SPANGLER  A lot of the shapes in my work come from old tools, from the early pioneer days. I don’t even know what they’re for. I find them in junk stores, make stencils, and use them to make designs.

DROITCOUR  So you spend more time in junk stores than museums of pioneer culture?

SPANGLER  They’re one and the same. You can go to the local historical society and find the same stuff they have in the back room of the junk store, though it’s in better shape. What do you need to work in the woods? Cant hooks, axes, saws, and things for farming and working with animals. It’s basic stuff that people use all over the world, for breaking raw material down into things that people need to function.

DROITCOUR  Your work faces a bench sculpture by another Minnesota artist, Kinji Akagawa, who you took classes from at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. What did you learn from him?

SPANGLER  Kinji has a great pedagogical style. He wants to learn from you. There’s a give and take. He’s a beautiful soul in that way. When I was in art school, I was not a craftsman at all. I just made stuff out of junk. It was kind of about war, as if I was playing army and making weapons out of stuff. I started carving almost by accident. I wanted to make murals on the side of a building that I’d made out of junk. I started using a carpenter’s chisel and it just sucked me in. I just got obsessed with it. Then I got a job at the sawmill, where I learned how to get good lumber out of a log. There’s an art to it. The old guy that I worked for said there are sawyers and there are wood butchers. A sawyer knows how to get the optimum board out of the log based on the nature of the log.

DROITCOUR  Bog Walker is your first work in bronze. How did you approach that? What did you learn from it?

SPANGLER  When we were doing the patina on the bronze, I kept thinking about how it would look outdoors. I know what my wood sculptures look like outside. But I hadn’t realized how the play of light on bronze is much more nuanced than the way light hits a piece of wood. I’m still absorbing what I learned from that process. I’d like to learn more.