INTERVIEW: A Conversation with Ken Vavrek

Ken Vavrek’s 40-year retrospective opened last Thursday in the List Gallery.  Vavrek, a retired professor at Moore College of Art and design, creates sculptural works that are reminiscent of antique Roman mosaics even as the bold forms echo modern artists such as Kandinsky.  I caught up with the artist before his lecture before Thursday’s opening reception, and got the inside scoop on his life and work.  “Ken Vavrek: Selected Works 1975-2015” runs until February 28, 2016.
Untitled 1213, 2013

I On the Arts: So my first question: how did you get started in your career as an artist? What made you decide to become an artist?

Ken Vavrek: I went to college and enrolled in the art education curriculum, because I thought I could learn enough about art that I could teach it, like in high school or middle school or something like that.  I was not thinking so much about becoming an artist—I was thinking about becoming an art teacher. [Well,] if you mess around in [art] long enough, you start thinking of yourself as an artist.

IOtA: You fall in love?

KV: Well, it’s a distinction about how you view your life. And eventually, I thought of myself as an artist who teaches; when I started [out] I was a teacher who could teach art.

IOtA: So did you dabble in art when you were a kid?

KV: Oh, as much as any other kid did. [When I was in high school,] I made mobiles.

IOtA: Oh, like Calder? 

KV: Yeah!

IOtA: Cool!

KV: When I was doing it, I was just making something that I enjoyed making, and it was a challenge that I was not thinking of as “great art”.  But I did eventually realize that what I was doing was pretty cliché, and that most of them were rip-offs of Calder… (laughs)

IOtA: It’s kind of hard to avoid that!

KV: Yeah (laughs)… After [that,] I went off to Case Institute of Technology to become an engineer. So I took a little path over [there,] and eventually got over to the art education path.

DK: So do you still draw upon your engineering training?

KV: No, I did my freshman year and then I dropped out […] And then I was out of school for a couple years. When I went back, I had gone through a succession of thoughts about what I was going to do, and I ended up going into art education, because during those two years [out of school] I was doing some teaching and I found I liked it […] so I have forty years of teaching, and I’ve been retired for twelve years—thirteen years, now. So the show that’s down there [in the List Gallery] is because I had that concentrated time that allowed me to develop more significantly.

DK: So this is a pretty broad retrospective, right, it’s from 1975 to 2015. How would you say your artwork has changed?

KV: Well, it’s changed quite a bit. I went through three periods in those forty years.

IOtA: Any “Blue” periods?

KV: No, but it starts off with the “Desert Period,” then “Sculptural Abstractions”; my current period I call “Pictorial Abstractions.”

IOtA: Can you talk about any teachers or mentors you had who might have been particularly influential?

KV: Certain artists were influential. My mentors, my teachers—that’s a long time ago. And they were important then […] but eventually I got to the point where I had assimilated all of that into myself and the way I worked.  So then, it would be a matter of which artists were doing something I felt in tune with in some way, and sometimes I would incorporate [them] and I wasn’t conscious of it, and sometimes I would play with it, consciously aware that I didn’t want to mimic it, but I wanted to see if I could use it.

IOtA: So which artists would those be?

KV: Frank Stella is one. He was doing minimalist [works] when he started off, and now he’s doing maximalist [works], so that was a very significant change.  And he is a mentor, in a sense, because I said, “if Frank Stella can change, I can change.” Of course, I would have changed even if Frank Stella hadn’t changed.

IOtA: Does he know he’s a mentor figure to you?

KV: (laughs) Oh, no… 

IOtA: What would you want someone who sees this show to take away?

KV: One of the things that I hope for when I go into my studio is that I’ll create something that day that gives me a boost the way art has given me a boost.  And then what I would hope for is that an audience member might get that boost from it.  There have been works of art that have just made my day—[art can be] effective as a positive force in a person’s life, and that’s one of the reasons you have an art department on this campus, and the reason why you have the Calder out there [by the Science Center], because everybody loves the Calder.  When you go by the Calder, you see it bouncing around in the wind—it’s dancing for you, and that’s kind of nice.