Kevin Kratz doesn’t have to look far for his artistic inspiration, the Selkirk College blacksmith instructor gets the creative juices flowing by simply going for a walk out his back door.
A resident of Pass Creek in the Slocan Valley, Kratz has two of his pieces featured in sculpture walks around the West Kootenay this summer. The Castlegar SculptureWalk features Northern Leopard Frog and the Nelson SculptureWalk is showcasing Fir Cone.
Kevin Kratz stands in front of his entry into Nelson’s 2014 SculptureWalk. Titled Pine Cone, the three-foot high metal piece can be found in Nelson’s downtown on Baker Street.
“I got the inspiration for the piece [Fir Cone] while out for a morning walk,” says Kratz. “The symmetry of the cone, the relative perfection of it, made me want to recreate it on a larger scale. There is beauty all around us and it’s found in everything. Often an object many would not even stop to consider lends itself to re-creation and realization in metal.”
A Long Way from the Kootenay
Kratz forged his love of creating objects out of metal in a world away from the mountain surroundings he now calls home. Growing up in metropolitan Toronto, Kratz is a first generation Canadian whose German father owned a tool and die business.
Starting in the family business when he was 12, Kratz learned how to work with his hands and create objects used in everyday life from signs at airports to the molds which specialized beer bottles are created. As he progressed through his teens, the appeal of the industrial nature of his father’s business began to be wane as Kratz began to seek out the more artistic avenues of working with metal.
Kratz's Fir Cone is currently being featured in Nelson's SculptureWalk on Baker Street.
When he was 26, Kratz followed his passion west and ended up in the Slocan Valley where artistic creativity flows as free as the spring tributaries that fill the region’s rivers and lakes. Building on his blacksmithing skills and finding work that allowed him to explore his love of creating, Kratz has managed to carve out a living as a working artist for many years.
“There isn’t a tonne of money in it, but tonnes of joy and freedom,” says Kratz. “Blacksmithing and art making is not a way to make a living… it’s just a way to live.”
Passing on Skills and Knowledge
Nelson’s Kootenay Studio Arts (KSA) is the region’s ultimate melting pot of artistic potential and expression. In 2000, Kratz got the call from KSA to help develop skills for a new generation of artists in the school’s Blacksmithing Studio.
“I’m not a trained teacher, I’m an artist,” says Kratz. “Making the transition to explaining myself to people was really difficult. Usually I just do stuff without having to explain to anybody. That’s not good enough for students; they need to know how you got there, what tools you used and what skills were applied. Now you have these kids clambering for ideas and you have to take a step back to explain the pathway.”
Wildly popular with students, Kratz manages to use a more fundamental approach built on the philosophy of his hard working German father to pass on the roots of what he is teaching.
“I make students do everything the hard way,” he explains. “If they want to work at the anvil, they need to make tools for the anvil. If they don’t have a hammer, they have to make one. Some of them say: ‘that’s not art.’ No, that’s the trade. If you can’t do those things then you can’t make art.”
A Resurgence of Artistic Appreciation
Now 51, Kratz has spent four decades working with his hands. At times it’s been a struggle, but today he’s excited about where his chosen outlet has come. With public art and sculpture starting to become a mainstay on main streets in communities big and small, Kratz believes there is a shift in the way people view those who create.
Kratz was one of the area artists who helped contribute to the metal work featured at Nelson's Oso Negro.
“Artists used to be relegated to the scrap heap of society,” he says. “The money hasn’t changed that much, but definitely the feeling of the artist having a place at the table in the community has changed. Suddenly the artists’ way of thinking is important to even business structures. The creative thinkers have stepped up to the plate and have been accepted.”
Kratz’s work is certainly turning heads. In 2012, Kratz and his Ridgeline Metal Works partner James Karthein captured the Castlegar SculptureWalk People’s Choice Award for their piece titled Patient Hunter. Coming along with the title was the $15,000 purchase and permanent placement of the sculpture in Castlegar.
“It’s my way of communicating who I am in the world or what it means to be alive,” says Kratz. “If somebody takes that and is excited by it or understands my point of view… that’s the kicker.”
Future of Art School Looks Bright
Earlier in the spring, Selkirk College announced that Kootenay Studio Arts programming will be expanded and new opportunities created. The Blacksmithing Studio that Kratz heads up will see its four-month certificate program bolstered with the addition of a 10-month Sculptural Metal certificate that combines the Metal Casting Studio. There will also be an option to continue with a second year diploma stream after completion of the 10-month program.
“The new programming is going to give students a chance to make a body of work so that when they leave they have a portfolio to show prospective employers or clients,” says Kratz. “Depending on what kind of imagination you come here with, we can build on that. It depends on your personal background and you build your own identity as artists.”
Kratz is one again featured in the Castlegar SculptureWalk with the seven-foot Northern Leopard Frog which can be found on Columbia Avenue.
Adding more depth to the programming at KSA is another sign that today’s society values working artists.
“It’s not making horseshoes,” Kratz says with a chuckle. “People understand that blacksmithing includes sculpture, railings, gates and so much more. Functional work as well has having beauty.
“Suddenly everybody is going ‘heh, art is really cool again, we need sculpture.’ It’s been a real boost.”