By Jeffrey V. Smith
M etal sculptor Gary Kragenbrink thinks art should be fun. Fun to make, and fun to view. His quirky creatures made from found, re-purposed junk metal provide enjoyment for collectors and admirers while providing him a creative outlet that he says keeps him alive.
“I just like making things. If I can make something that makes people smile—because my little creatures are kind of weird—that’s even better yet,” Kragenbrink said. “It’s nice to get compliments, which are almost as important to me as making money. Money isn’t everything, I just want to pay the bills.”
The Central City-based artist, who is recently retired and working on his craft much more diligently these days, got his start in metal working when he left the Air Force and went to work with his father at a boiler company in Michigan, where he grew up. While there, he learned to weld and everything that goes along with it. He didn’t know it at the time, but it was the beginning of his training in being a metal sculptor.
Although he didn’t have artistic aspiration at the time, he did find he liked creating things from found metal. “I made a number of little sailing ships out of metal from shop scrap,” Kragenbrink said. “That was my first experience in working with metal and making things.”
When the business relocated to Tennessee, Kragenbrink’s Colorado girlfriend convinced him return to here instead. Once in Colorado, he got a job at a place that rubber-lined tank cars. “We didn’t do much mechanical stuff., but I learned about sand-blasting there,” he said. Then he got a job with Public Service. “While I was learning how to do some more mechanical work, I worked with a couple of guys who helped me learn to weld better, use a cutting torch, do brazing and so forth,” he explained. “I made some bonsai trees, and things like that.”
During his 23 years at Public Service he did more mechanical work and power plant maintenance which led to building maintenance. “I was in a secure facility where we didn’t want any outsiders coming in to do contract work, so we learned everything from electrical, electronics, plumbing, pneumatics, welding, fabrication, building things, wiring for computers. We did everything,” Kragenbrink said.
He also worked for Central City for about eight years. “When I worked for the city, we had a big scrap metal pile and I got permission to take whatever I needed. In return I saved the city a lot of money by making things they would otherwise have to buy or make things using materials that they would have had to buy,” Kragenbrink said. He still lives in the city where he moved in 1987 and he and his wife Venette have raised nine kids (with 12 grandchildren).
According to artist, at this point he is a Jack of all trades, but a master of none. “I’ve had a lot experience in a lot of different things, but I like this the best. I like making things at my own pace,” he said. “I enjoy all aspects of the creative process. If there is a deeper meaning as to why I do this, then I guess it’s a form of therapy, both mental and physical,” he said.
Kragenbrink describes his handmade work as “eclectic,” but explains he’s not a liberal artist, by training or avocation. “I’m a right-wing conservative artist, which is kind of strange and in a field by itself,” he said. “My work is not produced with the intent of making any political or social statement. I do not pretend to think my efforts are attempts to convey a serious message. I do try to infuse some pieces with a bit of humor, sometimes hidden, which adds interest.”
His metal is mostly “scrounged” or otherwise acquired on the cheap or for trade. He’s gotten metal from the Central City Opera and the Bill Russell estate among others. “I’ve collected stuff from everywhere. Anything I see laying around that looks interesting I try to pick up; oddball pieces of metal more than anything else,” he said.
He began making animals and odd beings when he started crafting birds from old garden spades by putting wings, feet and a beak them, “then went in a lot of different directions.” He now creates all sorts of imagined creatures, big and small, along with lamps, “forever” roses and other assorted creations.
While the artist says he couldn’t live on his art sales, he does like to “help the kids” and maybe go to Hawai’i once in awhile. “It’s just something to keep me occupied, so I don’t die like a lot of other people who retire and have nothing to do because their job was everything,” he said. He also fills his time doing more straight-forward welding work and other projects around the house.
Kragenbrink’s art can be found at the Gilpin Art Washington Hall Gallery in the summer and Mountain Tool and Feed, 2195 E Idaho Springs Road, where the Central City Parkway meets Interstate 70. Look for his work at the Tommyknocker Craft Fair at the Teller House in Central City, Dec. 6-7, and the Winter Arts Festival at the Gilpin Community Center, Dec. 19. He also says, if anyone drives by his studio in Central City and sees his door open, they are welcome to stop. “I’m always up for a break,” he said.
Visit http://www.nanicreations.com to see his work and to learn more. Contact Krangenbrink by phone at 720-939-9590 or by mail at P.O. Box 188, Central City, CO 80427 with questions or to purchase his work.
Originally published in the October 2014 MMAC Monthly