Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
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 like Kandinsky. I caught up with the artist before his lecture at 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.
Deborah Krieger: 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. If you mess around in art long enough, you start thinking of yourself as an artist.
DK: 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.
DK: 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.
DK: Oh, like Calder?
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)
DK: 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 now 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.
DK: Any “Blue” periods?
KV: No, but it starts off with the “Desert Period,” then “Sculptural Abstractions”; my current period I call “Pictorial Abstractions.”
DK: 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.
DK: 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.
DK: Does he know he’s a mentor figure to you?
KV: (laughs) Oh, no…
DK: 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.
Interview has been condensed and edited for flow.
Correction: We previously used “Kevin Vavrek”, instead of “Ken Vavrek”, which is the artist’s real name. Sorry.