Van's World July 2006

An Artist at Work
A Working Artist
Working Artist Blues
Living Outside the Cubicle
It's Hard Out Here for an Artist
It's Hard Work Being a Working Artist
The Life of a Working Artist
Whoop that Artist!

 by Van Miller 

Behind Kit Kube's NoDa studio/workshop a stainless steel barrel rolls almost silently in the night. A yellow light emits from its' interior. A green LCD light held in place by a steel arm is aimed at the front of the barrel. The slow, deliberate roll of the barrel creates a liquid movement of blended light and shadow which crawls up and down the wall. The piece, about 6' wide and 2' in diameter, hovers  just a couple inches off the cement pad. It's held up by a steel pipe which rests on two solid packing crates, the contents of which  would stop any customs agent cold, and elicit a "What in the Sam hell?" in any language. They hold some of Kube's completed kinetic sculptures, which could easily be mistaken as spare parts for nuclear devices or weapons of mass destruction. This piece has been rolling in place for 5 months, ever since Kube finished it. He keeps it running to work the bugs out. So far he has replaced the belts that connect the motor to the steel barrel, and tweaked the balance and adjusted the tolerance, but for months now it has run faithfully. It was commissioned by CATS for $15,000.00 to be installed 11 feet off the ground at the Huntersville Northcross park and ride. During the day it will be an interesting stainless steel cylinder turning slowly near a cement wall, but at night or early in the morning, when most people use the park and ride,  colored light and shadow will, blend, bend and undulate against the ceiling, floor and wall. That's the beauty of these pieces they are interesting as inanimate objects, but they are multi layered. There's piece itself, the movement, and the light. It's a spectacle without any hidden tricks. It was supposed to be installed last January, but the project is running behind, so while Kube works in his studio on other projects this sculpture rolls. A lot has happened to Kube since this piece was commissioned back in July 2004. He lost his job, and his health insurance. He completed an artist residency in California and shown his work publicly a few times. In the meantime, he's working--always working--on his art. Kube's a kinetic artist, a sculpture, a tinkerer by nature. A man fascinated by light and shadow, and the contrast between cold steel and warm light.

I first met Kit Kube back in 2002 at a Moving Poets 6/15 production that we were both participating in. Mine was a dance/video/narrative piece about a homeless shelter. He was imploding metal barrels on stage as dancers used his soap bubble contraptions to cast iridescent shadows against the stage backdrop. We were both there for a run through rehearsal which was mayhem because there were 6 different pieces running with different cast, light & music cues. No time to waste on nuances, just run it through to make sure the mechanics are in place. My first impression of Kit was a nervous sweaty guy, but then I realized I too was nervous and sweaty. He was maybe a little too quiet, but then everyone thinks I'm "weird" quiet. After some small talk,  we realized we were neighbors, and had been for a few years. He lived right behind me. Only one of those old unpaved alley ways used by garbage and coal men ages ago separated our houses. Now we stand out in that alley like Hank Hill and Boonhauser, clutching wine glasses and monosyllable philosophizing  about art, culture and ideas. Sample dialogue:

"Werner Herzog" "
Aguirre the Wrath of God?"
"Seen it."
"umm hummm."

Kube came to art as a refuge. Raised in a large family--4 boys and 6 girls-- here in Charlotte.  He attended St. Anne's Catholic school, where at an early age a learning disability was detected. He was held back in the first grade, because of a reading problem--inverted numbers and letters. It was dyslexia he jokes today that he thought his name was Tik), but this was back in the 60's so diagnosis was vague. His problem was blamed on a wandering eye, so he was fitted with a pair of glasses with one red lens and put through bizarre crawling exercises. Later, he was failing 4th grade, but a teacher struck a deal with him. If he attended summer school and did well, he would move up into the 5th grade. That Summer he received one on one attention, using flash cards with reading and verbal retention exercises. He performed remarkably.  But on the first day of school, when he lined up with the 5th graders, in front of the whole school, he was told to get back with the 4th graders. No warning, no explanation. "I felt like I had no support. I don't think I ever got over that blow to my self esteem.".  Always a solitary person, he sought refuge in the creek behind his house. He explored every detail and became fascinated by water spiders, and the shadows they would cast on the creek bottom, and how the light would shine off the top of the water, and how it would bend and ripple underwater. He loved to tinker. Rummaging through dumpsters looking for pieces of machinery, like Dictaphones, then taking them home and dismantling them, keeping them next to his bed falling asleep with his hands in the guts of the machine, and waking up to tinker more. The concept of infinity intrigued him and the fact that there was a symbol for it made his mind race with possibilities.

About a year ago, I rode with Kube in his gray 1993 Volvo station wagon, pulling an 8' trailer to a metal scrap yard in North Charlotte. We were on a "prospecting expedition". Kube is quiet, even tempered, a good listener but can tell a good story and generous with laughter. "They had a stack of these old stainless steel cylinders. If I don't get them now they'll disappear." The yard is piled with mangled steel, aluminum, old motors & generators, tangles of copper wire. Sharp angles infected with tetanus await soft flesh to tear. Kube spots a  large cylinder almost buried in the tangle. "Good thing we came today. It's the last one."  Kube climbs through the piles, like a kid in the creek--searching. He knows a good piece and how he can use it when he finds it. The guys that work in the yard used to roll their eyes at the weird artist who was actually buying metal from them as opposed to selling. Kube shows them photos of his work though, and so the guys like him and seem interested. One of them forklifts the 700 pound cylinder, onto the trailer. These found objects are the lifeblood of Kube's work. He relies on discarded objects, then he adapts them into integrated, finely tooled, kinetic pieces. If he had to have a piece like this made it would cost a fortune. He tracked down the manufacturer of this stainless steel cylinder. It originally was a dewatering device used to separate liquids from solids. It has thousands of hair thin(.002 of an inch) slits which let water through. Kube will shine light through them. New, it cost $5,000.00 and was made in Princeton, West Virginia, and sold to a company in Chicago, but ended up in the scrap heap because of nonpayment. Kube paid $700.00 for it.

Kube always had a knack for building things. In junior high school he was building furniture in wood shop and selling it. In high school when most teenagers were cutting class hanging out smoking pot and drinking beer, Kube was skipping to help out over at the Nature Museum. After high school he attended CPCC, then got a job at Discovery Place building exhibits. In 1983 he was invited for a one month internship with The Exploratorium in San Francisco. Kube loved it. "It was a life changing experience, blew open a whole new world. Teaching science through exhibits. Technology and art integrated. Things were happening there that weren't happening anywhere in the world."  Under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer (younger brother of Frank Oppenheimer--father of the atom bomb), The Exploratorium brought in the best talent from around the world. Kube was surrounded by people who shared his passion. "It was a place of informal science education and people were very generous with thoughts and concepts." One of the other interns was Ned Kahn. Today a world famous kinetic artist. He has two wind sculptures here. One on the Gateway parking deck and another on the Holiday Inn parking deck behind Bobcat's Arena. Kube found his niche in building interactive science exhibits. He knocked around, working in Stockholm at the Swedish Museum of Science, and at the Science Museum in Roanoke, Virginia.

In 1989 Kube was recruited to work at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul. He considers the ten years he spent there to be the peak of his career. The challenge was great and he rose to it with enthusiasm. The basic concept of the museum was that great industrial design and engineering make it simple for the user. The harder they work the easier for the viewer. Kube became the lead prototyper. The workshop area was a positive environment, and the criteria open ended, with multi-outcome design features. The intent was always to build something that would easily reach the viewer and provide easy comprehension. His exhibits are still there. One called Double Dutch: two long ropes swinging in unison from a 50 foot ceiling. A working scale model of the Mississippi River lock system. And one piece called Aerie is a perfect blend of art and science. It is set up in the Atrium of the new science museum, an area with 50 foot ceilings and floor to ceiling windows overlooking the Mississippi. Three shrimp nets, supported by inverted 10-12 foot wide beach umbrella frames hang from the ceiling. There are six stations from which the viewer can launch  ping pong balls using forced air, up into the nets, which look like nests (Kube got the idea after seeing eagles nests on the river). The nets are set on a timer so the 500 balls will rain back down into the net hanging over the station. The freedom of these pieces sparked a passion to create his own art. In 1999 the museum opened a new 96 million facility. The new prototyping workshop was in a windowless gray room, that Kube found depressing. He was getting burned out, so he made the conscience decision to break from the museum and begin the life of an artist.

He applied for a residency at the McColl Arts Center. He didn't get it, but was asked to apply for a job as studio manager, which would be a good way to get his foot in the door. He took the job even though he would be making $15,000 less and fewer benefits than his previous job, but he had decided to make art a way of life. His job was to interface with visiting artists, keep their studios working, help them find what they needed in the Charlotte area. He enjoyed the interface, exchanging ideas. The artists liked working with somebody who understood their needs and was resourceful and intelligent. Within six months however due to a budget crisis The McColl changed his title to facility manager, which meant that he was now facility manager/janitor/mechanical engineer & artist liaison. He worked 40 "real  job" hours a week and nights & weekends he worked on his art, and showed his work here and there.  In 2002 he did his Moving Poets 6/15. The Poets then began integrating his work into all of their shows. In the meantime he applied for many ASC Grants, but they are few and far between, and you can't apply every year. He poured his saving into his work, buying surplus machines, tools, motors and scrap metal. In 2005 Kube was invited to a 2 month residency at The Grand Central Arts Center at Cal State Fullerton in Santa Ana, California. He asked the McColl Center for a leave of absence, even found somebody qualified to replace him while he was gone. But instead they fired him. His success in the art world had knocked him out of a "real job." The icing on the cake is made of lard. In California, he worked with graduate students, and created a portable studio made of plastic that was held up with box fans. The center paid to transport 7 seven of his pieces for a one man show, and printed a 4 color booklet about his work. It was worth all the trouble.

Pallas Lombardi the Program Director for CATS Arts-in-Transit Project added Kube to her slide registry of 600 artists from across the country. "Kit's a very interesting artist, he's self taught he has an intuitive ability." The community of Huntersville requested something different, more contemporary and abstract for their Park & Ride. Artists for public art projects are chosen by a jury of 3-5  working art professionals. For this project the selection was narrowed down to only Southeastern artists. The panel looked at more than 100 different slides. They selected Kit Kube because of his light works, and his science museum background which would help insure that the pieces were safe, simple and vandal proof.  He found a good place with public art. He works well with other people. "You can't claim 100% ownership because it's a collaborative team." Kube has had to met with everybody involved from the Architects to the Police Department. Lombardi adds, "Everybody has to leave their egos at the door. It's more like what can we do for each other." Architect Greg Grueneich designed the Park and Ride while working with Neighboring Concepts. He met with Kit before conceptualizing and found the idea very interesting, so he designed the shelter to maximize the light effects. "Kit really wanted the light to roll unbroken, so we gave him a concave space." 

As I write this the Northcross Park and Ride exit 25 off I-77 is a construction site. It smells of fresh laid asphalt. Large machinery rumbles around spewing diesel smoke from their manly stacks. Construction workers spit and cuss as the hot sun scrambles their skin cells. A group of landscapers dig holes for maple trees. The parking lot sweeps down toward the sheltered waiting area. A modern looking structure with four small gray metal overhead wave shaped awnings supported by steel posts painted Panther blue (PANTHERS!!!)and anchored on a large concrete bunker like structure which will be a storage and restroom area for bus drivers. A massive metal wave covers the bunker creating a big protected cove area. Up in the top reaches of this cove is where Kit Kube's sculpture which he's titled "Constructive Interference" will roll and mesmerize commuters. On the other side of the shelter will be another stationary cylinder, standing up like a rocket. It too will broadcast light. This whole project is tax money well spent: A Park and Ride to relieve the congestion on our overburdened air polluting freeways. An innovative design for the shelter waiting area. And a world class kinetic sculpture to trigger intelligent contemplation.

Charlotte is just too hip these days. It will be installed by the time this is ink on glossy paper.

1109 E. 34th Street
Charlotte, NC  28205
(704) 373-0901
Email Kit
2004 Kit Kube. All rights reserved.
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