Lassie, Bing Crosby, the Statue of Liberty, neon signs — these are just a few of the items to catch the eye in a new Willem Volkersz show, “Short Stories,” opening tonight at Turman Larison contemporary gallery.
Volkersz, a longtime Bozeman artist, gives a gallery talk at 5 p.m., with a reception following from 6 to 8 p.m.
“Short Stories” is a glimpse into American culture in the 1950s and ’60s through the fresh eyes of the artist, shortly after he emigrated from Amsterdam to the United States after World War II.
Hitchhike with 16-year-old Volkersz as he heads down the California coast and across the country in his $20 — yes $20 — 1939 Plymouth to see a fresh, new world.
His sculptures, many of them wooden suitcases, merge paint-by-number canvases, glowing neon, cultural icons and kitschy curios.
While most of the works feature the American landscape, one of his favorites is “Vincent in Paris.” A paint-by-number-inspired street scene of Paris adorns the side of a wooden suitcase. Arranged in front of it, a small postcard portrait of Vincent Van Gogh and a shot glass. Perched atop the suitcase, a jaunty red-gowned hussy (actually a salt shaker) next to an Eiffel Tower souvenir.
Projecting from the street scene, the golden neon outline of Van Gogh’s signature hat.
“I make the suitcase first,” Volkersz said of his process. Then, he painted in the Paris square and drilled holes to add the neon shape. Volkersz designs the neon works, but has them made by professional sign makers. (All the electronic wiring disappears neatly into the suitcase interior.)
Then Volkersz secures the suitcase to a custom wooden shelf he’s made and glues the perfect curio accessories in place to complete his short story. “It’s all a single piece,” he said of the compact multi-media sculpture.
“Vincent is a real favorite because of Vincent being Dutch,” he said. “I grew up seeing his paintings.” Van Gogh has also been an inspiration to many an artist.
“The suitcase is my metaphor for my love of travel,” Volkersz said. And the paint-by-number paintings speak to him of that particular post-war era of America. “It’s become my aesthetic.”
While some of the works merely amuse — like Bing Crosby perched in front of a neon Old Faithful in “Bing Crosby Visits Yellowstone,” others emotionally resonate. In “Immigrant’s Dream,” Volkersz stacked together wooden luggage at what appears to be haphazard angles. But on each exposed corner of a case are glimpses of different daydreams — the Seattle waterfront, a Midwestern farm, a barefoot boy with a fishing pole sitting on a stream bank. Atop it all, the Statue of Liberty.
It depicts “what an immigrant might be dreaming of,” said Volkersz.
The lighthearted “Short Stories” sculptures grew from a compelling series of more somber works, “When I Was a Boy.” These also featured wooden suitcases, depicting growing up in Amsterdam during World War II.
One work he created, “In Memoriam” was 173 suitcases, each labeled with the name of a child, the child’s age, and where he or she had been killed. All of them were students at his Amsterdam grade school and had been killed during the Holocaust. The sculpture toured the country and may be sent to the Jewish History Museum in Amsterdam.
Volkersz admits he needed to shift to happier themes in his art, thus returning to his love of pop culture.
“I well remember first encountering the huge Paul Bunyan sculpture at California’s “Trees of Mystery,” handmade Uncle Sam mailboxes along rural highways, and Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser iconically represented on billboards,” he writes in his artist statement. “It is these early road trips and the vibrant and yet disjointed vitality of America’s cultural and commercial landscape that I invoke as my inspiration for these sculptures.”
Volkersz, a former board member of the Holter Museum of Art, is the retired director of the Montana State University School of Art. He earned painting degrees at the University of Washington and Mills College.