Sculptor Tom Czarnopys says some of his earliest memories involve hunting and fishing in a national forest near his boyhood home in Michigan. “I remember when I was perhaps five years old, cutting ferns, helping my dad build deer-hunting blinds with a little red serrated pie knife. I still have memories of the smell of the soil, the sandy soil underneath the roots.”
His father and brother hunted deer with a bow and arrow. Far more difficult than using a gun, bow hunting requires that you get much closer to the animal, calling for greater knowledge of the woods. “We would miss most of the time. My dad started in the 1940s; I don’t think he got his first deer until the ’60s. Most people focus on the act of killing in hunting and fishing, which in terms of the entire process is a minuscule part of what’s involved. There’s the preparation, the scouting, all those days when the weather’s bad, the wind direction is wrong. Swirling winds alert the animals to your presence.”
By second grade, Czarnopys was drawing animals, fish, and birds. He also became interested in taxidermy. “It seemed a shame to me to throw out the beautiful plumage of a pheasant or a grouse,” he says. “I admired these animals, how well adapted they were; the appearance of pheasant and grouse and deer acts as camouflage, integrating them into their environment. I thought they were so beautiful.”
Czarnopys hadn’t seen much art. In high school, when his paintings and drawings were still in the Field & Stream style, he was first shown slides of work by Picasso and Calder. He still recalls his bewilderment and shock–“It’s not art.” Eventually, Czarnopys says, he began to realize that “really great art was about ideas,” and he started to seek out a “more complete integration of subject and its environment” in his paintings. One early work depicts a brook trout “underneath the water, with the trout’s form shattered by reflections, integrated into the stream.”
He spent years at the School of the Art Institute trying to find his own voice and “looking at really good art in museums.” It wasn’t until his senior year, in 1982, that he finally came “around full circle to what drove me to make things in the first place.” His teacher, painter Ray Yoshida, encouraged him to speak of his years spent hunting and fishing, and Czarnopys soon “started working with materials I took from up north–ferns, earth.” He began making hunting masks, then arrived at his first mature works after a key moment in Michigan. While bow hunting deer in “the same three square miles” his father had often taken him to as a child, he saw a number of fallen birches whose insides had rotted away, leaving tubes of bark. “I remember actually picking one up and kind of wrapping it around my forearm and taking another piece and wrapping it around a bicep. I felt like I was doing something significant; I didn’t necessarily know why. But I started to feel a relationship between nature and my body and wanted to start bringing things together.” Back in Chicago Czarnopys made the first of his full-size figurative sculptures, Birch Hunting Suit, in which he placed birch bark on a chicken wire armature “so it was like a hunting suit–or a second skin.” Soon he was making sculptures based on casts of his body, which he then covered with bark. He says these works were “about my impulse to locate myself in nature.”
In a 12-year overview of Czarnopys’s work currently at the Illinois Art Gallery, the bark surface of Burning Figure (1985) is partly covered with Monarch butterflies. In Untitled (With Grouse) (1985), the body is hollow, and a grouse appears to be emerging from its cavity, where the neck would be. “My dad shot the grouse,” he says. “I did the taxidermy.” While Czarnopys says there’s still a lot about these works he doesn’t understand, he points to “another major current in the work: the coexisting sense of decay and growth.” In the woods, growth depends on decay. “If you take a tree that has rotted out, it’s basically become a tree shape of sphagnum moss, and if you tear into it a little bit there’s nothing but root systems from all the things taking nutrients from it.”
Later Czarnopys began immersing plants in blocks of glycerine soap. A translucent tan, the soap suspends the plants, revealing those parts that are close to the block’s surface, partially concealing the rest. Leaves and stems appear enveloped in a kind of aura, their forms dissolving into the glycerine. Czarnopys liked the suggestion of amber, with its reference to fossils, and the biological look of glycerine, “an essential oil that plants and animals possess. It recalls a yolk sac, embryonic development, amniotic fluid. For me it was elemental, the basic stuff of life.” Now he drives his molds–the plants secured within them–up to a factory in Toronto. “I have to talk my way past the border guards to get all these plants and ragweed and all this stuff you’re not supposed to bring across the border,” Czarnopys says. “When it’s first cast you can only see maybe a quarter of an inch into it and then as it releases alcohol and water into the air it goes through a period of clarification. Later the plants bleed their chlorophyll and you can see these bright green halos around them. Years down the line the leaves become transparent, ghostly.”
Czarnopys also places metal slabs on the forest floor, gradually producing “contact prints” of its patterns. “I want to play the massiveness of these industrial metals off against the ephemeral nature of the forest,” he says. “I was also accepting a certain loss of control over things.” For Mappings: Marsh South of Grass Lake (1994), he poured his own urine on the ground before applying the plates; the result is green oxidation patterns. He speaks of the shroud of Turin and mentions that “urine out in the woods is a very powerful attractant,” recalling the hunter’s use of doe urine to attract deer. A Chicagoan since 1978, Czarnopys is also interested in what he calls urban “micro-sites.” Untitled (Bell Jars) (1995) includes soil and plants “from the parking lot behind my studio where the turf is growing over the blacktop.”
For one of his latest works, Tree Drawings (1996), Czarnopys went back to Michigan and attached graphite sticks and lacquered steel panels to tree branches. “As the tree moves with the wind, the branches start drawing,” he says. Some take as long as a few months. “While I’m here going about my city life there’s this relentless drawing activity happening.”
One of Tom Czarnopys’s early figures is included in the MCA’s current exhibit, “Art in Chicago, 1945-1995.” The show at the Illinois Art Gallery, 100 W. Randolph, is up until January 17. Gallery hours are 9 to 5:30 Monday through Friday; call 312-814-5322.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by Loren Santow.