When the Museum of Contemporary Art was mounting its “Art in Chicago, 1945-1995” exhibit in 1996, there was one artist the curators couldn’t track down. Konstantin Milonadis, according to the catalog, taught sculpture at the University of Notre Dame until the early 70s, but the “subsequent whereabouts and activities of the artist” were “unknown.”

“We did research to try to find him, and everyone we talked to didn’t know,” says Lynne Warren, the show’s chief curator. “We keep really good files, but the trail was extremely cold–it was pre-Internet.”

The MCA should have looked a little harder. Just a few miles down Chicago Avenue is the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, which Milonadis helped found in 1971. They’d have known where to find him. For the past 31 years, Milonadis has been living the life of a self-described “country gentleman” in a 150-year-old farmhouse in tiny Bertrand Township, Michigan, just over the state line from South Bend. It’s where he created many of the sui generis kinetic wire sculptures that earned him national renown in the 60s and 70s. Thirty-one of these intricate pieces (and one work in welded steel) are on exhibit at the Ukrainian Institute through October 24. It’s been 23 years since he’s had a one-man show in the city he adopted as a home after fleeing post-World War II Europe.

“I didn’t have any ambitions or dreams of being a celebrity–that’s very far from my type of personality,” says the 78-year-old artist. “To me, to be able to make things is a great blessing….In the good old USSR they told you what you’re going to do. Even if you were brainy enough to be an artist, they could tell you, ‘Well, we don’t need an artist, but we’ll make a mining engineer out of you.'”

Milonadis–“Mickey” to his American friends–was born in a “small town of no significance” on the Dnieper River in central Ukraine, and as a schoolkid he used to draw in his textbooks because “you couldn’t go out and buy a fancy type of paper,” he says. He put his artistic ambitions on hold when he was conscripted into the Soviet army as a teenager in the early 1940s–he never finished school–and his unit saw fierce fighting against retreating Nazi forces. “All you know is that somebody’s shooting, something’s exploding, and you try to dig yourself as deep into the ground as you can….In war you learn the hard way that history is much more fun to study than to make.”

After the war Milonadis made his way through eastern Europe to Germany, where he spent the next six years working as a laborer in various resettlement camps run by the International Refugee Organization. “It wasn’t so bad for single people,” says Milonadis, who lives alone and has never married. “But for families it was a little bit of trouble. You lived day to day, and never knew what would happen next.”

In the camps Milonadis met several Ukrainians with friends in Chicago and got on a waiting list to emigrate. After two years, in 1951, he was finally admitted into the United States, where he immediately registered for the draft. He had only been living among his compatriots in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village for a couple months and wasn’t even a citizen when he was drafted into the army during the Korean war. He trained to be an engineer, learning English along the way, and eventually became a supply sergeant.

He returned to Chicago in 1953, where he got his GED. He picked up his old teenage desire to make art, and with his background in designing and building, decided to become a sculptor. But professors at the School of the Art Institute told him there was no chance he’d make a living as an artist and advised him to go into teaching. With the help of the GI Bill he earned his bachelor’s in art education in 1957. He spent his off-hours creating works in wood, stone, and metal. “Until I came to this country, to think about art or becoming an artist was absolute impudence–it was unthinkable,” he says. But he still hasn’t filed his citizenship papers.

Milonadis worked on his MFA at Tulane University in the late 50s. He “was having problems with standard sculpture” until he took classes with famed sculptor George Rickey, the head of the art department. Rickey, a former student of Alexander Calder’s, took Milonadis under his wing and taught him how to create stainless-steel pieces that investigated the “science of bodies in motion in space and time, and the forces that affect that motion,” Milonadis says. “I decided that in kinetics there were still areas that were not explored–there were great possibilities.”

After earning his degree in 1959 Milonadis moved back to Ukrainian Village. He began exhibiting his small-scale kinetic sculptures made from steel, piano wire, and other elements, sometimes incorporating small pieces of sheet steel for friction, weight, gravity, and balance.

In an interview in the current show’s catalog, Milonadis recalled his nervousness when he first went to Notre Dame in 1960 to interview for a job teaching three-dimensional design and sculpture. “I was from the Soviet Union, and there was no greater monster to the Soviet system than a Catholic or a Jesuit,” he said. He got the job and commuted between Chicago and South Bend for several years. Students, he said, were attracted to his classes for his modernist approach and the “freedom” he offered.

At the time, Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic was Notre Dame’s distinguished professor and artist-in-residence (he created the two facing bronze Indians for Chicago’s Congress Plaza in 1928). “In his younger days, he was a very big name in Europe,” says Milonadis, “but by that time he was in his 70s and not with the spirit of the times. In his studio the students were not permitted to experiment, at least not that I know of. They were all vying against each other to duplicate Mestrovic’s work. They never managed to find themselves. They were unsuccessful as artists. To imitate is bad enough, but to imitate something that was in vogue a long, long time ago is worse.” In 1962 Mestrovic suffered a stroke in his studio during a class and died within days. Two years later Milonadis was tapped to inherit Mestrovic’s honorific title and studio. It required him to move to South Bend.

Milonadis exhibited widely in museums and galleries throughout the midwest and the south in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. He won numerous awards and frequently sold pieces to museums, but he continued to work booths at suburban Chicago art fairs, where he sold his works for a few hundred dollars. “I prefer working on a scale where common people can take them in their residence,” he says. Buyers usually cleaned him out, and for many years he kept a waiting list until he started losing people’s business cards. While he’s made “hundreds or thousands” of pieces, he was only interested in making enough money to survive. “I don’t have anything on hand, almost, and I’m not happy about it,” he says. He left Notre Dame in 1973 (“I don’t believe in teaching full-time,” he says, “because when artists teach full-time something starts to suffer”) and retired from teaching altogether in the late 1980s after part-time stints at Lake Michigan College, Mundelein College, and West Georgia University. He still occasionally works with wire. “I don’t think I’m retired as an artist,” he says. “I still have a head full of ideas.” He recognizes that he’s no longer part of the mainstream art world, but “I am quite peaceful and happy about that,” he says. “There are elements about American art that I don’t appreciate. To an American, it’s nothing to take a plot of land maybe several square acres and plow something like a circle or an X, whatever. And they call it an artistic statement. I have no objections to that kind of art being there, but I wouldn’t do it, because I think, if I’m moving around with a tractor, how many little critters am I killing in the process? That is why I do things with a very economical use of material.”

All the works on view at the Ukrainian Institute have been drawn from private and public collections in the Chicago area. Most date from the 1970s, and while Milonadis has given them all titles, many are just labeled “Kinetic Construction” along with the year. Two to three feet high, they’re either obsessively geometric or what he calls “unpredictably structured”– that is, “approached more intuitively, on a trial-and-error basis.” He says, “Often I work out on a piece of paper exactly what I want. But when I start putting the things together at random, I don’t know what I’m doing. The rest of it is plain, boring man-hours–it’s the most tedious thing in the world. At a certain point I decide, that’s enough.”

Milonadis uses his hands and simple tools like pliers, clippers, and files to shape the wires, then joins them with silver-soldering and precision welding. Parts of the sculptures are delicately balanced or hinged upon gimbals, pivots, sockets, and springs–a light touch will set them in complex motion. But even when static, the pieces have a visual rhythm. They also show a playful fascination with science, evoking signal towers, antennae clusters, clock interiors, space stations, UFOs.

“Control over the material is imperative in any type of art,” says Milonadis. “But there is always an element of mystery or surprise. Still, it is at the same time a conscious production….It’s a strange way to make a living, better than working.”

Material in Motion: Konstantin Milonadis, a Survey of Work in Collections

When: Wed-Sun through 10/24, 12 to 4 PM

Where: Ukrainian Museum of Modern Art, 2320 W. Chicago

For more: 773-227-5522

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni, Lilalia Kuchma.