Work as Art

Friday, November 19, 2010

Every summer when Bob Trisko ’70 ’78 returns to the banks of the Mississippi for the Lemonade Art Fair on the St. Cloud State campus, he is reminded of his roots. Although his work takes him to cities around the globe, St. Cloud State is where he earned his undergraduate degrees in mathematics and art and later his master’s.

The studio where he creates his signature sculpture jewelry is not far from campus. While he retreats to his studio during the week to develop new designs or transform old jewelry into a new work of art, his weekends are spent traveling to art shows and fairs.

Since he began making free-form jewelry with horse nails in 1971, Trisko has won numerous awards for his work. He received a trademark for his wearable sculptures in 1995 and had his geometric-inspired jewelry featured at the Smithsonian Arts and Crafts Exhibition in Washington, D.C.

St. Cloud State alumni like Trisko are defying conventional wisdom and proving that mixing art with business can produce a profitable career. But it doesn’t come easy.

A report from the National Endowment for the Arts found that one-third of artists only work part of the year, and artists generally earn less than workers with similar education levels. The median annual salary of fine artists was $42,650 in 2008. Few exceed $80,000 a year. Few match the success of  Trisko, John Battenberg ’57 and Bill Skodje ’81.

“Success in art is making it,” said Battenberg, a Phoenix-based painter and sculptor. “It’s not monetary. You do it because you’re driven to do it.”

Art as Business
Battenberg, now nearing 80, recalls reaching his peak as an artist in his 30s – not long after he graduated from St. Cloud State and went on to earn his master’s in fine arts from Michigan State University and the California School of Arts and Crafts. A professor at the time, he traveled to art shows throughout Asia and Europe. He had an entourage scheduling shows, managing public relations and assisting him in the studio. “I reached a point when I’d walk into a museum and people would say, ‘That’s John Battenberg.’’’ Today, he prefers fleeing to his studio, surrounded by natural inspirations.

Battenberg’s work can be found throughout the world, but one of his most renowned projects – a two-part gate sculpture – is tucked away in a private Arizona estate. The six-ton gates took Battenberg five years to complete.

A Signature Style
These art graduates credit their success to their ability to embrace their talent and develop a signature style. “Most successful artists today are doing something different,” Trisko said.

Geometric and mathematic-inspired designs and fashion-forward color choices define Trisko’s style. Using his expertise in mathematics, he designs a line of rings that eliminate the traditional circular shape. The move is as much about function as design, he said. “They don’t flip or flop around.”

Trisko aims to make a statement with his jewelry that builds its own brand. “People will walk up to someone wearing a piece I designed and say ‘That’s a Trisko.’”

During his early years in parts of Europe, Battenberg became known for his painting, printmaking and drawing. It was not until years later that he explored sculpture and built his own quarry. From that sprung his signature war-inspired pieces and steel animals, including a husky that pays homage to his alma mater.

Today, Battenberg combines his first love – painting – with his signature sculpting skills to develop three-dimensional paintings. The paintings are both complex and challenging to create, even for Battenberg, a seasoned artist with six decades of professional experience.

From a printmaker and painter to a steel sculptor, Battenberg continues to look for different mediums and techniques to give his work a new edge. “I think everything leads to the next thing,” Battenberg said. “Every painting now trumps the painting before it. I hope to keep it that way.”

For artists, education and experimentation never end. “You need to keep growing as an artist and changing.Every year, I push myself to do something new in my work.”

Trisko pays attention to the fashion world and gets inspiration from the trends and colors he sees on fashion runways and magazines. Current fashion trends have led Trisko to infuse his designs with golden pearls and bright orange sapphires. “That’s what’s hot now,” Trisko said. “I don’t know what it’s going to be next year.”

Making It
Trisko said making it in the art business is as much about marketing and sales as it is about being talented in an art skill.

Although he has sold custom pieces for more than $500,000, Trisko offers jewelry at a spectrum of prices and styles to appeal to variety of customers. The average price of one of his rings is $2,500, but customers can find one for as low as $500. “I make sure I have something in my line of work that appeals to everybody,” Trisko said.

While the jewelry speaks for itself in some cases, Trisko says sales are made when he engages customers and shares the story behind the pieces. He enjoys slipping his rings on people’s fingers to show them the added comfort and panache his geometric designs offer.

John Battenberg ’57
Art Specialty: Painting, sculpture

Business: John Battenberg Studios

Location: Scottsdale, Ariz.

Website: Battenberg.com

Cost: $20,000 for least expensive painting to $150,000 for some sculptures sold to museums.
A Current Project: 3D paintings of fish. Battenberg pulls his inspiration from the dozens of pictures he takes of a Koi pond with an underwater camera.

Advice to Artists: Get your start at the center of it in cities like L.A. and always look for ways
to improve.

Bob Trisko ’70  ’78
Art Specialty: Architectural jewelry, including men’s and women’s rings, stackable rings, 3D rings, pendants.

Business: Trisko Jewelry Sculptures

Location: St. Cloud, Minn.

Website: Trisko2.com

Cost: $500-$500,000

A Current Project: Incorporating golden pearls and bright orange sapphires into designs to complement the latest clothing fashions.

Advice to Artists: “You need to keep growing as an artist and changing - while keeping it all in the style of who you are.”

Bill Skodje ’81
On YouTube there is a video of Bill Skodje ’81 strumming a cardboard guitar in gallery G312 of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, surrounded by 17th-century French and Italian paintings. Even though you never see his face, the scene reveals much about the soft-spoken Minneapolis man.

Skodje has worked with art collections at Mayo Clinic and Chicago’s Field Museum and helped Midwest Art Conservation Center with mural restoration at the original abbey church at St. John’s University, Collegeville. Today he is the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ senior art preparator – part of the art crew. This, his “work” as a roadie for his son David’s band and his daily habit of biking three miles to work from his home make for an artful, interesting life.

Walking through the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is like taking a tour of
Skodje’s résumé. He’s had a hand in building and installing most exhibits. Recently, he worked with the tomb sculptures featured in “The Mourners” and the 20 chairs showcased in “Chairevolution!,” as well as a reinstallation of the oceanic gallery’s permanent collection.

“Our museum is reorganizing our collection to make the variety of cultures and time periods more prominent,” Skodje said. “We contrast current artwork with the old to bring continuity into the discussion for viewers to ponder how these things relate to each other and to the viewer themselves.”

Each day he carries lessons learned at St. Cloud State to work. He feels lucky to have been a student at what he describes as a special, almost magical, time. “The professors at SCSU introduced me to a wide variety of art mediums and techniques,” he said. “I took classes in glass blowing, weaving, jewelry, ceramics, foundry, woodworking, print making, photography and history, theory and design. Having this broad foundation suits the work I perform at the museum.”

Skodje calls himself a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. In his ever-changing work, he sees this as a strength. Sometimes he uses AutoCAD to help plan the space. In one exhibit, Skodje mapped the Minneapolis skyline. In the period rooms he created and cast fake food to add a touch of life.

Most days Skodje works within the exhibits, regularly handling objects even the curators never touch. Wearing gloves – to protect him and the art – he helps move and install unusual items from Africa and precious works by Rembrandt and other art masters. Skodje says touch offers a connection. “You feel the quality, the care,
and the beauty,” he says.

- Dawn Zimmerman

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