There is no better time to feature this artist than during the holiday season. To all who meet him, two things become clear:
1) Ken Wagle embodies the spirit of Santa Claus.
2) Ken Wagle is the artists’ artist.
Never without his sketchbook or means of making art, Ken Wagle’s artistic repertoire includes, but is not limited to, his collectible Santa and wildlife woodcarvings, drawings, paintings, scrimshaw-like engravings done on found materials, and iPhone art. A graduate of Advertising Art & Design from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Ken retired in 1998 after a 35-year career as a Graphic Designer.
Ken has been creating and exhibiting his art in Pittsburgh for over 50 years. He has exhibited with the Society of Sculptors, Three Rivers Arts Festival, Anthemian Creative Artists, Made by Hands Gallery, Gallery of Gifts, Kuntzfest in Old Economy, South Arts Gallery, National Aviary wildlife art shows, and local art and craft shows. He currently shows his work at Koolkat, the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, at his studio in the Schoolhouse Arts Center. This month, some of his Belsnickel Santas are also part of an exhibit at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in Carnegie, PA.
A master of so many art forms, techniques, and processes, people are continually amazed that one person can be responsible for such a large and varied body of work. We sat down with Ken of StudioWagle to find out more about this life-long artist. His stories are full of interesting and often humorous details. Read below to learn: how a turkey and scarlet fever put him on his artistic path; who he and Andy Warhol credit for teaching them how to draw; why he draws such inspiration from Santa; and how a trip to the Carnegie Science Center changed the way he and many other Pittsburgh graphic designers did their work.
Stop into Koolkat this Saturday, December 21st from 10am to 5pm for a special presentation of Ken’s Santa carvings and ornaments. Where there is Santa, there are cookies!
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Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born and raised in the South Hills of Pittsburgh, and have lived here my whole life, (well, except for my two years in the Army, during which I spent one year in Colorado, and one year in Germany). My wife Kathy and I have 4 daughters, and at one time, a foreign exchange student. Six women and me, and one bathroom. <laughs> Now they’re all married. I have three grandchildren. I love my family very much.
How did you come to be an artist?
Well, in kindergarten, it was Thanksgiving, and we were taking a tour of the school, of the classrooms, seeing all of the different decorations. The first room, the chalkboard had a giant turkey drawing in colorful chalk. It was beautiful! I just had to touch it to see what it was, and ended up getting sent to the Cloak Room, and I wasn’t allowed to see the rest of the rooms. Back then, we had Cloak Rooms. That turkey really made an impression on me.
Then in third grade, I got scarlet fever. And I was quarantined for thirty days. I found out that I was quarantined when I heard this loud pounding on the front door. I looked out the window, and there was a policeman nailing a QUARANTINE sign to the front door with the butt of his gun. Nobody was allowed in or out our house for 30 days. My sister couldn’t go to school. They burned all of our books and our desks and everything in our lockers, both my sister’s and mine even though she didn’t have the fever. The milkman and the mailman left all of the deliveries up on the street, and wouldn’t come into our yard. Luckily for me, we had just gotten our first television set the day before. On the television was Jon Gnagy [on his NBC show “You Are an Artist”]. He was an artist, and he had classes that you would draw along with him. So for that month, every day I would draw with Jon Gnagy, and I really enjoyed it. From then on, I knew I wanted to be an artist.
In grade school I went to art classes at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Then in fifth grade, we didn’t have an art class, but an artist came to our class, and was teaching us figure drawing, and he used me as a model, and I didn’t get to draw! I entered Kaufmann’s Scholastic Arts exhibitions and won several Gold Key awards. All through high school I wanted to be an artist. I was head of the Stage Crew & Decorating Club. We did all of the sets. I did paintings for the walls and murals. In art class there were three of us that were interested in becoming artists so we had our own room where we could work on paintings and projects away from the regular classes. Ray Henkowski was the teacher. After I graduated from high school, I went to The Art Institute of Pittsburgh.
While you were at the Art Institute, you studied under a famous artist and instructor. Can you tell us about that? Vincent Nesbert, he was Russian and created the murals in the Allegheny County Courthouse downtown. They’re still there. He was a character. He called us students, smear loppers. <doing an imitation> “You smear loppers! You are supposed to be drawing elephants, but all you see are flies!”
You’d be working on a drawing, and if you made your lines too heavy, he’d come by and say, “Let me see your X-ACTO knife. ” And then he would draw over your lines with an X-ACTO knife and cut your picture all up, and then you’d remember next time not to draw the lines too heavy. <laughs>
I remember one time I had done the best drawing I had done all year, it was charcoal, and he came by and said, “Oh that’s is very good. Nice job, very good! Let me see your shammy.”, and I handed him my shammy, and he dusted the whole picture off, and said, “Now let me see you do it again to make sure it wasn’t an accident.” When I was in his class, the other students and I thought he was pretty harsh, but now that I have been out on my own, I see his wisdom. He was trying to teach us that when he erased our drawing, that it won’t be the best thing that we would ever do, and when we mess up, don’t be afraid to start over. But boy, I still would like to have that drawing! <laughs>
Your parents sound as if they we were very supportive of you pursuing art. All of your children are creative. You have a daughter that is a career artist, and she and your youngest daughter are married to career artists. Many parents worry that if their children pursue an arts related degree or field, that they won’t make enough money to survive. What do you think about that?
I think that if your child wants to be an artist, then you have to let them be an artist, otherwise they will not be happy. Artists have to create. It burns inside them whether you are a singer or dancer, or whatever, you just have to do it. You can’t not do it. Even if I didn’t sell a single piece of art, I’d still have to be an artist. Some of the old masters never sold a painting while they were alive, but now their paintings are worth millions of dollars. But they had to paint, and how lucky we are that they did!
We’re surrounded by art. There’s art in just about everything we see and buy. Somebody has to design the container, somebody has to design the labels. Some artist designed your car, someone designed the telephone you talk on; there’s an artist behind all of these objects. Not everyone who is an artist wants to do paintings or drawings. Some want to design a living room, a lamp, or a car, or just about anything you can name. There are lots of career possibilities for aspiring artists.
You supported your family of four children working as a professional artist. Can you talk about your career as a graphic artist?
After I got out of art school, I worked for McGraw-Hill Publishing drawing up advertisements for sales promotion for industrial magazines. I did that while the person who had the job before me was in the Army. Then when he came back, I got a job with Westinghouse in their Employee Communications Department creating posters, newsletters, magazines, benefits booklets, anything that was communicated to the employees went through our department. When my boss retired, I took over as head of the department.
[Ken and his colleagues were at the forefront of the shift to computer graphics and desktop publishing in Pittsburgh in the 1980s. Read more about his experiences at the end of this interview.]
You work in craft processes so old that some are considered a dying art form, and also with cutting edge software and devices. Sometimes people say modern processes and media, like prints or computer generated art, are not “real” art. What do you think about that?
Whether it’s done on a computer or with conventional materials like pencil, paper, charcoal, paints or pastels, it all requires an artistic ability. Your eyes have to be trained to create a piece of art. The computer or the paintbrush or pen or pencil is just the media or instrument used to create the piece so that other people can see it. The ideas, the know-how, the skills, they need to come from within artist. You have to be able to visualize it, and use whatever means you have to make it tangible.
Art is often divided into Craft, Fine Art and Commerical Art. You have worked extensively and are an accomplished artist in all three of these categories. Do you see a hierarchy?
No, each plays its specific and valuable role. Whether it’s craft, design or fine art, you are using all of those skills to different degrees no matter what it is that you are creating. Henry Moore said something to the effect that in order to be a sculptor you have to know how to draw.
Describe your studio / working space for us.
My studio is a former classroom on the second floor of the historic Schoolhouse Arts Center on the corner of South Park Road and Park Avenue in Bethel Park. It has 12 foot high ceilings and 5 large windows so I get plenty light. It has a lot of wall space which I used to hang my paintings. The one drawback is that it is neither air-conditioned or heated. When it’s real hot or cold, I work from home.
You are known for being prolific artist and a jack-of-all-trades working in diverse media. Do you have a favorite tool or medium?
It’s hard for me to choose a favorite. I love all media. I can’t seem to narrow it down. I just enjoy doing everything.
You are probably best known for your scrimshaw-like engravings and your Santa carvings.
Yes. I started doing scrimshaw when my wife Kathy and I were on our honeymoon in Key West, Florida. I saw some scrimshaw in a window, and was fascinated by it. When I got home, I started reading up on it, and experimenting with the engraving technique on plexiglass, then on bone, then Micarta, and then on just about anything I could scratch and rub ink into. I visited The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and they had a display of William Gilkerson scrimshaw, and it was beautiful.
I have been creating Santas for nearly 50 years. Each one is different, there are no two exactly alike. There are a lot of people that collect them.
Why did you start carving Santas?
I always enjoyed the story of Santa, St. Nicholas, Belsnickel,… I like the Nast Santa, and the Night Before Christmas, and the Santas from all the different countries—Father Christmas, Grandfather Frost, La Befana, Pére Noël, Kris Kringle,… I like the gift giving, that St. Nicholas helped those three sisters get a dowry, that it’s more in the giving than the receiving. It ties in with God giving us Christ, and the Three Wise Men giving Jesus gifts. At this time of year, people are in a good mood, the Christmas spirit of supporting charities, and helping each other, and thinking of family.
How long have people been telling you that you look like Santa?
<laughs> Ever since my beard turned gray. And after Katie knit me that red and gray striped hat I wear in the winter, all the kids now call out, “There’s Santa! It’s Santa!” Today at Michaels, a little boy in a stroller saw me, “Santa! Santa!” <laughs>
You also do art on your iPhone, primarily using your index finger and sometimes a stylus. How did you get started with that?
I got an iPhone for the Square reader so I could accept credit card payments at my studio. I looked at the App Store, and saw drawing apps, and some free ones, so I downloaded them. I started playing around, and really liked them, so I purchased a couple. It’s lighter than carrying a sketchbook around with me all of the time. But the screen size is confining. Someday I’ll get an iPad.
What was the first thing you made that you thought, “This is art.”?
<laughs> When you are young, you think everything you make is the greatest. As your skills grow, you evolve constantly. A lot of times it’s not the finished product, but the process creating it that is the most enjoyable.
How did you first become involved with Koolkat Designs?
Through my daughters, Kristin and Katie.
What is your favorite thing about Koolkat Designs?
I like the way everything in Koolkat is made locally. They support the artists.
How can the South Hills & Greater Pittsburgh community better support creativity and artists?
How can buying local make a difference?
People need to go out to different shows and art galleries in the Pittsburgh area, view and support the art that is created here in Pittsburgh. Go to places like Koolkat and buy jewelry and art that is made right here in Pittsburgh. It encourages artists to do more and be more creative. Let an artist know you appreciate their work. Make sure kids have access to the arts in their schools. Art classes at the Carnegie Museum are good to get kids started in art. Carnegie Mellon is a great school for the Arts in Pittsburgh, as well as the Art Institute.
Favorite local artist. What do you appreciate about their work?
Thaddeus Mosley, sculptor. I like his work because of his strong design element in his sculptures, and he is a great supporter of the arts, and a real nice man.
John Del Monte, painter. I like his old masters’ style of painting. He draws and paints like the old masters did.
Nat Youngblood, illustrator. I like his use of color, and the way he used gouache to do his illustrations, and his imagination—the way he’d make up a scene from history and do a painting about it. He worked for the Pittsburgh Press.
My favorite movie is probably a little known one, called Da, an Irish movie with Martin Sheen.
How do your values impact your process?
For a lot of the things that I do, I use recycled materials. For my sculptures I use all recycled wood. For scrimshaw, even though the art form was started on whale’s bone and whale teeth, I am glad that we are saving the whales and not pursuing them and killing them. The art form though is so beautiful, I enjoy doing it on manmade materials, such as cue balls, pool balls, Corian®, Micarta, bowling pins, dominoes, coconut shells, and old piano keys.
Tell us about the handmade object that you cherish the most.
I cherish the family Santas.
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[Read more about Ken’s graphics career below:]
Some of our Koolkat artists, like Jim Zahniser of Red Robot Creative and Audra Azoury of Audra Azoury Jewelry, are also graphic designers. While you were a graphic designer, you experienced the shift from the old ways to the computer. They might be interested in knowing more about that transition.
Before the computer, all the type was set in lead, and we had to pull proofs from that, then we made page layouts, and then cut the copy to make it fit, and sometimes you’d add a point between each line. We had all sorts of tricks. Everything had to fit; all the columns had to go to the end of the pages; you couldn’t leave any white space at the bottom. Sometimes we had to tell the writers to remove so many lines, or write this many more lines. Everything was picas and points. A point is 1/72 of an inch. There are 12 points to a pica. The captions had to be square at the end. We couldn’t have a ragged right margin. The first line of a caption under the photo couldn’t have a hyphen at the end; we couldn’t break a word, so there was lots of messing around to do. After it was proofread, and we had add/cut lines, then we pulled a final proof on paper. We trimmed that, and we used wax rollers to paste strips of type down on to the page layout. Then we had to figure out the photographs, which were usually 8×10, and figure out how to crop or reduce it to keep the right proportions. We’d strip the photos into negatives to make plates to print the images. Then we modernized that a little, and we got a big a graphic arts camera, and we shot the photos and stripped them into the page layouts. Then we sent the completed page to the printer, and they would make negative plate and print it.
In 1983, when Apple came out with the Mac, I went to see it at the Carnegie Science Center. And when I saw it, I thought, “This is the way page layouts are going to be done in the future.” When I went to work the next day I asked for a Mac so I could experiment. I finally convinced them, but they didn’t get me a Mac, they got me a Lisa which was a predecessor of the Mac. It was essentially the same thing as a Mac, but it cost $15,000. Everyone now talks about GB, but my hard drive then was 5MB which is the average size of a photo now. <laughs> I started experimenting doing layouts on the Mac, using MacDraw, and MacPaint, and MacWord and Excel.
That was before laser printers. We had dot matrix printers, and the quality was lousy, not good enough to print from. So I did an illustration one Christmas on the Mac. It was the employee holiday poster that was in conjunction with the anniversary of George Westinghouse incorporating the company. I sent it out to the printer, and the printer made a print on good paper. When I got it back, I airbrushed the color on to it, and sent it to the printer who made the color separations and then plates to print it. It was sent out all over the country. It was the first-ever computer generated art for Westinghouse. Then laser printers came out, and you could get good quality prints, so I started to doing layouts on the Mac, and printing them. Westinghouse then decided to invest in an expensive good quality printer that printed on photographic paper. We could then add the photographs right on the computer, and a linotype machine would print out with the halftone prints right in the proper place. [Adobe took notice, and asked Ken to be an Adobe beta-tester which he was for many years.] After we started with the laser printers, PPG, United States Steel, and all the major corporations and agencies in the city would send their graphic designers over to see what we were doing and how we were doing it. What we were doing later became known as desktop publishing. I began training all of writers and the artists at Westinghouse all over the country how to do desktop publishing. We started doing industrial catalogs, for Cutler Hammer, Kennametal… Then I got MacroMedia Director, and started doing animation. We did a touchscreen kiosk for the then-new Pittsburgh International Airport, and touchscreen kiosks for trade shows. Then Adobe came up with PDF format, Acrobat. I started using it to make electronic catalogs.
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