Karl Unnasch's strange animalsby Sea Stachura, Minnesota Public Radio
If you see a guy crouched on the side of the highway in southeastern Minnesota examining road kill, it might be artist Karl Unnasch looking for creatures to use in his work. Unnasch makes sculptures out of mummified or cast animals. He then builds miniature worlds on top of their bodies.
Winona, Minn. — Karl Unnasch opens the plank door to his studio. "It should be... oh good! It is warm in here. I started the furnace this morning," he says.
His studio is cobbled together, like his art, out of bits and pieces. The back half is a chicken coop with a tree growing through the roof. It's on his parents' farm, outside of Chatfield. The air is thick with wood smoke.
Unnasch's work is laid out around the studio. One piece is a crushed aerosol can with crabs shooting from the nozzle. Another is a paintbrush with desiccated worms for bristles. Just inside the doorway on a nail, hangs a steel cast of a flattened kitten.
"This is the first one I ever did," he holds it in his hand.
Unnasch (pronounced ewe - NISH) says one day he opened the door to the cattle barn. The animals stood up when he entered. He didn't know a kitten was warming itself against a bull.
"And it stepped on the kitten. And I heard this awful squeal. And I picked him up. He was dead. You know, he died instantly. I thought, 'Gosh this is sad.' Usually you just bury them, but I wanted to do a memorial to this little guy who didn't have a shot. So I took him down to the studio and I made three molds of him and they all turned out nicely," Unnasch says.
He says people and animals have an intimate connection and that's what he wanted to tap into. Unnasch himself is an energetic bull of a man. He shows off furniture he's made, and points out a steel cast of a goat's fetus coming out of a mailing package. "Chulacabra del Ebay" it reads. Chulacabra translates from Spanish to 'goat sucker.'
"A goat sucker is like the Mexican bogeyman. It jumps out at you. It wants to eat your children. It wants to eat their lips off and pull their eyes out and all this horrible stuff," He explains. "So I'm taking that and I'm going to make it into a wall piece. And I'm going to grind these nibble bites out of the envelope."
He says he likes to play with dichotomies: urban versus rural, human versus animal. At first it's a little gross, like watching a little boy examining a dead bird, then it draws you in.
It's time to move on with the day. Unnasch has been making casts of animals for years now, and his friends and family collect them for him. He's got everything from birds to cows in his freezer. So he grabs a few thawed animals and puts them in the back of the truck, then gets on the road.
He's heading to the foundry where he'll make molds of these animals. But first he wants to scour an abandoned building for artistic relics.
He climbs through the brush and into what once was the yard of a farmhouse.
"You can just imagine what went on here, and that's all you can do because there's nothing left," he says.
He walks to the front of the house, where a few rooms are intact. Most of his work is made from found objects.
"There's a secret panel in the wall. It's what my little kid mind thinks up that I got to show you, someday I'm going to open it up. See if there is some kid's toy in it or something. There's definitely something going on with this one piece of wood," he points up at it.
He can't reach it without a ladder. On his way out he kicks over a broken mousetrap and a carpet sweeper. They are buried in the leaves and mouse droppings. He throws them in the bed of the pick-up.
"What I'm doing is trying to create so many little worlds that are overlapping with each other, because we have that virtually everyday. And I'm trying to say there is a horror factor out there. There are ugly things going on, but let's take those ugly things and let's make them beautiful, let's make them funny, let's make them to stir the heart," he says.
He gets back on the road, heading for the foundry. Unnasch says he returned to southeastern Minnesota because it's so beautiful. Serene, he calls it, and a bit stark.
It's reflected in his work, like the dried out heifer that has a rural landscape built on its hide: little red and orange trees, a steepled church at the hips. Some of his pieces cost over a thousand dollars.
These are not the sorts of things typically crafted at Judy Machining in Winona.
It's four o'clock, and the foundry has shut down for the day. Ron Beyerstedt, one of the foundry's owners, leans back in his chair and takes a swig from the beer Unnasch has brought as barter. Beyerstadt says he doesn't get the art, but he likes it.
"I think it takes a unique sense of artistic ability to keep doing things like that. But you know the right-siders, the artists are all the right-siders. They got a different view of the world than a normal person," Beyerstedt says.
Beyerstedt lets him mold and cast his creatures during the foundry's off-hours. Unnasch heads into the factory floor.
"We've got a snake, looks like a corn snake, a larger one, a king snake. A baby peacock. A bearded dragon, maybe. Crayfish. I think I'll do the bearded dragon and the crayfish together," Unnasch says.
Unnasch lays them all out on particle board. He shapes one snake, and then puts the bearded dragon lizard on its back. Then he pulls out a package of nursery letters.
"I'm gonna put text on his belly. F-U-L-L. 'Aww, I'm so full.'"
Unnasch is not at all squeamish about working with dead animals. Though he says he'd rather touch the live ones. He likes to draw people in to his work with his gallows humor and bright colors.
He builds a box for the animals to be molded into. Then he pours the mold. While that sets, he starts on the crayfish, which have begun to smell.
"To be honest with you, this part of my day is probably the least exciting," he says. "The excitement for me making the art always comes after it turns out because I don't know if these are going to turn out or not."
When the bearded dragon's mold has set he carefully peals out the body. Beyerstedt walks in. He's headed home.
"Turn that, you got that one off, lower left," Beyerstedt says.
"Lights out, lock the door," Unnasch asks.
"Yeah, just lock the door," Beyerstadt says, and waves as he leaves.
Unnasch moves on to the crayfish. He'll be here for a while longer, and then he'll have to wait to cast the pieces.
It's dark out. He pulls another tool from his cigar box of picks and knives.
Unnasch says his work can make him pretty lonely. But it's getting attention. He's got a show at UW La Crosse, and he's just been invited to show in London.
- All Things Considered, 11/24/2006, 5:23 p.m.