Retrospect Series: An Interview with Artist Jeffrey Funk

Jeffrey Funk is a metalworker, a blacksmith, and of course, an artist at his very core. He has been working in his craft for over thirty years in Big Fork, Montana, with countless commissions in both the utilitarian and artistic realm. In 1989, the City of Missoula was fortunate enough to commission his first public art sculpture, Returning, which is a group of three undulating, steel-and-granite trout by the Clark Fork River downtown area. If you are an active art-lover of Missoula with small children, you have probably watched your kids crawl all over Funk's piece at some point.

And while some artists might be dismayed to know their sculpture was being "man-handled" in such a way, Funk explains in this interview that he had the interaction of children in mind when he came up with this creation. Keep reading to learn about Funk's philosophy on public art, craft versus fine art, and his sculpture 26 years after completion.

How do you view Returning now after 26 years?

It was the first significant public sculpture I had done, and the call for entries specifically asked for work that would be interactive with children.  The object was to create a sculpture that was accessible to children, not only physically, but emotionally as well.  The work still, in my mind at least, needed to be able to stand on its own, outside of the intention to engage children.  The use of fish (trout) immediately provided a narrative thread; one that was relevant to the site.

The riverfront area was in the very early stages of “redevelopment,” and this piece in Caras Park was important in setting the tone for the reconnection of Missoula with the riverfront that it had effectively turned its back on for many decades.  And so Returning was quite intentionally a metaphor for that homecoming to the river.  The trout symbolize not only the city’s return to the river that is so central and life-giving to it, but also the journey of individuals “back home."  They are out of their element, but reconnection with their source is imminent. 

The scale of the work was important for several reasons.  First, to engage children, the exaggeration was important.  Secondly, the work would be very visible from the Higgins Street Bridge, and so it needed to “read” well from that vantage point.  And the entire work needed to have a meaningful relationship in scale to the park itself.  The gestures of the fish had to bring a sense of motion to the area.

The Missoula Public Art Committee had to walk a fine line in relationship to the people of Missoula.  The work at the north end of Higgins, Crossings, had been installed not long before, and its reception was (and is), mixed.  That piece brought to light the issues of relevance and accessibility of public art, and it was in that context that Returning was designed.  Frankly, that was perfect for my own artistic philosophy for public work at the time.  Too often public works in urban settings are received by many as impositions by an Art elite of work that is not relevant personally, or specific to place.  My thinking was that there did not need to be a conflict between accessibility and artistic depth.  Alienation was not a prerequisite to sophistication.  The challenge to engage children, who are typically unspoiled by social expectations and also quite immediate emotionally, was attractive to me as a design criteria.

So it has been more than twenty-five years since the piece was installed.  It has never (at least to my knowledge) been discussed seriously by the capital A art community in Missoula.  However the sculpture has been received incredibly well by a broad cross-section of the Missoula community.  My children played on it, and my grandchildren love it now.  The assessment by the children frankly means more to me than the consideration by the more elite representatives of the art community.  I knew that using rather literal representations of something as common as fish might put off some folks moving in the abstract and conceptual world of art.  What serves as a doorway for some people is felt as a fence to others.  My intention was to provide various avenues for engagement, and to be fundamentally inclusive.

So, to finally answer your question, I like the piece better now than I did when I installed it.  It has matured in its setting and community.  I believe it has done a good job of satisfying my objectives both practically and conceptually.  It was an honor to have been able to make this small contribution to such a wonderful town.

What was your favorite part of the process, and the finished piece?

I loved the challenge of the design process.  Technically the trout were quite difficult to make. I wanted them to be expressive in gesture, constructed from forged parts (not simply fabricated), and both durable and safe for the climbing they would undoubtedly experience.  However, my favorite part is just seeing the people interact with it while peering down from the east side of the bridge.

Tell me a little bit more about your process: has it changed since Returning or do you still rely on your tried and true techniques?

I, and my work, are both very process oriented.  So my application of process is constantly evolving and changing.  I remain devoted to forging as a central technology because it is so fundamentally transformative, as well as mentally and physically challenging.  For me process is not simply a means to an end, but a highly integrated way of being with the work.  It draws deeply on history.  It constantly raises questions on culture and civilization.  It responds to geology.  Process is, in the final analysis, that which is in the moment, the expression of artistic consciousness.  That process has so often been assigned a subservient position to concept in the more academic circles of art has always seemed perverse and a bit sad to me.  Talking about dance is fine, but dancing is what I really want to do.  Process is that.

I see that not only are you a practicing blacksmith and artist, but you are also a teacher of classes and workshops. How does that experience as a teacher lend to your work?

Teaching has been a wonderful way to develop more conscious articulation of what I do.  In order to explain anything to a student, I first must explore and be able to explain it to myself.  It has stimulated deeper inquiry in everything I do.

Why do you think it’s important for cities like Missoula to commission public art works?

Public sculpture’s impact on a place can work over a broad spectrum, so there is no one simple answer to this question.  However, with Missoula in particular, because of its scale and culture, public art can play an important role in identity.  People in a healthy community identify strongly with their place, and public sculpture can provide points of community recognition. Effective public works can operate as aesthetic and particular reminders of peoples inclusion.

Who is your favorite artist and favorite piece of art? Why?

Well, I don’t really like to carve things down to one favorite, but Isamu Noguchi probably holds that position for me.  No one favorite piece.  It is the sum of his work that affects me.  Noguchi distilled things to a simple interaction with stone, like the most spare of haiku. He is also inspiring in that much of his most significant work was done in his later years… the years I myself am entering. 

In the same vein, who inspires you to make art and why?

I don’t know that the answer here is a who.  Art making, like all making, is a fundamental human urge.  In this highly specialized industrial and post-industrial world we live in, too few are allowed to be the makers.  I am incredibly fortunate to be among them. I literally don’t know what else I would do.

Active, physically engaging making (like in forging) demands a high degree of mind/body integration, in real time!  That is a big part of the why.  Integration and transformation are the goals.

You seem to live in two worlds with your work, so to speak, both in fine art and in utilitarian craftsmanship; how do you find that balance between fulfilling your inner artistic desire and also fulfilling the needs and wants of clients?

This is, of course, a tricky question.  The act of making anything, utilitarian or otherwise, involves an assessment, and often the imposition of limits.  Modern culture imagines that we can or ought to aspire to a world with “no limits.”  Some artists prefer to work without externally imposed limits.  I regard limits as essential elements of focus, without which we would inhabit a meaningless world.  And so I invite meaningful limits.  Sure, working with some clients in some situations is unnecessarily restrictive.  However, with some ingenuity and a commitment to grow artistically in some small way through each project, even those limits can be of value. 

There were moments in my past when I imagined myself in a position of having a wonderful studio and the ability to simply make anything I wanted.  But those moments were neither important nor persistent.  I see myself as a person who lives in a particular place and makes things relating to that community.  Yes, some of it is pretty far away.  But I make stuff for my neighbors.  I make tools for friends and also buyers I don’t know. I sometimes make public sculpture if the situation is compelling and I have something relevant to offer.  I indulge ceaselessly in experiment with material.  I do not subscribe contemporary notion that art and craft are, or ought to be distinct.

Aesthetic expression is intrinsic to being human, and it need not be isolated from craft, process, or body.  I aim for complete integration.

For more information about Jeffrey Funk and his work, visit his website HERE.