‘I’m drawn to pieces that have a sense of history’
How sculpture artist Karl Friedrich brings steel to life.
Heavy metal might mean Metallica and shredding guitar riffs to most, but, for Karl Friedrich, it means welded sculptures that defy gravity with whimsical lines and stately shapes. Though you might not know it, you’ve probably seen some of his creations scattered around Rochester.
The tall and elegantly curving sculpture on the corner of First Avenue SW and Sixth Street SW outside of the People’s Food Co-Op is one of Friedrich’s.
“It represents unity and people working together while also referencing the double helix DNA structure,” Friedrich says.
This sculpture was one of the first he made after he moved back to Rochester after living in New York for a decade. “It symbolizes my excitement to be back in the fresh air and landscapes of the Midwest,” he says.
You can also see some of Friedrich’s welded sculptures swinging in the wind and bouncing on their concrete foundations outside Superior Mechanical heading west on Highway 14. Friederich’s steel sculptures also adorn Rochester’s Kinney Creek Brewery, The Park apartment complex, and Prairie Care.
Friedrich’s love of art began at an early age. He was born in Seattle, and, as a child, was always drawing. He moved to Rochester when he was young and started taking art classes at the Rochester Art Center (RAC) in the late 80s.
“The teachers there were amazing and encouraged me to explore found object sculpture and painting on a larger scale,” he remembers.
He says it was at the RAC that he first realized he wanted to be a sculptor. Teachers Joel Piper and Eric Ulander were so supportive that he thought, “This is what I’m on this earth for—to make art!”
Eventually, Friedrich transferred from John Marshall High School to the Perpich Center for Arts Education. From there, his teacher Karen Monson introduced him to John Hock and the staff at the Franconia Sculpture Park, the 50-acre, 100-plus-sculpture outdoor museum just southwest of Taylors Falls.
The park—described as the “pre-eminent, artist-centered sculpture park in the Midwest”—offers an active artist residency program.
“The Franconia Sculpture Park gave everyone the resources to work in any medium,” he says. “I started working with railroad ties, then started exploring the process of steel sculpture.”
Despite being drawn to steel sculpture, Friedrich also studied printmaking and painting at The Cooper Union College for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York. During his studies, he apprenticed with steel sculptor Mark di Suvero, an abstract expressionist whose large works frequently include sections that can swing and turn. Friedrich says his time with di Suvero gave him valuable insight into scale and composition.
Friedrich’s approach to art is very hands on. His art studio—perhaps more aptly called an art workshop—is filled with flying sparks from his grinder and the heat pulsing from his welder and torch. He often works outside and uses large exterior suspension systems to move heavy pieces of metal into place with pulleys and chains before he welds them together.
A tractor with a front-end loader is also part of Friedrich’s arsenal to move his heavy and large pieces of steel sculpture, some of them almost two stories high. Frequently, Friedrich builds tools like gantries to help him move and place his sculptures. You might find him driving down deserted roads in the early morning hours with a sculpture he’s about to deliver swinging from the arm of his tractor.
Some of Friedrich’s works incorporate found and recycled metal.
“One of the reasons why I like constructing in steel is that I’m working with a medium that is composed of recycled material,” he says. “I’ve been collecting steel and found objects for years, and I’m drawn to pieces that have a sense of history which can be physically seen on the material.”
Friedrich’s yard is its own sculpture park. Spread around its perimeter there are 15 or so impressively sized sculptures. Many of them are abstract, and feature twisted and cut metal.
But some represent recognizable figures. One of the most commanding sculptures is called “Phoenix,” which he created when he was 17. It is a metal bird with wide spread wings that use straight lines of metal turned at angles to create the illusion of curves. The bird rears up into the sky from a tall pedestal and stands many feet above the observer’s head.
Besides his love of steel sculpture and creating art with his hands, Friedrich has also worked as a rock-climbing instructor, a stagehand, a construction worker, a landscaper, and even a pedicab driver.
When he’s not playing with light and shadows or taking an excursion into filmmaking or photography, Friedrich likes to escape into nature for canoe trips and biking excursions.
While Friedrich’s works have been on display in big cities like Chicago and San Diego and New Orleans, he’s glad to be living in Rochester.
“I appreciate how Rochester incorporates art into the community,” he says. “I hope that effort will influence surrounding areas to bring more art walks and community art gatherings into their districts.”
If you are interested in learning more about steel sculptor Karl Friedrich and his art, you can go to his website http://karlfriedrich.com/ , email him at email@example.com , or follow his Instagram account at karlfriedrich711.