Interview: Bill McKee Harvests Ecological Art in Peninsula State Park

Aug. 13, 2009
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In the midst of installing his first large art installation, Bill McKee stands at the top of a ladder in the Guenzel Gallery at Peninsula School of Art in Door County. Fish Creek to be exact. The self taught artist and Vietnam War veteran began creating sculpture in the 70's when inspired by a book he read on Constantin Brancusi. This University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Art Professor teaches Intro to 3-D Design, Carving and Assemblage, and occasionally Public Sculpture. The latter class inspired four proposals for the Pineries Bank in Stevens Point, which culminated in the construction of a real-life piece of public art. While the bank covered the cost of the artwork, a 12 feet tall by 6 feet wide steel pipe and natural wood sculpture titled Ascension was installed this June in Stevens Point. The Pineries Banks also graciously funded a $25,000 endowment for scholarships at the University. Now preparing for the exhibition e*co*tiv*i*ty: environmental art in process at the Peninsula School of Art, which opens on August 14, McKee descends his ladder to rest and chat about his artwork.

A: What materials are you using for this installation?
Q: I went into Peninsula State Park to harvest Scotch pine from the park along with the honeysuckle bushes I use [with special permission from the park]. But neither is indigenous to Wisconsin. They both crowd out natural species because they grow so fast. I also use juniper, which takes over the low-lying fields, and that came from Baileys Harbor. All are pesky, non-wanted plants, especially in the forests.

A: So your sculpture usually focuses on the environment?

Q: Yes, my work speaks to ECOS: the interrelationships of organisms within their environment, the same root used for economy. Do you know what the first definition of economy was? The frugal use of resources. It's about everything being connected. You can't touch one thing without it affecting something else.

A: Why is the Scotch Pine significant in this exhibit?

Q: Forty or sixty years ago there were forests of Scotch pine planted. They were used for pulp, because they [the pines] are not a good lumber tree. So we bring in these trees that grow fast, and to make money on it [the pines]. But they crowd out the natural species. Man's the great dispenser. We've dispersed to every corner of the earth. Now it's out of control. We've lost control.

A: What inspired this particular installation for this exhibit?
Q: I think the whole idea of land art, or eco art, which includes a broad spectrum of work. And Andy Goldsworthy was a modern genius, so elegant. I do this for the love of it, two weeks without pay. And in this gallery, I tried to activate the height [of the ceiling]. A little boy about seven, walks in the other day. His mother, preoccupied with his brother doesn't notice what I'm doing. But the boy stops and says, "That's good." Such unfiltered, unblinded, and unfettered perception made my day.
The Peninsula School of Art Exhibition continues into fall until September 26 and also
features East Coast Sculptor, Karl Saliter to coincide with the centennial of Peninsula State Park.


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