Her Gallery Doesn't Need 4 Walls

H-P Staff Writer

The Twin Cities landscape has taken on a new look since Susan Wilczak came to town.

She moved here in 1992 to become director of education at the Krasl Art Center in St. Joseph, where she is now the director of exhibitions and collections.

At the time, the Krasl had just a few sculptures on its grounds.

With the lack of space for a large collection of artworks, Wilczak and the staff looked outdoors for a sculpture gallery. Pieces of sculpture began to appear in such locales as a bank plaza on Pleasant Street, Lake Michigan College and Silver Beach County Park. All of those works are on loan from the Krasl.

When the national Save Outdoor Sculpture program began to inventory and preserve outdoor sculptures, Wilczak spearheaded the local project and its companion project, Adopt A Sculpture.

“Save Outdoor Sculpture was a highlight (of my career), and I will always remember being part of it and going to Washington, D.C.,” she said. One of her major projects was the restoration of the Fireman’s Monument in Lake Bluff Park in St. Joseph. Of the sculptures she has brought to town, two are especially meaningful to her.

One is “Beacon Gold,” the glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly that hangs in the entryway of the Krasl, and the other is “And You Seas” by Richard Hunt, which stands at the entrance to the St. Joseph harbor.

Wilczak and former Krasl Director Dar Davis visited the Chihuly studio in Seattle to see the creation of “Goldon Beacon,” which the Krasl bought to honor former longtime board Treasurer Ed Conrad.

“It was mind-boggling to see all the team workers involved (there) and working with our staff here,” Wilczak said.

“The ‘And You Seas’ commission consumed me for a year’s time, working with the Patrick Kinney family (who donated the work to the Krasl), Richard Hunt, the staff, the board, the county, the Army Corps of Engineers, construction crews, fabricators, shipping, trucking,” she said. “It was a spectacular experience.”

“I just hope down the line they will all be taken care of when I’m long gone,” she said.

One of her most recent projects has drawn both praise and criticism. It is the Biennial Sculpture Invitational show, which takes place both on the Krasl grounds and along the St. Joseph River.

She is happy that the show has grown and is not bothered by the criticism.

“It does what art is supposed to do, provoke a dialogue,” she said. “Everyone has an opinion about things. Why not about art?

“I think the good comments and the bad comments should be put into a wider spectrum,” she said. “I don’t like to see them separated. Art is integrated into our everyday lives, things we see, things we wear. I don’t like to get bad reviews, but it’s part of it.” Wilczak grew up in Fenton, between Flint and Ann Arbor.

She earned a bachelor of arts degree in liberal arts from Central Michigan University and a master of arts degree in art history from Michigan State University. She also earned an Ecole de langue Francaise et de culture Quebecoise from the Universite due Quebec a Chicoutimi in Quebec, Canada.

“I never drew or had any kind of artistic or crafty background,” she said. “It sort of evolved with my upbringing, going to museums and galleries at an early age, looking through books at home about the wonders of the ancient world and civilizations.”

She was interested in languages, particularly French.

“I thought I would be a teacher, but I quickly realized that I couldn’t see myself conjugating verbs for the rest of my career,” she said. “I looked at the travel industry, arranging study groups for overseas. In the process I had a lot of contacts with museums and thought maybe I should look into the museum environment.”

She has mostly learned on the job.

“I never really knew it involved moving sculpture and hanging (artworks). When the first shipment of crates came in, I thought, ‘Now what? Who’s going to open these?’” Her job is not 9 to 5. She recalls once when an artist got lost in a snowstorm and called her in the middle of the night.

Since the show was opening the next day, they stayed up all night hanging the show.

“We drank a lot of coffee,” she said.

She estimates that over the years she has curated more than 100 shows at the art center and has made many personal friends with the artists. She also has reached outside the Krasl to help her both in her career and to help the Krasl establish its prestige.

Teresa Goforth, executive director of the Michigan Museums Association, has served on the association board with Wilczak for four years. “Sue brings energy and passion to everything she does,” Goforth said.

The Ella Sharp Museum at Jackson was looking for someone to talk about the arts as a profession to high school and college students. “She (Wilczak ) was the first person who popped into my mind to link together museums and museum studies,” Goforth said.

She also admires Wilczak ’s courage in trying new projects.

“It impressed me when the Krasl got the show of lasers.

(Hiro Yamagata’s exhibit, “Laser Lights,” was a smallscale model of a laser light project proposed for Benton Harbor.) She talked about it and wasn’t afraid. She just jumped in and made it happen.”

Thelda Matthews of Dowagiac is the manager of the sculpture division of K&M Machine Fabricating Inc. at Cassopolis.

Her company has created many large sculptures, including some for Richard Hunt and for Michael Dunbar, whose “Allegheny Drift” stands on the Krasl grounds.

“Susan has an in-depth knowledge of the aesthetics of sculpture,” Matthews said. “She also is knowledgeable about the siting, or placing, of artwork.

She is persistent in pursuing those things that need to be done to maintain the artworks that are so important. We are very fortunate to have her.”

Off the job, Wilczak likes to go sailing, antiquing and traveling around the world.

She is also a second-year piano student.

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