WHY ARTISTS DO WHAT THEY DO

by BILL THOMPSON

L-R: Robb Helmkamp, Erik Wolken

 

ONCE WE CREATED CRAFTS out of necessity. The impulse was strictly utilitarian. But humans being humans, it was not long before the desire to decorate even the most prosaic objects became irresistible.

The evolution of the fine arts took a similar if somewhat different path, but the motivation has been the same: to create, to express and, if possible, to make a living at it.

Beyond the obvious, what attracts talent to a particular art form? What is the wellspring of their inspiration and drive?

Robb Helmkamp and Erik Wolken are divining the answers.

Helmkamp, 43, a sculptor and furniture maker who operates Kampstudio in North Charleston, and Wolken, 58, who deploys the same gifts at Erik Wolken Fine Furniture and Sculpture in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, have long regarded themselves as brothers from another mother. So, when Wolken suggested collaborating on a podcast that would explore the artist’s oeuvre, Helmkamp was game.

The pair would travel to studios around the East, interviewing artists of every stripe, and focus on one overriding question: Why do you do what you do?

“We are both very curious and passionate about the process of making,” says Helmkamp, “and we both know that we didn’t get where we are on our own. Both Erik and I wanted to give back to the community of makers, mentors and teachers that we have always interacted with throughout our journey. 

“So, armed with curiosity, respect, my experience in radio at West Virginia University, and the expertise of our resourceful filmmaker friend Nic Beery of Beery Media, we decided to give it a shot.”

Though Helmkamp styles the podcast as a work in progress, their interviews have already borne considerable fruit. The interviews can be accessed on their website Why Make? (why-make.com), as well on Stitcher and Apple Podcasts.

Helmkamp and Wolken attended West Virginia University 15 years apart, but their fates would intersect as woodworkers who also graduated from the professional crafts program at Haywood Community College in Clyde, North Carolina. They met in 2012 as exhibiting artists at Piedmont Craftsmen in Winston-Salem.

Helmkamp and Wolken go on the road every five months or so to conduct their interviews and are releasing one episode per month, on average. Why Make? is opening in the world of woodworking—primarily fine furniture makers, wood sculptors and woodturners—with plans to expand to painters, potters, clay and metal artists, printmakers and more.

Their most recent trip produced incisive conversations with Western North Carolina artists Joël Urruty (sculptor), Susan Link (furniture), David Ellsworth (woodturner) and David Scott (furniture maker).

Helmkamp and Wolken bring their own expertise and eagerness to grow to the interviews, convinced that fine crafts and fine art ultimately are indistinguishable.

For Helmkamp, furniture came first. He studied journalism and public relations in college before finding a less pressured and frenetic direction in life.

“I was drawn to it by a desire to be my own boss and not to have to sit behind a desk, computer or foot brake all day long. There was also the need express my creativity with my hands, to keep my hands and my brain busy with making things,” he says.

Curiously, most of his influences are drawn from outside the world of woodworking and furniture.

The drive to express his thoughts and creativity “outside the box” of furniture making led Helmkamp to sculpture. Like his furniture, his sculptures are wrought from various materials, including wood, metal (aluminum, stainless steel, steel) and found objects.

“Furniture and wood art provide a wonderful canvas, but I’m still building my vocabulary of skills to say things I want to say, and I find myself making things that have nothing to do with furniture and woodworking, like found object sculpture, printmaking, politically driven art and linocuts,” he says. “I am intentionally blind to the division [some] place between art and craft. Each is about the power of creation and making. I don’t see or believe in a difference.”

For more information, visit kampstudio.com and erikwolken.com.

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Bill Thompson covers the arts, film and design.