The artistic voice of Kirsten Kokkin - one of the foremost contemporary figurative sculptors.

By Dianne Cauble

Isolated and shy as a child, Kirsten Kokkin spent afternoons in her native Norway drawing and painting imaginary scenes. Her innate artistic talent was a voice to communicate with those around her. As a result, art became her primary form of personal expression, conveying emotions she found impossible to verbalize. That artistic voice continues to be heard, and Kokkin, one of the foremost contemporary figurative sculptors, creates monumental works for installation in public and private spaces from Norway to Australia to the United States. Her distinctive pieces transcend physical limitations, soaring effortlessly in a perfectly balanced flight.

Living in Denver for the past eight years, Kokkin works out of a large studio adjacent to her home, conveniently located near some of the country's best foundries.
"I Iike to be involved in the casting process. It's essential for me to see the wax, and the result before the patina. I spend about three or four hours daily being creative, and the rest handling detail work with production and the foundry."

Kokkin's diverse artistic abilities were carefully cultivated during her years attending Scandinavian art schools. In Norway, these institutions are not a part of the university system. Only a limited number of students are accepted; and all are provided a full scholarship. She feels fortunate to have started her career there, where art is generously supported by the government.

"The competition is quite fierce and there's a lot of pressure before entry. But once you've been accepted, you have wonderful freedom. There are no worries about the basics of survival. But Norway has very strong criteria about what constitutes an artist. A person isn't considered an authentic writer until he or she has several books published."

Kokkin was drawn to sculpture by its hands-on, three-dimensional aspect. Her strength lies in her interpretation of the body - its composition and movement, with expressions that are quite subtle. She used her classical background where the body is a reliable source of inspiration to express emotion.

"I especially enjoy creating dancers. The first position in ballet is the beginning of life for a dancer. I like the simplicity. I've studied movement myself, both classical and modern. In the U.S., the subtlety of my expression sometimes works against me. Most American art is quite clear to the observer. It's a difficult challenge to clarify the message, but I think it's healthy to have to look for other ways to reveal my intention."

Working primarily though commissions, Kokkin has now been sculpting for 28 years, 18 of those professionally. "The most satisfying aspect is the process, beginning with the design. I don't start on paper, but make a three to ten inch maquette, often using a model. I go straight for action and proportion."

Unconcerned at this point with details, Kokkin then creates a one-fourth to one-third size rendition, to infuse exciting movement. Finally, she produces the full size. During each transition, something inexplicable happens.

"The piece takes on a life of its own, and I develop a very strong relationship with it. The challenge is to listen and not force my idea on the subject. It's as though the sculpture is trying to tell me something."

Living in Denver, Kokkin seldom gets the opportunity to interact with other artists, although she occasionally teaches at the Denver Arts Students League. For creative inspiration, she travels to Europe at least twice a year.

"I visit my colleagues and go to the museums. It's something I must do for myself emotionally. This past winter, I went to Palm Beach, Florida, to teach a workshop and I loved it. The palm trees and pelicans, the ocean and the tropical climate were an invigorating change."

Although she's a risk taker in life, Kokkin sticks close to what she feels is natural in her work. She emphasizes the importance of listening, and of mastering the basics - learning to handle the clay and materials.

"Ultimately you make art with your heart and mind, not with your hands. It's important to have a vision. I've met a number of difficult challenges during my career, and I've been a gypsy traveler. At 27, I took on the project of sculpting 14 busts for an Australian family. That commission took a lot of nerve and guts. There have been a lot of projects where the odds were really against me, but somehow I managed to pull them off."

One adventure required that Kokkin create a figurative/abstract form of a sailor clutching a boat fragment. That object now stands in Aeslesund, Norway, a commemoration of fisherman lost at sea. Though she's generally drawn to nudes and dancers, she is currently producing a life-size wall sculpture of the Archangel Gabriel for a Chicago church.

"This past year I've noticed changes resulting from my desire to express more real emotions. My previous work has always been very defined and detailed. Now, I want to go straight for the heart. I like to think that my best is yet to come. The freedom to explore and be open is very important toward achieving that. I want to aim at the core of human emotion. It's essential for me to define what I stand for and what I mean."

This summer, Kokkin will journey once again to her native Norway, where she will explore and sketch the familiar countryside of her childhood. A personal journal will capture her observations on art, philosophy, and poetry, while her drawings will once again communicate her deepest inner self.


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