By Craig Stocks / Photography by Craig Stocks
Lawyer, writer and artist Louis Nizer wrote, “A man who works with his hands is a laborer; a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman; but a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist.” Nizer never met Peoria, Illinois sculptor Gene Mialkowski, but that quote couldn’t be more fitting for this carpenter who has learned how to create smoothly flowing steel sculptures.
Gene was born and raised in Chicago where he attended Lane Technical High School. He attended Northern Illinois University for a couple of years, but he says, “I was not a serious student at all.” Gene’s move to Central Illinois came when he accompanied his ex-wife to a dentist while they were visiting her family in Peoria. Gene jokes, “He ended up checking my teeth too, and I’ve been in debt in Peoria ever since.”
More seriously, Gene said, “I love Peoria. I’m here by choice. It’s the people, but it’s also the climate, even the heat of the summer and the cold of the winter, the topography, the metropolitan area. For someone like me, I couldn’t ask for anything better. I choose Peoria.”
Gene describes himself as “a pretty fair carpenter.” He operated the Good Work Construction Company for 30 years, and continues to take on carpentry work. He worked for the City of Peoria Inspections Department for two years, but says, “I need to be out doing it, not inspecting it.”
“I’ve always been an artist of sorts,” Gene said, “But as a carpenter, I was more mechanical than artistic.” In January 2002, Gene took a friend’s suggestion to attend one of Preston Jackson’s sculpture classes at the Contemporary Art Center. “I was already a maker, and a relatively creative maker, but I needed to get away from level, straight and plumb.”
Gene clearly remembers his “ah-ha!” moment. The class had an assignment to make a piece from found material and Gene was working with a couple pieces of scrap steel. When he asked a fellow student for feedback, he quickly replied that it was “too linear.” “I took the one piece of steel and just bent it over my shoe,” Gene recalled, and he immediately knew that was the way he wanted to create art.
Gene’s pieces can take months or even years to develop. His raw material is mostly scrap stainless steel. In the beginning, he’ll prop it up, look at it and think about it. Eventually, it will move to the vise where he’ll begin grinding and cleaning it up, which can take several hours. “After that, I’ll make a few bends (usually starting in the middle) and then look at it some more. I start looking for strong points. When a piece is at a point where I see a number of strong points, then I know it’s about done.”
Over the years, Gene has developed his own custom bending fixture. Though it provides a solid base and some mechanical advantage, Gene still depends on his muscle and body weight to form the piece. He works by eye, but also by feel. “My goal is to achieve a continuity of curve, what boat makers call a true curve. It’s a huge matter of touch and feel, and sound too.”
Gene said, “25 years ago I heard a story about a carpenter who decided that he wanted to be an artist. I thought at the time, “That’s what I want to be.” His story stuck with me, and I guess now I’m kind of that guy.”