Tree Hugger Project sculptor Wiktor Szostalo has a keen sense of humor that pops up in his conversations as well as his artwork.
During his visit here last week as the guest of Nicole Saint-John and Robert Crewdson, he spoke to a group of about 40 artists, art enthusiasts and environmentalists at Sustenance 101, a new gourmet cooking space operated by Seamus Finn-Chandler in downtown Bakersfield.
Referring to his five months of imprisonment for dissident activities in Soviet-dominated Poland in the early 1980s, he said with a smile, "And then I was invited to leave."
In 1983 he sought asylum in the United States and settled in St. Louis, Mo., which continues to be his home base. About four years ago he established a studio in Poland, where his 93-year-old mother lives.
As part of his presentation to the Sustenance 101 group, Szostalo showed photos of work he's done in the U.S. and Europe. He is both prolific and varied in his approach.
Some of the sculptures are humorous yet make a statement. For example, one grouping has five gigantic -- at least 10 feet high -- chairs that are empty save for an oversized stringed instrument that leans against each one.
Others have a religious theme, although Szostalo said he is an agnostic. For the past 10 years he had done work for a number of black churches.
Still another, which he erected at a recent Burning Man celebration in Nevada, he calls "The Last Tree in the Desert."
For the two days he was here, Szostalo, now 61, toured likely spots for a Tree Hugger project focusing on Yokuts Park and the Mill Creek linear park segment of Central Park.
As an alternative to creating a new project, Szostalo proposed bringing a traveling installation that's currently on display in Darmstadt, Germany. It consists of a line of about 14 figures standing in line waiting to hug the "last tree on earth."
Each figure is made of bound-up bundles of woven twigs, and each is representative of a local character from each of the communities that has hosted the installation. Szostalo suggested it would fit very well in Mill Creek Park, using one of the trees in the open space between the creek and the Bakersfield Museum of Art.
If the installation comes to Bakersfield, the community will have the opportunity to add up to three figures chosen with input from local residents.
He was surprised to find the Kern River is a wide expanse of dry sand as it passes by Yokuts Park. His ideas for an installation in that area are related to the presence and absence of water, and the importance of the river to our quality of life, Crewdson said.
Although he's obviously serious about his concerns for protecting the environment, the sculptor indicated he'd like to incorporate a bit of levity in any piece he might create for the spot.
As a result, one of his preliminary sketches shows a 14-foot- tall figure doing a handstand in the river bed.
He felt the extra height was necessary so it could be seen from the freeway as well as from the park. And if and when the water flows, the figure would be partially submerged.
Another sketch shows a large fish with tiny feet making its way out of the river supposedly seeking a better existence on dry land.
Carrying out any of these ideas depends almost entirely on the amount of money Saint-John, through her new company, Kern Community Arts Partnerships, is able to raise. The goal is to get $6,000 in pledges by May 7, which is about one-third of the total amount needed.
Crewdson, who has taken on the role of chairman of KernCAP, said the organization hopes to achieve nonprofit status as soon as possible.
San Diego Park mural
I've been impressed with the bold, look-you-straight-in-the eye portraits of Mexican patriots done by local artist Jorge Guillen in the past few years.
One of my favorites is his painting of the revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, which took second place last year in Metro Galleries' Latination exhibition.
Now he and about 25 members of the Dolores Huerta Foundation Youth Group have designed and painted a mural that focuses on a celebrity from his own hometown of Lamont -- namely, internationally known conga player Marcos Reyes.
The mural was funded by a grant issued by the Arts Council of Kern. It will be unveiled on Saturday at San Diego Park in Lamont.
Sherwyn's art classes
Two different, but related, six-week visual art workshops taught by Art Sherwyn begin next week at the Bakersfield Museum of Art.
The course that starts on Tuesday is for experienced artists. The other, beginning on April 4, is for beginners.
Sherwyn, who spent many years teaching art in local high schools before his retirement, has a relaxed and informal way of working with students of all ages.
He finds that those who've been making art for years seem to be eager to explore new ways of doing things.
"Usually, the experienced ones that come in are trying to get off their plateau," he said. "They want to go in a different direction."
Those in the beginners category often are people who always thought they would like to try their hand at art but just never got around to it.
"Art is one of those expressions that get better with age," Sherwyn said. "Here's a great opportunity to give it as shot."
Registration in advance is requested. If you're a BMOA member the fee for each course is $150; for non-members it's $165.