Q: How many sculptors does it take to shape the world?

A: The same number of comedians whose work is “serious business.”

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David really does the most beautiful work. It’s much more subtle than his gregarious, chatty personality would imply. He’s one of those guys who remembers quotes and anecdotes really well. And he has a great little snarky snicker. I wish one of his sculptures would fall off the truck next time he’s over. The last time he was here, he was walking around looking at my plants and trees. He came to one tree and stopped, whipped out a small saw and hacked off a bunch of branches. Then he just walked on, still talking. I still need to go clean those up.

Sculptor shapes his world
Sculptor David Culver surrounds himself with shapes that appeal to him. He lives and works in a historic Bay City building.
Ruth Nerhaugen The Republican Eagle
Published Thursday, May 17, 2007

BAY CITY — David Culver’s big break as an artist came when his first son was born in Helena, Mont. “The doctor who was going to deliver him needed a slate floor,” Culver explained. “I traded my first son for a slate floor.”

It wasn’t just any slate floor. Culver, a sculptor, created a work of art with texture and shape, insets and color — a mosaic that just happened to be underfoot instead of on the wall.

The next thing he knew, that doctor, who was on the board of directors when Helena built the Myrna Loy Performing Arts Center, recommended Culver for his first big public art job. “I got commissioned to do the floor in the entryway.”

Culver had been moving in that direction all his life.

“I knew I was an artist since I was a little kid” growing up in White Bear Lake, Minn., he said. His mother used to sit him down at the kitchen table with crayons, clay, paint or glue while she fixed meals.

Honing his skills

He attended the Minneapolis College of Art & Design, studying sculpture under such luminaries as Siah Armajani. Moving to Montana, Culver worked as a lumberjack, sawyer and stonemason, honing skills that stand him in good stead today as he works in stone, marble, metal and wood.

“All sorts of good things happened” after people saw his slate work at the performing arts center. “I had my 15 seconds of fame.”

More importantly, he had a track record in public art and began applying for projects and getting other commissions.

A congressional mandate requires that any building which receives federal funding must designate 1 percent of the budget for art. Minnesota and Minneapolis also have “percent for the art” programs.

“That money creates the opportunity for people like me to work,” Culver said, in addition to his private-sector work for corporations and individuals.

“Being a sculptor who likes to work in large scale is like being a musical composer,” he said. “The work doesn’t really exist, truly exist, until the symphony plays your piece.

“I’ve got great ideas” — for floors, murals, walls — “but they’re just ideas. I can’t realize them without a commission.”

What he does do is build things in HO model railroad scale. Sometimes, Culver admitted, he even adds little figures.

Culver returned to Minnesota about seven years ago, living on a houseboat in St. Paul and working at a studio in Minneapolis. Then the marina and the building both were sold.

A flier he found in a Minneapolis coffeeshop directed him to rural Wisconsin, where the old Bay City post office building was for sale.

Culver couldn’t resist the basement, a walkout with a big back yard a stone’s throw from Lake Pepin. The fact that the upstairs includes a small apartment and space for both showroom and office is a bonus. He’ll have been there three years come September.

He plans to bring his houseboat down soon. Meanwhile, though, “It’s a wonderful life.”

The sound of Culver at work can be heard from the street. Even on a 90-degree day, he can be found cutting away at a huge piece of granite with his diamond saw, or chipping away with a traditional hammer and chisel. Despite the heat, he is covered from head to foot with protective gear.

“If you’re a sculptor, you like shapes,” he said, acknowledging the dozens of pieces surrounding him in his home, his basement and his outdoor studio. He finds unfinished sculptures everywhere, including rocks on the side of the road.

Because he believes that art can be defined as “the replacement of vacancy with attention,” Culver often creates by enhancing what already exists — such as carving and polishing granite pieces as benches or scuptures.

“Lots of times things will tell you what they are,” or he may “inflict” his own designs on them.

Culver’s work can be seen at many Twin Cities locations, including Ceridian Corp. near the Mall of America, the Eden Prairie Public Library and several St. Paul companies, plus the geology department at the University of Ohio and a library in Las Vegas.

Locally, his sculptures are in the permanent collection at the Anderson Center at Tower View and in the courtyard and galleries of the Red Wing Arts Association Depot Gallery — both primary locations for this weekend’s Red Wing Sculpture Crawl.

“It’s not a very good way to make a living,” he acknowledged.

“You subsidize projects to get them done. The reward is the things you make. …

“(Sculptor) Robert Morris said he sees a thousand things a day that are much more interesting than anything he’ll do,” Culver quoted.

“If you’re a visual person, it’s an amazing world.”

An industrial-strength dust mask, ear covers, gloves and apron protect sculptor David Culver as he works on a piece of granite with a diamond saw in his backyard studio. — staff photo by Cody Buckalew

— staff photo by Cody Buckalew

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