Pilot Mound artist Karl Unnasch's "Burnt Matchstick" sculpture stands outside the Rochester Art Center, garnering attention and most importantly, curiosity.
Pilot Mound artist Karl Unnasch's "Burnt Matchstick" sculpture stands outside the Rochester Art Center, garnering attention and most importantly, curiosity.

“A matchstick is something you see every day.  It’s innocuous, but it represents a lot of potential for doing a lot of harm or doing a lot of good.  It’s a tool like anything else.  Something simple like that could get people thinking, get them to stop and consider for a minute,” observed Karl Unnasch, settling into a wooden folding chair on his Pilot Mound porch.

Reflecting on the ideas behind his newest sculpture, Unnasch was glad to be home from St. Paul after spending three days way outside his comfort zone – someplace with plenty of concrete – to attend an award ceremony and share his artistic knowledge with students at an urban arts college.

As tractors meandered by, he spoke of the 40-foot steel, stained glass and clear acrylic “Burnt Matchstick” sculpture now glowing in the yard just to the west of the Rochester Art Center (RAC) at Mayo Civic Center in Rochester, recalling how it gained its stead there. 

“This one is a dream project I started…I got to drawing tiny things last winter, executing them in pencil drawings,” he said. “I just began burning a box of matches, and by the time I got to the last one, I had burned the whole box, and started looking at the burnt matchsticks.  It was an interesting transformation of burnt wood, simple and small.  I picked out one I liked, the best one, and I drew it, then turned it into a faceted art sculpture.” 

His studio, the former Pilot Mound General Store, quite often isn’t big enough to accommodate his visions, but he “had a pretty down to earth, clear idea of how to do this,” so he contacted a friend and fellow artist, Sam Spiczka of Sartell, Minn., to inquire whether he could use his shop to do some welding, as he’s glad to have a reliable network of friends with whom to barter. 

“In late winter and early spring, I spent time in his shop because there was enough room to construct and assemble, test the fit of the joinery.  It was a nice steppingstone for me to take on such a fabrication challenge.  For a guy who doesn’t weld every day, I learned a lot in a short time,” Unnasch said. “I was trying to keep it as close as possible to the original sketch.  It came out about right.”

The artist is realistic about his ventures, taking into account at the outset how each piece of public art he creates will garner people’s attention and get a response, benefit society and use the partnerships available to him, such as the Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant and the generous matching sum provided by the Rochester Art Center.  After he put the word out and the Rochester Art Center responded, Unnasch hauled the parts of the matchstick to the art center and assembled it with the assistance of the art center’s maintenance crew, which provided a crane. 

“I was up in the cherry picker with another guy, and the guy who was operating the crane was a virtuoso – I don’t care what you do to impress me…it doesn’t have to be art – and I was so focused on getting the job done, had to stay focused on the job at hand, getting the joints to fit so that it’s solid, safe and secure,” he explained.

The difference between installing the Christmas trees he has been commissioned to create for the town of Silver Spring, Maryland, last winter and the matchstick lay in how long he had to handle making the necessary adjustments. 

“The trees, you have to install the components onsite and it’s measured by the day, but this was measured in hours to assemble,” said Unnasch. “It’s really like painting a room in that the cutting in goes on for a long time, but it goes quickly once you get the cutting in done correctly.  I was extremely happy because the project followed extremely closely to my original idea, that I executed a good finished product.  The most rewarding part was stepping back from it and seeing how it all went together.  I’m sure it was a surprise to the town, but it was part of the programming of the Rochester Art Center.”

“Burnt Matchstick” will stand against the winter sky this year and until the end of next June, inspiring viewers to think about the piece and what it might mean to them. 

“It’s curiosity…I want them to walk away with a positive response. I’m interested in them being interested, in it being considered, judged, reflected upon.  We (artists) have to trust that what we do is OK with others.  We have to trust people to look at it, and it’s then up to the public to decide its validity and value,” Unnasch elaborated. “I’m trying to make these little spectacles, sometimes big ones, something that people can enjoy for more than five minutes.  I’m a big fan of letting things soak in a bit, of living with something.  You find out more fulfilling things about yourself as you live with it.  I think that if art is done right, it adds to a more substantive life.  And I’m very happy with it.” 

He’s got plenty in motion in his own substantive life, having received a Knight Foundation Award at that St. Paul ceremony and being chosen to offer up more spectacles for people to see and review in their minds.  This time, it’s a water tower with a stained glass tank, and the good people of Silver Spring expect him to return this November to put up the town Christmas tree. 

“This year’s tree is for a food bank charity in Silver Spring.  It’s all glass, and I’m collaborating with my good friend John Taylor, who will be making lanterns for it.  I’ve also got a tree in Indianapolis, a toy tree…and I’ve just done the four windows for the children’s section in the Ramsay County Public Library in White Bear Lake…a little ‘seek and find’ in the windows like the one at F&M Community Bank in Preston,” he said.

Unnasch admitted that being a public artist often presents challenges, such as “making something out of nothing” and handing an installation over to the public’s scrutiny, as these are things that come into consideration every time he takes on a project and transforms a drawing into a memorable landmark.  

But he’s not afraid to light that match.                 

Karl Unnasch’s “Burnt Matchstick” is stationed at the Mayo Civic Center on Civic Center Drive in Rochester.  For more information on Unnasch’s works, log onto www.karlunnasch.com.