Artist to Watch: Juniper Tangpuz

The Widely Exhibited Kansas City Artist is a Sculptor of Boundless Joy

“It’s a fan favorite,” Tangpuz says of this cosplay costume, called “Lagann,” that he made for a comic book convention. (photo by Jim Barcus)

For the past decade, Juniper Tangpuz has been redefining indoor and outdoor spaces around the world with his dynamic, imaginative sculptures.

Extracting spirit and vibrancy from two unassuming materials — corrugated plastic and cable ties — Tangpuz constructs larger-than-life characters inspired by a deep well of childhood experiences and a life dedicated to creative exploration.

In his work, Tangpuz mines the joy, freedom and imagination often considered exclusive to the world of children and creates a body of work that resonates with the child in all of us. Many of his sculptures are fantasized animals: dogs, lions, bears, giraffes, rendered in bright, eye-catching colors. A red kangaroo carries a baby in her pouch. A dramatic bird of paradise incorporates glow-in-the-dark ping pong balls.

Since 2008, Tangpuz has installed 18 multi-work exhibits in regional, national and international venues. Locally, his work has been shown at the Spencer Museum of Art, the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art and H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute. He’s also been the recipient of several grants, and in 2017 was the first artist in residence at Oak Park Mall.

For the past seven years, Bulgaria has become a creative home away from home for Tangpuz, since his participation in a 2011 artist residency program sponsored by Johnson County Community College. He’s completed two studio residencies there and exhibited work in three of the country’s cities — the first in 2011.

On that first trip, Tangpuz communicated with the Bulgarian people solely through his art. He didn’t speak the language and wished he had. As a result, he felt compelled and inspired to study languages. To date, he’s mastered five, including Bulgarian.

“Tigerlily” (2009), a 4-by-4-by-8-foot sculpture made from corrugated plastics, cable ties and glow-in-the-dark ping pong balls, is part of Tangpuz’s “The Flower Animal” series. (from the artist)

Regardless of where his art takes him, community connections are key for Tangpuz; he particularly enjoys sharing his gift with children. During the past few years, he’s led Northeast High School students in a cardboard design-build project, guided young Smokey Hill River Festival attendees in cardboard car design for the festival’s annual parade, and worked with Lawrence Art Center students to design and build cardboard cities.

A 2003 University of Kansas sculpture graduate, Tangpuz brings his childhood passion for toy construction and cartooning to the vision and design process, a place where nature and fantasy unite.

“The nature of my work always brings me back to childhood. I become an 11-year-old again every time I create. I’ve always liked the artists who make art from a place in their soul when they were free to play,” says Tangpuz.

The boundless joy conveyed in his work is a quality Tangpuz has always esteemed. He learned it from his grandmother, who retained her own resilient spirit through war and the challenges of immigration from the Philippines.

Regardless of where his work is installed, Tangpuz holds fast to a dual-edged objective. The first is to create irresistibly joyful work; the second is to see that it activates the space in which it’s installed.

His current show at the Johnson County Library’s Blue Valley branch is no exception.

The colorful characters infuse the library with a vitality that not only activates, but ultimately scripts a fresh story for the space.

“Part of my goal as a sculptor is to activate spaces that people would normally find mundane or don’t notice,” he says. My job is to make people notice things.”

Tangpuz’s work is inherently powerful. The playful natures of his characters are one with the underlying resilience of their spirits — a resilience to those things that would take us down.

Though Tangpuz’s sculptures are created from ephemeral materials, their message will endure.

“The world is brutal and it’s very difficult to respond to that,” observes Tangpuz. “There’s no way to heal or balance out the madness except for joy. Joy is a powerful response to suffering, pain and darkness.”

In June, Tangpuz will exhibit his work at Salina’s Smokey Hill River Festival. In July he will lead a new children’s cardboard city building project at the Lawrence Arts Center, and in 2019 he will participate in an exhibit at Emporia State University.

“Juniper Tangpuz Sculptures” continues through Aug. 19 at Johnson County Library’s Blue Valley Branch, 9000 W. 151st St., Overland Park. Hours are 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, 913.826.4600 or www.jocolibrary.org.

Anne Marie Hunter

Anne Marie Hunter is a writer and photographer who holds a B.S. in speech and art history from Northwestern University and a M.A. in Art Education from Southern Oregon University. Her work includes newspaper, magazine and corporate photography and writing assignments and projects. You can view and read her work at annemariehunter.com.

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