Wickerson Studios: Fire Over Kansas

Wickerson Studios presents a sculptural landscape and digital happening collaboration.


Michael Wickerson, associate professor and chair of sculpture at Kansas City Art Institute, understands land. He is woven into it like the very fabric of the earth, as a weaver takes yarn through a loom. Yet, his creations are impermanent. At Wickerson Studios, in Kansas City, Kan., Wickerson and his wife, Beth and their two young sons, look at the land as something that provides joy, energy and inspiration.

The family treasures the land as another living being, similar to the depiction of land in a Thomas Hardy novel. And much like the heath of Hardy’s world, the 11 acres are unkempt and wild, full of spirit and interest. In Return of the Native, Hardy describes the heath early on as “The somber stretch of rounds and hollows seemed to rise and meet the evening gloom in pure sympathy, the heath exhaling darkness as rapidly as the heavens precipitated it.” In the dictionary, a heath is “an extensive area of rather level open uncultivated land.” Like the heath, the rolling acreage seems to have a wild, untamed spirit, much like the family that lives upon it.

To capture the land, Wickerson has partnered with Polish photographer Jaroslaw Rodcyz. The works are a fusion of architectural design, theater and fire performances, mixed with Rodcyz’s artistic digital imaging techniques. This first series is now known as Fire Over Kansas.

The images from Fire Over Kansas will be making their collective way around Europe and North America. Rodcyz says these first images are just the beginning. He and Wickerson have known each other for 20 years, having met in Wickerson’s native Canada. Future plans could include documenting Wickerson Studios in different seasons.

Ashley Anders, KC Studio’s KC Connect curator, attended KCAI and has worked with Wickerson for years. Her labors have included making hundreds of bricks and serving as coordinator for Fire Over Kansas. She helped manage the volunteers and even fed the fire for the photo documentation on the cover photo. Anders has traveled with Wickerson to share a presentation on the work.

During the documentation process, Anders says, “We all agree that the chance to document the work is critical … The direction and ultimate realization of his work is comfortable being in constant flux. The allowance of free thought and dreaming on this 11-acre land has led us to create and display the prints. In collaboration with Jaroslaw Rodycz and Erik Muelenbelt from Holland, Michael has reached a point with Wickerson Studios in which a great deal of appreciation, contemplation and critique are in order …”

One of the first steps in understanding Wickerson is to understand his joy in working the land. “I am most content and tranquil while shoveling. Digging the earth provides me with more material, both physical and psychical, that I could ever acquire by any other means. I firmly believe that everything we purchase is basically free of charge and that we are only paying for processing and transportation of that material. Looking to the land and what is beneath my feet allows me to ‘stand my ground,’ fundamentally and conceptually, and, in turn, manipulate, transform, and reflect upon all that it provides…

“There is a time to dig and mix the earth after a rain. Transporting and processing occurs when the earth is dry for about a week. The grass is utilized to bind and ram the adobe mixtures. The sod is employed at the right time of year and the earth clay is pressed and kiln dried in the anagama kiln. There is a season for everything, and the climate dictates what must be done. Most importantly, it won’t get done on its own. I build what I need because I need to …”

The various rough-hewn buildings are carefully preserved in the photos: Little Otik known as Oscar’s Tower, Hamlet’s Mill, the anagama kiln called Moby Dick, Cupola, Cupola (the burning ship) and the Grieve Foundry. If Wickerson continues to describe his work on the land, it’s appears as a combination of a Roman settlement in ancient Britannia meets Native American structure.

“Understanding the method of construction for each of the buildings is directly tied to gaining knowledge about the content of each of the structures themselves. In an attempt to ‘build ruins’ I have experimented and researched and developed several different processes while aspiring to create these structures,” Wickerson says. Another strength of his is to show how work can be done with brawn and brain. The largest motor used in moving the various timbers has been his 2001 Prius. Again the land and the use of simple tools such as a block and tackle are Wickerson’s first choices.

“My efforts and ambitions seem to be moving beyond my personal development and exhibition of sculptures and ideas. I feel the need to expand my efforts in the arts. My American arts community has grown from 12 students in 2001, when I moved here from Canada, into an international exchange of ideas spanning the globe,” he says. “Beginning to develop my private studios on an institutional level will allow me to continue to serve the alumni and artists that I have come to know. I look forward to creating new artworks, all the while, serving other artists with the same enthusiasm and drive that has inspired me to make a life for myself in America that develops personally and professionally with creative individuals.”

No one who steps on Wickerson Studios leaves unaffected by the family’s passion. “Although I do not feel able to define passion in a general sense, I do believe that the following Mantra sums up the passion I have for the studio and the time I have on earth,” he says. There is a detailed mantra that is defined online, in print and each and every day. The mantra is: work outdoors; value the seasons; utilize natural light; watch the sunrise; follow the moon; let the weather control the temperature; it all returns to the earth; everything exists in a long-term landfill; endure, breath, move; the heart is the only motor; all we are is our mind and our health; and shovel, dig, make bricks.

Wickerson says there is a philosophy of success in his artistic career and personal life. Wickerson’s sons have been raised on the land with his second son, Max, being born at home. His son Oscar has helped in shaping some of the projects and the workload. His wife, Beth Wickerson, according to Wickerson, is the physical embodiment of the heart and passion of Wickerson Studios. “She is the creator of our two sons, Oscar and Max. The latter of which struggled and was born on the floor in front of our family fireplace (hearth and mantle) at Wickerson Studios in 2011.”

Wickerson’s wife, Beth, a web designer, says, “To me, passion is working for yourself in every aspect of life – whether it is reshaping the land to your own private oasis, growing your own food, or running your own business. It is the desire to make life worth living, to put all your energy toward doing the things that make you happy, and to remove yourself from the things that don’t.”

Sharing Fire Over Kansas is still somewhat unfamiliar. “I am still processing the meaning of the series of digital prints; I believe that I have come to understand that it is collection of analogue images that center on the same concept, place, and time: the Wickerson Ranch. Similar to Greek theater, the collaborators, attempted in a very short period of time to immortalize a happening that was framed by several years of building and planning,” he says.

“I hold very dear to me the statement that Ashley Anders, a long time participant at Wickerson Studios, has demanded an answer to and what the series of works resonates and captures. Although I remain completely overwhelmed with the outcome, Ashley manages to simply and clearly uncovered the critical moment that all involved in the project are currently facing: ‘In collaboration with Jaroslaw Rodycz and Erik Meulenbelt from Holland, Michael has reached a point with Wickerson Studios in which a great deal of appreciation, contemplation and critique is in order. [Their} accomplishments call for internalization by individuals not only in our community but also around the world.’”

Coming shows will be in Krakow through the middle of March. Wickerson also expects a show in Canada too. “I wish to further develop the private studio and sculptural landscape of Wickerson Studios by facilitating it with additional equipment, supplies and materials in order to serve a growing community of artists,” he says.

On a final and invitational note, whatever the future does hold, Wickerson will continue to seek out the new and different. That’s why he enjoys art and design. “Please feel free to contact us, should you be interested in proposing a site specific work or would just like to shoot around some creative ideas with a herd of deer or a rafter of turkeys.”

Learn more about Wickerson Studios and the Project Overview of Fire Over Kansas.
Collaborator: Jaroslaw Rodycz, concept/photography & editing
Collaborator: Michael Wickerson, production manager/buildings, artworks and forms
Collaborator: Erik Meulenbelt, consultant/logistics & personnel
All images © Rodycz Wickerson

Kellie Houx

Kellie Houx is a writer and photographer. A graduate of Park University, she has 20 years of experience as a journalist. As a writer, wife and mom, she values education, arts, family and togetherness.

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