Christian Karkow is an artist who finds inspiration in everyday objects and the city of Raleigh.
“I really want to live in a city that appeals to the both the world’s best artists and designers as well as local talent to make an impact. I want the citizens of this community to want the same.”
Christian Karkow’s studio more closely resembles an antiques shop than an artist’s place of refuge. Stacks of state archive boxes reach nearly to the ceiling, carefully labeled with what lies inside: watches, small trains, buttons, gauges, guitar strings. A bike leans against the table, a record player sits near the door—both have seen better days. What may look like clutter to some is creative fodder for Christian, a Raleigh artist who spends much of his free time here.
“I have things that are meaningful to me that I may not necessarily make art with. But I feel entirely inspired.
“I love that [record player], but it doesn’t work. As an artist, I take things like that machine and renovate it in a way to give it a new life. I have to kill it in some way to give it a new life … Most things in this studio will survive, but not the same way. Sacrifices will be involved.”
A flock of small birds sits atop the table. The birds, crafted from dismantled watches, were part of a 2010 art show at Elon University.
“There are hundreds of these ‘birds’ and they are all a little different. A few years ago, I had intended on creating a stop-motion film using the birds. I also thought I could make books illustrated with photographs of the birds. At first I didn’t have a story for the birds. I thought that if I kept making the little birds, that a story would present itself but it never did.
“I’m thankful that the birds helped me see that obsessive repetition is not a healthy way to find the ‘big picture.’ That’s so true in life in general! Fortunately, each bird is its own work of art. Creating and being around them brings me joy! Lately, the birds are finding themselves perched on some of my sculptures. Why not … ‘Put a bird on it!’”
Christian, who was born in New Jersey, recalls the day he moved to Raleigh as one of the best of his life. “I knew it, at 14, that it was a life-changing experience,” he says.
Christian says he lacked direction as a teenager, but has become a man of many interests. While attending Appalachian State University, where he studied geology, he discovered a love of architecture and design.
“I spent a few summers in the Italian Alps making geologic maps. It was so inspiring. I was immersed in an unforgettable landscape and culture. I was also surrounded with inspiring art and architecture—ancient and modern.
“Arts and crafts had always been a part of my life since I was a child. I left Italy completely committed to pursuing the arts. I knew I had a lot to learn but also believed that I had the raw talent of an artist. Under the influence of some of my best friends who were having similar thoughts and goals, I focused my attention on becoming an architect. It seemed like a natural fit for my interests. I applied to several graduate schools, was accepted at NC State College of Design, and went. Up till then, I’ve never studied or worked harder and with more passion.”
Not long after graduating from the NC State College of Design, Christian began working at Clearscapes, a Raleigh architecture and design firm, where he is studio director.
While architecture and geology influence Christian’s work, he doesn’t practice either in a conventional sense. For the past seven years he has worked closely with Thomas Sayre, the principal sculptor for Clearscapes’ artistic endeavors (the Raleigh Convention Center shimmer wall is one example). The position seems made for Christian, who thrives on a collaborative creative process.
“With good communication one can really go a long way and really challenge things … I often have a different perspective from my colleagues—not a better one, just a different one. My interests are often aligned with found objects, mechanical and digital [art] systems. [Thomas’s] talents lead in sculptural form making and processes. We collaborate, put our ideas together and get great results.
“It can be an interesting struggle when collaborating with other artists and designers. It comes with the territory that there are both egos and humility—it goes both ways. It makes a career I can’t live without.”
Christian recently worked with Jon Zellweger, another Clearscapes architect, on a memorial within the new Clayton Law Enforcement Center. In designing the memorial, which honors three police officers killed in the line of duty, Christian and Jon worked with the community to create art that reflected their values.
“It seems that everyone was satisfied, especially the police force who mourn the loss of their colleagues. The concept that drove the memorial’s design was intense and heavy to bear. There were many tears along the way. The memorial literally illustrates the loss of a colleague, friend and loved one and celebrates the service of law enforcement officers. The project was a success on many levels.”
Public art projects, like the memorial, make up much of Christian’s work at Clearscapes. These projects are often funded by percent for art policies similar to Raleigh’s, which allocates half of 1 percent of capital project construction funds for art. Raleigh’s policy, put in place in 2009, is moving the city in the right direction, Christian says, but came on the scene rather late.
“We are behind many great cities when it comes to public art. It takes good policies and leadership. Thomas and I have been working all over the country and have seen both the good and bad.
“We’re very young but I think Raleigh is off to a great start. 2009 was a big year for this city when the city council endorsed the current public art policy. The leadership is strong. We have a long way to go, it takes years of successful projects to develop a legacy of public art projects and popular respect.”
That’s about as much judgment as Christian will openly levy on Raleigh, a place he loves as much for the city itself as for the small communities on the outskirts.
“Over the last two years, I’ve installed our sculptures across the country. Really cool cities like Nashville, Tucson, Washington D.C., San Jose … We try to get familiar with the art scene in these towns. Sometimes, I ask myself, ‘Is this the place I should move next … move my practice here?’ I can honestly say that I love coming home to Raleigh.
“We are neither over- nor under-established as an art community. The talent pool of local artists seems as diverse as local industry. Artists and designers cover a wide spectrum of medium and style. The market is competitive enough to keep us sharp and pushing ourselves to do better, and small enough so that we can support each other.”
Through the Lens
What three words would you use to describe Raleigh?
Globally familiar (most know the area for some reason or another),
Locally, safe (for better and worse),
Kind (better than “mostly harmless”).
Where is your favorite place to spend an afternoon?
You’ll find me on the grounds of Dorothea Dix Hospital! Which is not a park of course, but it sure feels like one. It’s a lovely mix of landscape and architecture; it’s a suite of Raleigh’s architectural history. Now, it’s largely abandoned. My dog and I walk through it almost daily.
Some day it will change. It will lend itself to Raleigh’s expanding city fabric. I think this is a good thing. The campus is [like] a lot of the things in [my studio]. For its great spaces to be preserved and loved, it will need to be re-invented.
What is your favorite recent addition to Raleigh?
I think CAM by far. It’s something bigger, something new, something fresh from another place—the principal designer out of California, offering a new look to our local architecture and a wonderful space for exhibiting great art. Raleigh has needed this some time. CAM’s art and architecture speaks to a contemporary and global audience.
The other thing that’s equally important is Raleigh’s public art policy, which started around the same time. Like CAM, it can attract artists from all over the country (or world). They’ll leave their art-mark here like Thomas and I to do in other cities.
What would you like to see in the city in five years?
I want to see a revitalization of a specific region of Raleigh. This area is downtown Raleigh’s south side, between Martin Luther King Blvd. and I-40. I want to see a few things happen.
First, I want to see South Saunders St. become a proud corridor to our downtown. I’m hoping to see continued rejuvenation of the communities, homes and businesses within this region. All of this will be a massive undertaking for local policy makers, developers, small businesses and communities (old and new).
Finally, I want to see the campus of Dorothea Dix Hospital lending itself to this equation somehow.
What would you like your lasting, personal contribution to the city to be?
Part of me wants to leave a great piece of art behind, but once you’re done with the art, you’ve kind of got to keep doing more. [A pause] I’m thinking it’s probably more of a cultural leave behind, where I’m able to be part of, and enable more people like me to work in public art here in town. To train and work with young artists, like I was once, and keep that culture going; to be part of the process of developing new art.
Headshot photo credit: Abby Nardo
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The man is crazy. Always maintain your distance. 😉
Proud to say we are both graduates of Basking Ridge, New Jersey. And proud to be working along you. You are an inspiration to so many folks CK…..
Christian is extraordinary, I keep fond memories of him while he was a student in Boone!