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A Planet of Possibilities

Curl sits among the pieces and parts that may one day become art.
The world of artist and man-about-junkyards Steve Curl

Most people who give directions to their house do not use the words “You’ll know you have the right place when you start seeing the giant black plastic Tiki heads,” but artist and Plainwell resident Steve Curl uses many things most people don’t.

Curl’s giant Tiki heads, made from discarded truck bed liners, are among the many artworks he creates from items he finds on the sides of roads and at flea markets, thrift stores or half-price days at estate sales. A friend once told him he had enough stuff to have his own planet, so, as an artist, the 53-year-old Curl goes by the name Planet Steve.

In his garage a 14-foot robot made of recycled plastic towers over a collection of materials: metallic robots, extension cords, a giant chicken mask. “Be careful backing up,” Curl says. “Check your footing first because it’s just piles everywhere.” Plastic deer heads hang above Curl as he talks.

Inside the house that he shares with his wife of 22 years, Sara Shields, a senior vice president at PNC bank in Grand Rapids, the collection continues. Despite the number and variety of objects here — masks and helmets fashioned from recycled plastic items, a series of “butler robots” inspired by Rosie of The Jetsons cartoon — there is order. One corner of the basement houses Curl’s studio — “my nerd center,” says Curl — a room filled with possibility.

A wall of cubbies displays cans of spray paint in every color imaginable. Across the room, a large TV looms in front of an antique barber chair, surrounded by workbenches teeming with tools.

Curl describes his home — a three-story mid-century house set back from the road — as “eccentric and worn down,” a phrase that also describes much of the material he uses. His furnace room holds a trashcan full of aluminum bats that will become robot legs. Another room looks like the storage closet of a mad Midwestern cook — its floor-to-ceiling shelves are filled with muffin tins, novelty cake pans, ladles, pitchers and Bundt cake pans of all sizes that would take three lifetimes of baking to use. All are made of aluminum, because it’s lightweight and cheap. Some of them cost Curl 10 cents.

“I mostly know where things are in here,” Curl says and then laughs, as if no one would believe that statement. “When I’m creating, I just yank things out and there will be an avalanche and I’ll make a huge mess. Then I’ll come back and restack everything.”

Curl sells his art through private commissions and at the annual Kalamazoo Institute of Arts Fair, the only fair he participates in. He also makes art for friends, and his first large-scale robot, named Aluminus, was purchased by the KIA.

Curl comes from a creative clan. His parents exhibited their work jointly at the KIA Fair in the 1970s. His father, David Curl, a retired academic and Air Force colonel, is a photographer who documents Steve’s evolving studio every few years. His mom, Dorothy Goodwin — who worked in public health as a registered nurse until she retired and still volunteers, at age 82, at Bronson Methodist Hospital — is a fiber artist and weaver.

He has one older sister, a writer married to a poet. “Pretty much my whole immediate family is published,” he says. “I’m the only one who isn’t.” Unless you count a photo of a piece of jewelry he made that graces the cover of the book The Jewelry of Burning Man. “That’s close enough, right?” he asks with a laugh.

Curl is very involved in the community of people who attend Burning Man, a weeklong festival in the Nevada desert that describes itself as “a crucible of creativity.” The festival has regional offshoots including one in Montague, Michigan, called Lakes of Fire, which Curl regularly attends. One year he made Lakes of Fire’s central effigy: a two-story whale built of wood, featuring a promenade deck, firefighter’s pole, spiral staircase and flaming blowhole, all of which he constructed while listening to a Moby Dick audiobook.

Curl’s trajectory as an artist evolved in much the same way as the eclectic collection of stuff he houses in his “nerd center.” As a kid, Curl performed magic shows for birthday parties and built his first robots with the late Corwin Rife, former Kalamazoo Public Museum curator, for a sci-fi-themed summer reading program. In the early 1980s, Curl dropped out of art school at the University of Michigan and ran the now-defunct Record and Tape Exchange store in Ann Arbor.

Since then, he’s held numerous jobs — in vintage clothing and warehouse management, at a one-hour film lab, and as a “tube bender” making neon signs. (“Interesting skill set for that, but also hot and dangerous,” he says.) He also worked for six years cutting and casting blocks of radiation shielding at the West Michigan Cancer Center before a machine replaced him.

Curl now works as an event coordinator for the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo, taking down art shows and hanging new ones all over town at the end and beginning of every month. He hangs art for shows at Bronson Methodist Hospital, the Arts Council’s gallery and other Art Hop venues.

Curl grew up in Plainwell, where his parents operated a state-sponsored tree farm on their property until the local paper mills closed. Now, descendants of the trees Curl planted in his youth live on his land, along with a tarp-covered dome full of collected materials and piles of other things too big to bring inside, like truck bed liners for future giant Tiki heads.

Curl shows off his outdoor “foundry,” where he refines aluminum and casts it into different shapes. Mixing sand with used motor oil until it gets to “Play-Doh consistency,” he creates molds that he fills with aluminum he melts in a bonfire.
Curl grows animated as he describes the best type of wood for a refining fire — “something that’s good and dense and burns hot.” His voice takes on a tone that says: I know what I’m talking about here. It also says: I love this part.

“It’s a fascinating process, and it’s a beautiful thing,” Curl says. “It always takes into the evening, and you get this red-hot pot glowing in the dark.”

Curl generally avoids repetitive works, but he’s been casting duplicate pieces for a friend who requested them to give as gifts at an upcoming Burning Man event.

“I get really bored repeating myself,” he says. “It’s important for me to keep the process as much like play as I can keep it.”

Kara Norman

Kara grew up on the East Coast and moved to Kalamazoo from Colorado two years ago. Describing herself as “writer, artist, wilderness fiend, now mama and (therefore) half-sane person,” Kara provides some of Encore’s freshest stories on artists, food and more.

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