As students shuffled back and forth between classes in Birge Hall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus these past few weeks, they looked curiously at what Peter Krsko was up to.
Up on a 14-foot-ladder, the Slovakian-born artist was building a plywood sculpture around one of the pillars in the entrance hall. Inspired by the plants he saw in the greenhouses at Birge Hall, Krsko constructed the sculpture of slender pieces of wood to climb 22 feet up the pillar like a vine, exploding outward like a geyser of water.
While Krsko’s tenure as this semester's UW Arts Institute's Artist in Residence had been planned for a while, the sculpture project was a spur-of-the-moment creation. Krsko’s work is inspired by nature and the environment, and he makes abstract sculptures that grow in harmony with their surroundings.
He first started coming to Wisconsin to create pieces for the Farm/Art DTour public art tour in Reedsburg, and liked the area so much he eventually moved here.
Krsko is working on another piece, a metal sculpture inspired by the movement of bubbles, that will be installed in the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. He’s also teaching a class of students from a wide range of arts and science majors to build their own sculptures, which will be unveiled in a show at Olbrich Gardens in May.
“I’m not against museums or galleries,” Krsko said. “I just feel more comfortable outside.”
Krsko talked with the Cap Times about the inspiration for his work, why art is a valuable way to approach science and why he moved from Slovakia to Washington, D.C. to the Driftless region of Wisconsin.
You now live in Wisconsin full-time. What brought you here?
The people and the whole landscape of the Driftless region, the cliffs and the bluffs. Every time I go out for a walk, every single place is amazing. It makes you feel really small. And you think about how it was all created thousands of years ago by all these lakes and waters.
The people are really beautiful and nice here. And the food is unbelievable, with all the organic farmers. There is something about the Driftless area where people are very conscientious about where they live, and tied to the earth. It reminds me of the place where I’m from, Slovakia.
I come from a family that spends a lot of time in the forest and doing woodworking. My grandpa, he managed a huge farm. I feel very comfortable here. And then I was lucky enough to get in touch with the great folks at the UW to create this multidisciplinary residency.
Do you build sculptures like this organically?
I get very inspired by the organic patterns. I came up with this shape after I got a tour of the greenhouses downstairs. One of the students in the class, a graduate student in the botany department, came up afterward and said, “Do you want to see the greenhouses we have in the building?” He showed me all these interesting plants that were from all around the globe. I was looking at these shapes and how it was all put together.
And then he was like, “I’m also on the outreach committee, and we were talking about you building a piece in the lobby.” I was like, “Great! I’ll just bring it from the greenhouse and put it in the lobby.”
I don’t like to really title or tell people what it is. It’s much more interesting for me asking what they see. It makes the conversation more interesting. It’s really just an abstract fantasy organism.
How did you get into combining art and science?
I have my Ph.D. in biophysics and material sciences. I was very interested in nature and how nature works. I wanted to answer all these questions in my head. The more I’m learning, the less I know and the more questions I have.
The most simple things that you look at, they’re the most fascinating. I’m trying to expose the students to it. If they don’t learn anything else from my course except to keep their eyes open and be curious all the time, then I will consider it to be successful.
We’re studying everything from tiny little things that are invisible to the bare eye and we have to use microscopes — bacteria, and different types of materials, even stuff you might find repulsive like mucus, in the context of hydrogels and biomedical technology. The first part of the semester we focus on the forms and shapes and the different ways that things in nature are packed and assembled.
And then slowly we’re moving into looking at dynamic systems, how certain processes happen in nature. The flow of energy and matter through nature and through bodies, through organisms. How different things are assembled. Eventually we’ll get into a more global, macro view of nature and earth, and study societies of organisms like bees and ants and termites and how we can learn from them. Even people in cities.
Throughout the semester, the students are encouraged to work on their personal pieces. It’s mostly sculptural. The preview will be presented in Reedsburg in April and then the final show of the students’ work and some of my pieces will be in Olbrich Gardens on May 5.
What set you on the path of making these art installations?
After I got my Ph.D., I got a post-doc fellowship at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda (Maryland). I was in the biophysics lab that specializes in developing either instrumentations for biomedical applications or looking at nature from a physicist’s point of view.
I was exposed to these old-school scientists who really believed in the value of science being done in government labs, and there was always all this talk about education and transparency, and how the general public should know what’s going on in these labs. Not just to be transparent, because there’s a lot of interesting stuff happening!
I became involved in outreach more and more, creating lessons plans and doing workshops with kids who didn’t necessarily have access to that level of science. At the same time, me and my friends were doing a lot of artwork in public spaces — huge murals, huge events, bringing together hundreds of artists. It would turn into this tremendous party where we would bring people together from all over the world.
Eventually, it made sense to bring these together. It’s taking the knowledge from science and using art as a very easy and friendly way to present it to everybody.
What is it about art that makes it a useful way for looking at scientific principles?
Art has a lot of different functions. The functions that I’m utilizing is that we can create attractive or interesting things. When you see a piece of sculpture, or artwork or music, you cannot stop looking at or listening to it. While you’re experiencing it, you’re getting some kind of information from it. I can use the same kind of concept and trick people into learning something.
You have kids and say, "Today we’re going to learn physics and chemistry," how many are going to say “Yeah, let’s do that!”? But if you say, “We’re going to build a couple of sculptures or paint a mural or compose songs,” they’ll be excited. You just put concepts into the process while you’re making things, and make them think about laws of physics or advanced mathematics. They don’t even realize they went through the process.
It seems like bringing people together and working as a group or community is a big part of what you do.
I like to spend time with the students and we discuss nature. I feel like humans are getting away from nature a little bit. We’ve got to start coming back to nature and realize that we are part of nature. We’re not above it.
I really like the students that I have in the class. They’re really smart and they come from diverse backgrounds and majors. The stuff that we’re doing is very interdisciplinary. The concept of being interdisciplinary also makes it very interesting, and I think it allows us to come up with more innovative approaches to making art.
It’s important that there are experts in different fields of science, but it’s also important to combine these fields together and look at nature from all different angles.