Arts Magazine: Paper Futures

From Minnesota Artists Exhibition Program

Paper Futures: Minnesota artist Stanley J. Shetka and the art of invention

The search for the origins of Stanley J. Shetka's creative genius begins in a farmhouse overlooking a valley near New Prague, Minnesota.

The 7th of 13 children, Shetka was born in 1952 and grew up on his mother's family's farm. Like many of the neighboring Czech families, the Shetkas raised vegetables, fruits, chickens, and beef on their 160 acres, all the things necessary to feed a family of 15. Because their eight-room house lacked plumbing, they carried water from a well; an outhouse was situated nearby.

For young Stan, living off the land meant being in tune with the cycles of nature, being sensitive to the health of various creatures, understanding farm mechanics, and appreciating the importance of recycling materials and of people working cooperatively. At a very young age, he realized he must invent his own playthings and that if something was broken it must be fixed. Clearly, his youth on the farm nurtured Stan Shetka's insight into the connections between natural forces, his desire to solve problems, and his inclination to create.

Among Shetka's fondest childhood memories are those of his ongoing attempts to invent a flying machine and of his pet hawk. Rescued as a fledging, the bird was trained to come when called and to carry things as it flew-someday, Stan hoped, a camera so it could capture a hawk's-eye view of the world. Early on, he created machines to make farm life easier-one for cutting grass and one for digging potatoes. And he was so fascinated with electricity that, before the age of 10, he built small battery-driven motors and later designed a generator to sit in a stream and illuminate the water with an electric bulb fixed on top.

Encouraged by his high-school art teacher, Dennis Dvorak, Shetka enrolled in the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. After earning a bachelor's degree in fine arts, he pursued graduate work at the University of Minnesota. There, he created electric-powered kinetic sculptures and explored further the results of mixing fluid with matter (in cast paper-works) and fluid with electricity. In an astonishing series of sculptures, Stan submerged electrically live T.V. sets in water and oil-based transformer fluid and connected each T.V. to videocameras; when triggered by motion detectors, the cameras captured a viewer's image and transmitted it to the underwater sets.

In 1973 Shetka left Minnesota for the first time and traveled to England, where he attended the Whimbledon School of Art for a year. He credits this trip abroad with inspiring a major art project-to collect a piece of something from everywhere in the world and then to make one work of art from everything collected. This concept, eventually called "World Art Project," is defined as a life-long work-in-progress. Ultimately, it will be installed on the 160 acres that were once his parents' farm.

For Shetka the "World Art Project" acknowledges the global connections of creative work and serves as an umbrella for numerous other undertakings: his work with paper recycling; establishment of an international nonprofit "Center of Collaboration" that will bring expertise of creative individuals to bear on such problems as how to eliminate the use of pesticides; and future exploration of the possibility of placing works of art in outer space.

Since graduate school, Shetka has worked as an artist and, since 1979, as an associate professor of art and design at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. His creative accomplishments are extensive and include numerous exhibitions, featuring handmade books, kinetic sculpture, holography, and paper works. He also has traveled extensively. He has visited China four times and done advanced work in holography with scientists both there and in Bulgaria. As an ambassador of his "World Art Project," he has been to Romania, Czechoslovakia, Greece, England, and Italy. The Jerome Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the McKnight Foundation, the Virginia Groot Foundation, and the Charles A. Lindbergh Fund have recognized Shetka's contributions by awarding him grants, and he has received critical recognition from the American Paper Institute, Popular Sciencemagazine, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

In 1991 Stanley Shetka patented his design for an important invention-a unique paper press that, without the use of binders, transforms any type of paper waste into a beautiful and durable building material that can potentially replace wood in the creation of many products. It is this latest invention that brings us to "Paper Futures," a collaborative community project organized by Shetka and scheduled for exhibition in the MAEP's Minnesota Gallery from October 21, 1993 to January 2, 1994. Blending art with technology, the show will emphasize the importance of recycling and demonstrate how community involvement affects the world's ecology.

Serving as "general contractor" for the project, Shetka will work with selected artists, architects, and artisans to build a house entirely from pressed paper, including paper "bricks," wall reliefs, architectural forms, and furniture. The purpose, however, is not so much to construct a house as it is to solve problems centered around the idea of a paper house. That is, how does this material, called Shetkaboard, affect questions of design and function in a building? This structure, which Shetka refers to as a "production house," will be the focal point for consideration of a variety of creative concepts.

A recycling station for wastepaper will be a feature of the show. And during selected gallery hours the press will produce paper bricks and related forms that will then be used as building material for various components of the exhibition.

Throughout the project's installation, Shetka will arrange partnerships between artists and regionally based companies that are interested in commissioning works of art made specifically from the waste products of their operations. They-and everyone else who participates in "Paper Futures"-will help foster Stanley Shetka's utopian ideal: Community collaboration and creative thinking can make the world a healthier, more artful place.

Cynde Randall is an artist and program associate for the MAEP.

Research on developing and producing a full-size, functioning outdoor house and furniture made entirely from recycled paper has been funded by The Charles A. Lindbergh Fund, Inc. The completed house will be located on the World Art Project site, near Webster, Minnesota.

Citation: Cynde Randall, "Paper Futures: Minnesota artist Stanley J. Shetka and the art of invention," Arts 16, no. 11 (November 1993): 8-9.