Award-winning artist Karl Unnasch dwells among humble settings. His studio, the former 1800s-era general store of Pilot Mound proper, sits among what he calls “Ten acres of Unabashed Utopian Vision.” Open to all, his studio philosophy is crafted as purposely as his distinctive works of art.
“‘The Mound’ has become a harbor for self-expression; an anchorage for conceptual abandon; a retreat for reflection, introspection, deliberation, rumination,” says Unnasch. “Here, urban culture is tempered by rural values and global perspectives are filtered through local dimensions, lending a whole new light to the stuff of one’s world.”
While dubbing himself a Midwestern Ruralist, Unnasch’s work has taken flight around the continent and the world, as with some of his smaller-scale works. His business, Pilot Mound Design, produces both exquisite stained glass and architectural art that captivates the viewer.
Last year, Unnasch completed an art installation unlike any other, with roots stretching back more than a decade. The “Slumgullion,” named for the dish prepared from various leftovers, took a 19th-century log cabin and brought it to vibrant new life as centerpiece for the Philbrook Museum of Art grounds in Tulsa, Okla. Its story began at a seemingly unspectacular roadside store, as he recalls.
“I found the cabin in a disassembled pile without the intention of buying it at the time. I stopped to look for hardware for another cabin I was reconstructing at the time and saw a picture of this cabin taken by the proprietor’s son in a restacked state and recognized that it was a rare find,” he says. The cabin pictured was unusual in that it was twice the standard footprint for a cabin of that time. “I could see that if the picture was authentic that it would be an impressive build. I put cash down that day to hold it until I could come back with a trailer.”
The parts of the cabin were loaded and hauled from Weyerhauser, Wis., in 2005, taking three trips with a trailer to get it back to Pilot Mound. From there, it was stored on the family farm until Unnasch could find the time to work out the details of reassembly.
“I bought the cabin as a pile of components with only about a quarter of them labeled with numbers and letters, but with no initial clear key or directions to their reassembly method. Someone other than myself would probably not have taken such a gamble. There was no guarantee that all the parts were there,” remembers Unnasch. “Lucky for me, they were.”
He admits that recent work on another reassembled cabin aided the process, but adds that time, tenacity, research, and common sense were helpful in identifying and reassembling it. “I had a photo image taken from the southeast corner so I could forensically identify each log from those two walls from their individual visual characteristics as seen in the photo. As an artist, I have a good sense of problem solving methods that come into play when there is no clear-cut solution to a job like this. My practice involves a myriad of method and materials knowledge that comes in handy.”
The goals of the project were clear-cut and two-fold. One, to turn the skeleton of a vintage cabin into a functional art installation. The second was to create a functional space for living. “I was approached by the president of the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa to design, fabricate and install a programmable art installation in their outer gardens. The cabin was a perfect fit,” he adds.
With consideration to the original logs, Unnasch estimates 90% of the cabin was still there. Roof trusses, window casements, and flooring were all new, sourced pine and spruce timbers and beams from the Fillmore Sawmill. The finer details are what gives the cabin life; the roof, wall chinking, windows, lamps, and chimney. As opposed to designing standard replica, Unnasch’s vision provided opportunities for long-forgotten items to incorporate into the cabin seamlessly with a touch of jaw-dropping.
The roof was constructed of resin-bonded t-shirts. Clear polycarbonate sheets were substituted for plywood decking and the translucent shirts replaced split wood shingles. “Physically screwing the flat, hardened t-shirts to the clear plastic decking made for a roof that allows sunlight in during the daytime and glows from the lighting within at night,” notes Unnasch. The same process was used in the wall chinking, using resin-dipped cloth. Upping the ante, LED lighting was settled into the cloth, giving the cabin walls a glow day or night.
Seventeen stained glass panels were meticulously crafted to complete six individual windows and/or bays. Antique tableware was incorporated into the panels. “As with much of my work, I reclaim everyday objects and repurpose them as art components. Most vintage and antique dishes have a lip on the edge that allows them to be bezel-set into a stained glass window panel similar to flat glass. The final effect is a window panel that has three-dimensions and plays with not only light, but our conceptions of value, functionality and cultural identification,” explains Unnasch.
Dozens of lamps, compiled from glass tableware and bottles, also adorned the ceiling, adding to the dancing colors and light. A faux chimney, built entirely of books, sits prominently in the cabin, a pulsating glass fire at its core.
The cabin was assembled not once, but twice last summer. Several logs were reconstructed and everything given new labels, in order to ensure the pieces fit correctly with a good, close fit. “There is no accounting for hours. If there was, I don’t think I would want to know at this point,” says Unnasch. “Suffice it to say the job was a major labor of love. It needed zoning approval, architectural engineering specifics, house construction knowledge, and a crew to accomplish such a major task in one summer’s span of time.” Unnasch oversaw the move and placement of the cabin firsthand. “To complete my vision it was essential that I kept on top of all aspects of the process. I was in great shape by the end of September and got very acquainted with Tulsa last year,” he adds.
Ground was broken at Philbrook in May 2018 and the cabin was officially open to the public in early October. I am very happy with the results. My vision from start to finish followed a fairly straight path with little deviation. I often shoot high when dreaming up many of my projects and then I tone it back once I find out what sensible limitations crop up in the design process,” he acknowledges.
“One major joy I get from custom projects is sitting down with a client and banging out ideas. My projects run the gamut from mild to wild,” he adds. “If someone has an idea of what they want to do, I’ll listen to them to gauge their aesthetic flavor and commitment level. At that point, I can suggest several options with regard to custom work. After that it comes down to a client’s conviction.”
As the desire to define physical spaces, interior or exterior, as extensions of our personalities, along with the salvaging of old and recreating vintage looks, continues, Unnasch has sage words for others.
“Life is short; take on a challenge or two. If you think there is a conceivable way to solve a problem, don’t get sidetracked by fear of failure. Failure exists to teach us to do better tomorrow. With enough time and resolve you can figure it out. Everything rots. Entropy is in charge. Water always wins. Our time here is an agreement with all three.”
To see more of Unnasch’s work, go to www.karlunnasch.com. Or, better yet, stop into the studio and see for yourself.