By Annette Hinkle
As an artist, Randy Kolhoff’s current body of work merges many interests — antiques, folk art, woodworking and drawing. In his intricately carved wooden whale pieces, Kolhoff brings it all together, and make no mistake, these are serious whales — bowheads, right whales, blue whales and the mighty sperm whale, all of which were relentlessly pursued by 19th century whale ships based in Sag Harbor, where Kolhoff now lives.
But ironically, this artist grew up about as far from whaling tradition as you can get — in Utah, where cowboys and pioneers (rather than whalers and ship captains) tend to inform the historical landscape. Kolhoff, who moved to the East End 13 years ago with his then wife-to-be, has since discovered that the mighty whale is indeed a subject worthy of artistic exploration.
This weekend, several of Kolhoff’s wooden whales go on view in a group show entitled “Moby” opening at the Greenport Brewing Company on the North Fork.
Though Kolhoff’s professional life is focused on furniture design and antiques (he owns Black Swan Antiques in Bridgehampton), he is an artist at heart, and that, he notes, is where these whales come from.
“I’ve always been an artist and loved to paint and sculpt,” says Kolhoff, who worked as a graphic artist for a short time before realizing that monetized creativity was not the kind of art he wanted to do. “What I do now, and I like doing, is creating things.”
Kolhoff also has a passion for old things and the story behind them. As a picker who travels the Midwest in search of finds for his store, he has come to understand the importance of folk art — pieces created by those unsung heroes of history — and sees what he does along the lines of that tradition.
“It comes from a raw place of creativity on a real basic level,” he explains. “I’m not doing this to make money. I just need an outlet for my creativity. That’s why I love it. People take it to whatever level they need to express themselves.”
“My whales come from that place — creating for the sake of creating,” he adds. “There’s no pressure to do it.”
Just as conservation has supplanted the whale killing trade (in most of the world anyway), Kolhoff strives to use as much reclaimed wood in his sculptures as possible, rather than relying new wood clear cut in places like Asia. Luckily, his work as a picker brings him in contact with lots of old barn wood which not only lends a historic quality to his creations, but is easier to work with as well.
“With the tight grains, it cuts like butter. It’s amazing,” says Kolhoff. “You’d think the newer wood be more malleable, but in the old wood, the grain is so tight you can really create spheres without chipping or cracking it.”
The by-hand method which Kolhoff uses to carve his whales (each is entirely unique) represents a craftsman’s approach and reflects a bygone era. He uses 4” thick barn floor planks when he can get them because they allow for a truly three dimensional whale full of round edges and curves. Often, the wood has remnants of old paint layers still intact, which Kolhoff enhances and further distresses to make his pieces feel as historic as the story of whaling itself.
“I’m using found wood to add to the history,” says Kolhoff, who has also delved into the real stories of whalers. He cites a 1837 issue of the Sag Harbor Corrector as one that offers insight into what took place on ships out of Sag Harbor.
“There’s one about a ship in the South Pacific that went to ‘Figee’ to trade with natives,” recalls Kolhoff. “When they finished trading, the natives attacked them – the captain didn’t make it back. Another ship lost a captain and two first mates to a sperm whale.”
“It really sparks your imagination,” he adds. “Sag Harbor is 300 years older than my state. Having that attachment to history inspired my curiosity about the era here.”
But it wasn’t just Sag Harbor. Kolhoff also points to a 2005 kayak trip into the wilds of Alaska which he took with his wife and cousin as being a defining moment for his current work.
The trio paddled into a deserted bay and spent four days salmon fishing (they brought only rice and wasabi and lived on sushi as they reeled them in). They also saw a range of wildlife along the way, including whales.
“The humpbacks stirred my imagination, as well as the whole idea of Sag Harbor with these ships circumnavigating the globe for whales and sometimes losing half the crew,” says Kolhoff. “All that came back to inspire me.”
“Moby” opens with a reception this Saturday, March 9 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Greenport Harbor Brewing Company, 234 Carpenter Street. In addition to Kolhoff, other artists include Cindy Pease Roe, Terrence Joyce, Davis Murphy, Shannon Guyer, Deirdre Humbry and Thomas “T-bone” Abbatiello.