The handle of the brush is carved into a neat handhold and refined into a smooth surface, the rich brown sheen contrasting with the lightly colored bristles. The paintbrush is one of close to 300 covering the walls of the Main Street Gallery during Ron Koehler’s reception. If not for the two miniature paintbrushes — one cream colored and one dark brown — carved into the brush, it is almost as if you could take the brush from its place on the wall and immediately dip it into a bucket of paint.Look to the left and you will see a set of paintbrushes arguably more realistic than the last. There’s just one problem: these “brushes with Halo Objects” are embedded along the sides with shotgun shell caps, nails and barbed wire, among other objects. To the uninformed passerby looking into the gallery’s windows, it would be understandable to assume you have stumbled across a home improvement store.No, these are not tools; these are just a few of Koehler’s more than 5,000 paintbrushes he has sculpted with wood. “I have gone down many different directions,” Koehler says, referring to his ventures into mixed media and his diverse artistic vision. “I sculpted my first paintbrush for my 3D Art class in ’95 and I kept going. I kept asking myself ‘what would 50 look like (hanging) on the wall? 100? 500?’ Two or three times, I have had more than 1,000 on the wall at a showing.”Koehler says he favors sculpting paintbrushes because it gives him the opportunity to create something in the spare moments he has scattered throughout his day. “If I have 5 or 10 minutes, I can go out and get something done versus the half-hour minimum I need to work on a larger piece,” Koehler says. “It’s easy to go out and get something done. It’s kept me going.”Koehler got his start in 1972, when he graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a bachelor’s degree in Art Education. He went on to teach a high school art class and took sculpture classes at night. “You can take a piece of wood that could be hauled off to the dumpster or into a fireplace and make it into something beautiful,” Koehler says, recalling his early fascination with the art form. “Some artists are just freeing and unmasking what is already there, and for a while, I worked that way; but on other works I have a specific direction. One of my first works was a figurative piece with lots of texture,” Koehler says. “It was a human figure sitting with its knees to its chest and its arms around the knees. There was also a stone piece, a model made of figuring clay and a plaster piece. I couldn’t wait to go to class each week.”Koehler went on to receive a master’s degree in Sculpture from the University of Memphis. He has taught sculpture at Delta State University for the past 31 years and serves as chair of the art department. Koehler’s works of sculpture have been shown in more than 600 exhibitions in 38 states and have received more than 60 awards, including 20 purchase awards. His works have also been included in many public collections throughout the country, most notably a series of “Artists Brushes” in a six-year installation as part of John Hechinger’s “Tools as Art Collection” at the Smithsonian’s National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. “It was supposed to be on permanent display at the Smithsonian until [Hechinger] passed away a few years ago,” Koehler says. “His son retrieved the pieces and put them into another collection and it’s being displayed all over.”One such place is the Main Street Gallery, which is owned and operated by the Como Arts Council. The Como Arts Council is a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the arts in all forms and educating the community and entire North Mississippi area. “Our responsibility is to give back to the community as much as we can in the form of arts,” Special Projects Chairperson David Marsh says. The Como Arts Council was pleased to put on a sculpture show, Marsh says, because there have been very few in the past. “The Council does multiple shows throughout the year. It was a good time to insert a different medium into the schedule and I’m real pleased with the results.”Marsh estimates 100 to 125 attended the showing over a one-week period. “Koehler sold quite a bit at the show. The Gallery attracts some very unique artists and has a very good record of selling the works the artists bring to the gallery. Our objective is to give them an outlet for their work.”Koehler’s next show will be during Delta State University’s annual faculty art exhibition held in the Wright Art Center Gallery on campus. He will show standing male human figures created of wood. Opening with a public reception on Sunday, November 11, from 4 – 6 p.m., the show will continue through January 7, 2013.
Internationally recognized, award winning wood sculptor Ron Koehler speaks about his signature paintbrushes and how he got his start as a sculptor.
Story by Tess Catlett