Artist Michael Bahl combines science and imagination to startling effect

arts / Article

Michael Bahl at work.

Not many artists are called unique and actually deserve it. But sculptor and Paleo-osteological interpreter Michael Bahl makes work that is truly unlike anything else in the art world. Bahl’s newest project, thanks in part to a Knight Arts Challenge grant, will be a bronze skeleton of a large imaginary mammal with a ribcage that functions as a bike rack. But it all started with a cow pelvis.

Ask Bahl how he got into this work and he’ll tell you, “When I was a kid I always wanted a dinosaur skeleton.” As an adult he found himself with access to a cattle ranch bone yard in Florida where a cow pelvis caught his eye. He ultimately collected 17 large boxes of bones. “We shipped them back to Minnesota, labeled as old wooden toys,” Bahl said. “Then I learned how to clean bones using trial and error methods. All of my work is essentially trial and error.” The cleaning and preparing of bones ended up being a surprisingly difficult and messy task, but after developing a system, Bahl was able to start making creatures of his own.

Michael Bahl's studio.

Though the initial idea was still to try and create a dinosaur, Bahl said, “as I looked at the bones more closely, I realized that, being mammal bones, there were consistent differences between the mammal and the dinosaur bones. And I wanted my creatures to have integrity, so I started researching prehistoric mammals.” It’s clear in talking to Bahl that the research and study in preparation of building his original creations is as much the point of the work for him as is the final product. In the creation of his Griffin, Juvenile piece, currently on display at the Black Dog Coffee and Wine Bar, Bahl spent a lot of time handling and studying the vertebrae of Eagle skeletons so that he could create a realistic wing articulation. “I didn’t want to just stick a pair of wings on a lion and say ‘this could fly,” Bahl says.

There is a childlike wonder that comes with engaging with Bahl’s work. He’s very aware of what his pieces can do to people.

“I think everybody carries around that first experience of being in a museum and being awestruck by a prehistoric skeleton,” Bahl said. “They may not be aware that they’re carrying it, but when they walk into the gallery or see one of my creatures, it all comes back. They themselves supply whatever things I cheated on, they fill in the gaps, which is probably the best form of communication or interaction.”

Bahl’s prehistoric mammal bike rack project still needs fundraising support and he is still searching for the right home for the sculpture. Bahl is looking for a place where the bike rack would be safe but functionally accessible to bike riders and be somewhere that the sculpture would compliment the environment.

“It’ll definitely be the coolest bike rack in the world, but it will also be a beautiful piece of sculpture,” Bahl said.

 Suggestions or potential partners are encouraged by emailing [email protected]

You can visit Michael Bahl’s studio on the second floor of the Northern Warehouse, 308 E Prince Street, St. Paul, MN 55101. For more information about where else Bahl’s work is on display, click here.

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