James Gabbert always longed to be a sculptor.
He spent his childhood sketching and building. He studied art in college. But the family furniture business beckoned.
For three decades, he funneled his creativity into Gabberts Design Studio and Fine Furnishing, forecasting home furnishing trends and creating a sophisticated aesthetic for the stores’ showrooms.
“It fed the artist,” Gabbert said.
When he retired as CEO in 2008, he returned to his first passion — sculpture in bronze and steel. He’s one of 14 local artists who will show their work at the Fourth Annual Eden Prairie Art Crawl on Sept. 28-29.
Gabbert’s first public art installation, “Soaring Bird: Peace Through Service,” can now be experienced in front of the Eden Prairie Community Center.
The crawl gives arts patrons a chance to meet neighborhood artists and often to see where they live and work. Gabbert, 61, will display his sculptures on his back patio overlooking Bryant Lake.
This is his first year exhibiting. Last year, he and his wife, Barb, were patrons, visiting other artists along the crawl.
“There is something about buying local that is stronger than it’s been in a long, long time. There’s a growing interest in supporting the arts,” Gabbert said. “It’s fun. The best part is, you get to meet the artist. That is a rare opportunity in a typical art gallery. You also get to bump into neighbors and friends out and about.”
The art crawl, sponsored by the city, is part of a rising arts scene in the suburbs, said Lindsey Danhauser, who supervises the event and the city’s art center.
“We’ve got such a wide range of talent out here,” she said. “These events are highlighting and showcasing the breadth and depth of the artists we have out in Eden Prairie.”
The city also is expanding its arts programming. Local artists will have more open studio time at the Eden Prairie Art Center, 7650 Equitable Drive. The city-owned center will now be open four days a week. The center, which was donated to the city and opened in May 2009, includes a pottery studio, jewelry studio, fused glass studio and space for painting and drawing. It’s also a stop on the art crawl.
Use of the art center climbed last year to 970 visits from 720 in 2011. “It was just more awareness of the programs. People took classes and liked it and just kept coming back,” Danhauser said.
Gabbert studied art and business at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, but his artistic urges succumbed to the pull of the family furniture business. When he joined the family business, he stopped sculpting. “I was fortunate to be in a business where there’s a lot of aesthetics to it,” Gabbert said.
His retirement in 2008 was a second chance, he said, but it took several years to rediscover his skills. He sold his first sculpture in 2010.
He often sculpts the human form — women with flowing hair and gowns.
“I like my work to have a sense of spirit and motion,” he said. “I think the human figure is a wonderful way to express it.”
Gabbert said he wants his art to be evocative, beautiful and understood by a wide audience. His sculptures, which range in price from $600 to $5,000, are mostly displayed in private homes.
“A good work of art or a good book or a good musical composition is good when it’s good on many levels. It’s accessible, but you can go down to deeper levels. … Too much art today is not approachable. It may be interesting at an intellectual level, but you miss a lot of people.”
That appeal to a wide audience is one reason why Gabbert’s work was chosen for the public art installation in front of the city’s community center. The Rotary clubs in Eden Prairie and Edina provided around $16,000 for the city to commission the work, said the city’s parks and recreation director. Gabbert’s work was selected from three submissions.
His work, “Soaring Bird: Peace Through Service,” is a nod to the city’s crest. A bird on an arch made of steel is surrounded by a spiral depicting prairie grass, which was fabricated from stainless steel and sways in the wind.
“As a city, we’ve been interested in kinetic art. We wanted something that had some movement to it,” said Eden Prairie Arts and Recreation Director Jay Lotthammer. “His art was a good representation of what the Rotary was trying to convey and what the city was trying to convey within its branding. But, it’s not too literal. It’s still very creative and very artistic.”
“Soaring Bird” was completed this summer.
“It may be terribly obvious — the city’s logo is prairie grass and a soaring bird — but it just seemed natural,” Gabbert said.
Eden Prairie Mayor Nancy Tyra-Lukens praised Gabbert’s installation. “He’s a wonderful artist full of great ideas,” said Tyra-Lukens, a friend of the Gabberts.
Plans for five light-rail stations in the city will create even more opportunities for public art, the mayor said.
“It’s just the beginning. We hope that really creates a renaissance of public art in the city.”