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Art: Don't mess with Zoran

By MARY ABBE, Star Tribune

August 8, 2009

Standing on a forklift at the edge of a warehouse parking lot in northeast Minneapolis, sculptor Zoran Mojsilov looks to be a profile in loneliness. The empty meadow beyond him abuts the Mississippi River. Bald eagles soar overhead while rabbits and foxes hide out. Cars drone by on the nearby Broadway bridge. Plumes of granite dust spit from his power drill as he slices long grooves in the 22-foot-high plinth that looms above the asphalt like the petrified trunk of a blasted oak. When he stops drilling, wild gypsy music surges from a boombox tethered to a block-long extension cord snaking across the lot.

Carving stone is a solitary business these days, so you'd better BYO party just to stay sane.

For the past several months, Mojsilov (pronounced MOY-si-lov) has been at his outdoor studio behind the Grain Belt brewery's keg house, carving a 75,000-pound block of granite into a sculpture commissioned by Northwestern Connecticut Community College.

Since the piece is to stand outside the science building, he suggested that perhaps the school would like something suggestive of the solar system or the cosmos.

Maybe rocks impaled by steel rods swirling around a boulder as in "Saturn," his 1996 sculpture in Minneapolis' Camden neighborhood park? Or a granite wedge impaling a limestone slab as in "Meteor," his 1997 installation for Rochester (Minn.) Community and Technical College?

"They said their science was not about the cosmos or astronomy," Mojsilov said in thickly accented English that betrays traces of his native Yugoslavia. "The art department said, 'Whatever you do is art, so we like it,' but the science department wanted something more about biology, so I make this."

Sure enough, wildflowers and weeds sprout from what looks like a knot protruding from the sculpture's trunk, and another niche will collect water for birds. When a red-tailed hawk landed on the sculpture and pooped before soaring off to catch and eat a pigeon, he saw it as a favorable omen.

"If you look at the hawk as curator, he OK'd it from the nature point of view," Mojsilov said. "Thank God the East Coast still gets my sarcastic humor because it's hard to make jokes about a $55,000 project."

'Diet projects' in stone

Despite his workday isolation, Mojsilov, 54, is anything but a recluse. A puddle of goat fat stains a nearby boulder, remains of a barbecue he threw recently for Walker Art Center colleagues of his wife, Ilene Krug, who runs the center's Art Lab.

Most days he lunches at Gardens of Salonica, the nearby Greek cafe where more than a dozen of his sculptures serve as benches, tables, coat racks, planters, a fountain and street ornaments. Friends like former Minneapolis gallery owner Glen Hanson drop by to chat. Strangers show up with advice, including an 85-year-old guy who stopped his car and hobbled over recently "just to give me some encouragement."

A couple of times a month he goes trout fishing in Wisconsin with painter Scott Seekins, who always sports a white suit in summer, even under hip waders. Mojsilov just plunges into the icy streams barefoot, casting lines tipped with fresh-caught grasshoppers as he learned during summers at his grandmother's village in the mountains of Serbia.

For Mojsilov, making sculpture is as natural as breathing. He talks about bases and foundations, concrete and rebar. Safety issues. After 20 years of buying granite from the Cold Spring quarry near St. Cloud, he has made friends with the workers in the pit, who set aside good slabs for him. He tips them with Coke and doughnuts. A really fine stone, they joke, is a 24-doughnut piece. The carving itself he calls "a diet project."

Take the Connecticut piece. In the past three months he has ground and chiseled 25,000 pounds of stone from the original block. He knows because periodically he hauls the chips across the river and weighs them. The finished sculpture can't weigh more than 48,000 pounds or he'll need an expensive overweight permit to truck the thing to Connecticut. So he has to hack his way through 2,000 more pounds, while maintaining the concept, of course.

"My goal should be more aesthetic, but it's just a diet project," he joked. "Once I reach 48,000 pounds, I'm done."

Sculpture for the people

For all his down-home practicality, Mojsilov is a well-trained artist who studied at the University of Belgrade from 1975 to '79 before embarking for Paris, where he met his future wife, a Twin Cities native. In the past 25 years he has won more than a dozen prestigious U.S. grants and awards and has taught and exhibited in France.

"His worldview is very different from the typical American view," said Dr. Fred Haas, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon who with his wife, artist Sarah Nordstrom, has commissioned a half-dozen Mojsilov sculptures for the garden of their lakeside home in Eden Prairie. "He grew up in Serbia under the Communist regime of Marshal Tito, which I think influenced him. He really likes the idea of sharing his work with the public and not catering to the private view of the world; I'm sure that came from his group-oriented Communist philosophy."

If so, it plays well in the United States.

"People really like it," said Laurel Reuter, founding director of the North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks, where a Mojsilov retrospective is up through Aug. 30. She organized the show, his second at the museum, which features more than 20 sculptures and maquettes, plus 16 drawings.

"He's a truly creative artist who is steeped in the modernist European tradition," she added. "It's not ethereal or intellectual work, but it's grounded in a long history of sculpture, monoliths and cairns."

Mojsilov knows that his phallic boulders and huge slabs of stone festooned with steel bars are a challenge, especially on college campuses where "the machos" like to climb them "to show off for the babes."

Unlike art in museums or official sculpture gardens, his work is typically found on the street or in civic sites where "it's 24 hours available to the public to see it and think about it and bitch if they want," he said. "I give the power to regular people to think about my work however they want. They don't need the sophisticated words to protect it."

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431

To see more Mojsilov photos and sculptures go to startribune.com/galleries.