By Steve Kash
TERRE HAUTE — How do you hook a two-legged, language-speaking, air-breathing human being using a fish lure without accidentally snaring the he- or she-creature due to an errant cast?
Wood sculptor Jim Bekkering’s approach to human being catching is similar to a wizened good ole boy prowling a bass pond in a 12-foot john boat at twilight when the fish are feeding. He hopes to grab his prey’s attention so powerfully that a lunker will strike at his lure with wild abandon.
Perhaps the biggest — yes, the biggest — difference between Bekkering lures and those of canny bass masters is that he angles with three-foot-long Rooster Tails and Rattle Traps big enough for Paul Bunyan or Goliath to use as spin cast bait to catch Moby Dick. Maybe a once-in-a-lifetime cast of a Brobdingnagian Bekkering lure by either of these characters could land the Loch Ness monster!
Bekkering polishes his human being lures to a high gloss in the wood studio behind his home in Clinton. All are modeled after legendary bass-catching lures found in sporting goods stores. But when he makes his casts, it is not in the direction of a lily pad or into a shady pond cove snuggled beneath an overhanging leafy branch.
Instead, he sends lures flying into intriguing nooks where people creatures are known to congregate in the twilight drinking wine: art galleries such as Terre Haute’s Halcyon Gallery by the Swope Art Museum on South Seventh Street as well as promising shady cove galleries in Hot Springs, Ark.; New Orleans and Monroe City, La.; and Munster in Indiana.
One person Bekkering hooked was ESPN’s Jerry McGinnis, who once ran a feature on his ESPN 2 Outdoors show about Bekkering’s unique lures.
“People loved looking at Jim’s fish lures when they came into my gallery and saw them when he displayed here with Jack Gates in April,” said Halcyon proprietress Petra Nyendick. “’They’re so big!’ is a comment I often heard. What most surprised people when they examined them closely is that they were all wood, including the hooks, which look metallic.”
Bekkering became interested in making oversized fish lures after a conversation he had with Jack Gates, his former art professor at Indiana State University.
“Gates had been observing fishermen inspecting lures for the potential of their functional qualities at a bass pro shop in Missouri in the 1980s,” Bekkering recalled. “I started thinking about this as an artist. Of course, the men had also been caught by the design qualities of each lure. Later conversations between Jack and me about his observations in the bass shop convinced us that we should try to catch fishermen, too. That brought about another question: how might it be possible to get fishermen and other people to connect with the sculptural qualities of the lures themselves?
“I made an educated guess that I would make scale model exaggerations of well-known trademark lures such as Rooster Tail Spinners or Rattle Traps to see what response I would get. I’ve been pleased with the results. Both people who fish and those who don’t have been able to focus on my lures’ sculptural qualities.
“As far as I know, Jack and I are the only two who have tried to offer oversized wooden lures commercially as an art form though occasionally people can see somewhat larger-than-display lures in bass shops. Some of these are plastic. It takes about 80 hours for me to make one of my big lures. I normally work on a scale of about one inch to a foot.
“Most of my lures’ bodies come from sassafras that is color dyed, curly maple, ash and rosewood. Some grain patterns like the wood I use for my Rattle Trap approximate the original lure’s scaly pattern. I make my fishhooks from sassafras plywood.”
For the first lures he fashioned in the early ’90s, Bekkering partnered with Gates. Since then, he has made them by himself. He has sold three Rooster Tails, two Rattle Traps, a Crippled Killer, a Lazy Ike, a Little George and a Daredevil Spoon. Once he sold two lures in one deal to a civic center in Hot Springs. He has six king-sized lures left to offer.
Bekkering is quick to acknowledge the important role Gates has played in his career as a wood artist. Bekkering was in his mid-20s when he met Gates in the early 1980s during a visit to ISU to explore the university’s programs in the wood arts.
Now a professor emeritus, Gates recalled that as a student Bekkering was unusually determined and had the ability to stay with a project and teach himself.
“I grew up around the skilled trades,” Bekkering said. “I was born in Michigan in an industrious family of Dutch carpenters and architects. Then, after my father passed away when I was 7, my mother moved back to her home in Clinton. Her family — the Bazzanis — were skilled Italian craftsmen. By the time I was 14, I was working at carpentry. Often I rode my bike to the job site from home or school.
“I took art in grade school and high school. My teachers were very supportive and encouraged me, but at the time I was playing football and thought I was in training to become a professional football player. I never dreamed I might someday be a studio furniture maker, let alone a wood artist who had oversized fish lures in his product line.”
Bekkering attended DePauw University for a year after high school and played football there, but he left to do construction work with his uncle, who went around the United States setting tile for McDonald’s.
A lifelong avid reader, Bekkering said that he never gave up his love for reading. In his free time, he read novels by American authors such as Larry McMurtry and John Steinbeck. He also loved fantasies like Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”
Returning to Clinton when he was in his mid-20s, Bekkering married his wife, Karen, and began working at Eli Lilly. After a few years, he found himself wanting to do something creative when time was available.
“My wife was a photographer and she sympathized,” Bekkering recalled. “When I first went to ISU, my idea at the time was to learn how to make spiral staircases for homes.
“At ISU, I ran into Jack Gates. While taking a tour around the art department, I got excited at the cool things I saw like band saw boxes and tables. I decided to study studio furniture design and then wood sculpture as a non-traditional, non-degree-seeking student. Eventually, Jack persuaded me to become a wood artist. He was really encouraging though I only got a C in my first course.
“I became much more skillful with my work by reading every book and attending every lecture I could on the subject of woodworking. I even took several of the practical courses more than once and was never afraid to try new things. Not all the critiques I received from other teachers and students were pleasant, but I was lucky to have had such a long tenure in the wood studio. A series of critiques from Bob Evans, who was a professor in the art department, helped me to form ideas for one of my favorite sculptures: ‘Cupid’s Bow.’
“I was so enthusiastic about the wood program that Jack eventually gave me a set of keys to the art building to accommodate my work schedule.”
Bekkering said that he stayed at ISU until he basically ran out his welcome, but by this time he had built a studio behind his home. Over the years, his sales to galleries around the country have enabled him to pay for his materials, electricity and an occasional new tool.
His first show was at a gallery in Hot Springs, where he got an invitation through his relationship with professor Evans.
He displayed a cherry table that looked like it had a table cloth and wine bottle built into its all-wooden design.
“For me, art is rooted in exploring familiar and nearby items in a way that enables me to capture their spirit,” Bekkering said. “I do take liberties with color and image and am not always super realistic in my representations.”
In the art world, Bekkering is perhaps best known for his singularly creative studio furniture. Although he often makes quality functional wood furniture, Bekkering said that his interest in art means that often he finds himself walking a fine line between making tables and chairs that people can use and making decorative or sculptural furniture that reveals some connection with his life.
His furniture pieces’ frames usually have patterns eerily like those of human or animal skeletons. A crowd-attracting chair group Bekkering recently displayed at the Halcyon Gallery was his representation of two herons. He explained: “One time while I was traveling through Louisiana during spring migration, I observed two blue herons attracted to the same movement in the water between them. Their interaction with the bug in the water caught my eye. Are they going to eat that bug? I saw them gazing at one another just like two people being polite. They even flashed facial signals as if to ask: ‘Well, are you going first or should I?’ Each of my chairs represents a heron. The well of the seats are the backs of the heron; the backs of the seats are the herons’ necks. In between the two chairs, the glass-topped coffee table element of the furniture group is reminiscent of a small pond.”
The piece of Bekkering’s studio furniture creation that has garnered the most attention in the art world is the rocking chair he displayed at his recent Halcyon Gallery show.
“I made the rocking chair because rocking chairs are symbolic of old age and retirement,” Bekkering said. “I began making the rocker with my grandfather in mind even though he never had a rocker. For years he had an old chair that was his favorite. After the long period of time that he used it, the chair took on the impressions of his body. Years after his passing, you could walk into that living room and look at that chair, and there was still an overwhelming feeling of grandfather’s presence in its impressions.
“My rocker was never intended to be a literal interpretation of those wear patterns, but I wanted to capture in the character of my ‘bone rocker’ some of the spirit of the sensation I felt when looking at grandfather’s old chair. I had already explored bone imagery in other furniture. Bones really command attention. Possibly they stimulate people to consider what the living thing might have been. The rocker I built with my grandfather in mind was taller and broader than normal rockers. I did it like that to give it more presence in a gallery setting.”
Over the years Bekkering has had requests from the Smithsonian Institute in Washington to acquire “Grandfather’s Rocker” for its Renwick Gallery rocking chair collection.
“When I’m making a piece of furniture, it’s always good to cross the finish line and feel my work is done,” Bekkering said. “For me, the real quest of art is always to achieve the ultimate sensation: to make something so good that I know I will still be satisfied when I come back and look it in a day, a year, or whenever. Only a few times in my life have I come close to being that satisfied with one of my finished works. Those experiences spur me on to start new wood projects.”