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Ken Nyberg doffs his welder's helmet to welcome visitors to his workshop.
Ken Nyberg doffs his welder's helmet to welcome visitors to his workshop.

Ken Nyberg's Workshop

Field review by the editors.

Vining, Minnesota

Ken Nyberg does not feel terribly comfortable talking about himself. Born in 1938, he's lived his entire life in Otter Tail County, which is where you'll find most of his giant sculptures -- many of them in Nyberg Sculpture Park, just down the road from his workshop. You can visit Ken's shop if you like -- although he may not be there. "I've got no schedule," he said, taking a break from hammering metal into place on his latest statue. "My working days had enough schedules. I don't need that any more."

Giant floating doorknob weighs a ton, contains 900 pieces of steel.
Giant floating doorknob weighs a ton, contains 900 pieces of steel.

Ken spent four decades building grain elevators: a practical, nuts-and-bolts job. Then in 1989 a switch flipped in his head, and for over two years he labored in secret to create his first giant sculpture, 18 feet high: The Big Foot. "Nobody knew what I was doing," Ken said. "The wife didn't even know. I didn't dare tell anybody. Darn fool making a big foot -- you gotta be a little bit goofy."

Outside the workshop, more big Nyberg statues.
Outside the workshop, more big Nyberg statues.

To Ken's surprise, the town welcomed his sculpture -- so he gradually, cautiously, made more. Some were fairly normal: a giant grizzly bear, an immense otter, an oversize rhinoceros. Ken made a statue of a Space Shuttle astronaut -- who happens to be his daughter -- and a self-portrait of himself banging on an anvil. But he also made unusual sculptures: a big dancing knife and spoon, a cup balanced on a pedestal of spilling coffee, a space alien, a giant floating doorknob. "There really isn't a good answer to any of it," he said. "My head don't work right, I guess."

Ken points to a work-in-progress: a giant monkey wrench.
Ken points to a work-in-progress: a giant monkey wrench.

We asked Ken to explain the meaning behind one of his artworks: a giant pair of pliers with a cockroach in its grip. "My first thought was to put a molar in there," he said -- as if the pliers had just yanked a big tooth. "And then I thought, well, no, I'll put some kind of a bug in there. I ended up with a cockroach because nobody'd have any sympathy for a cockroach. You put monarch butterfly in there and somebody'd get mad."

Ken's workshop echoes with the staccato spark of his arc welder as he attaches metal plates to a framework of steel. Ken said that he thinks of his grandmother's quilts, sewn from fabric scraps, as he assembles his sculptures from scraps of metal, and most of his sculptures do have the stitched look of a Frankenstein's monster. He keeps careful records of how many hours and pieces go into each artwork. His otter, for example, used over 1,300 metal scraps; his tractor sculpture took 470 hours to complete. "And that time can stretch over months," Ken said, "because some days maybe I'll only work an hour, you know."

Three-prong plug stands 12 feet high, took 184 hours to build. Ken keeps track of all his sculpture stats.
Three-prong plug stands 12 feet high, took 184 hours to build. Ken keeps track of all his sculpture stats.

The metal, he said, comes from construction project leftovers and other rejected odd-shaped pieces. Ken has also used thousands of old lawnmower blades, which are saved for him at local landfills. The blades, difficult to shape, are reserved for his largest sculptures, which require only "gradual bends." When we visited, Ken was working on a giant monkey wrench, which he later told us used 438 lawnmower blades. He pointed to the clean space where its normal-size model formally hung on his shop's work-stained tool board.

Clean spot on the tool wall where the wrench model came from.
Clean spot on the tool wall where the wrench model came from.

Ken's workshop is packed with equipment, but he said that he mostly uses a grinder, a cutter, a bender, a welder, and a hammer. "Simple stuff," he said. "I don't have anything automatic or fancy."

Ken concedes that his shop "ain't the safest place on earth," and he always stops work when visitors arrive. What about his own safety? Most men in their mid-eighties aren't welding and hammering thousand-pound sculptures. "I think about that sometimes," he said. "Falling in all of the junk around here -- that wouldn't be so good. But on the other hand, what am I gonna do? Just quit because of that?"

We asked Ken what his family thought about his art. His answer was, as ususal, restrained. "I think they're kind of interested," he said. "They're agreeable, I guess."

Is Ken bothered by people stopping by to visit? "Not really. Maybe sometimes," he said. "But people gotta see things, too, you know."

Ken Nyberg will never seek attention, but we wondered if the fawning praise of visitors (and travel writers) to his workshop might eventually inflate his ego, just a little bit. The answer is no. "The people that are interested -- the ones that are just really crazy about it -- they're the ones that come out here," Ken said. "But there are just as many people, you know, that don't give a hoot."

Ken Nyberg's Workshop

Address:
22019 Tepee Circle, Vining, MN
Directions:
Call first if you want to make certain that Ken will be around. From Nyberg Sculpture Park drive west on MN-210 for a third of a mile. Turn north (no stoplight) onto 457th Ave. Drive 1.5 miles. Turn left (no stoplight) onto Tepee Circle. Ken's shop and house will be immediately on the left.
Phone:
218-769-4343
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Nyberg Sculpture ParkNyberg Sculpture Park, Vining, MN - 1 mi.
The Big FootThe Big Foot, Vining, MN - 1 mi.
Large StethoscopeLarge Stethoscope, Henning, MN - 5 mi.
In the region:
Ten-Foot-Tall Otter, Ottertail, MN - 10 mi.

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