CHRIS DEKNIKKER: Environmental Wall Sculptor

“Really, I’m in the art of remaking what no one wants.”

WORDS: Nicole Stanton
IMAGES: Chris DeKnikker

For Christmas my dear boss gave me a small wooden ornament. Small pieces of different colored wood carefully assembled into a sun. It hangs now from my rearview mirror, all the more meaningful after interviewing its maker, Chris DeKnikker. Meeting with Chris was a potent reminder of how being open and accepting in moments of uncertainty can lead to great joys, and beautiful art.

Chris and his family are based near Denver, Colorado. I got to speak with him on a brief stop in Aspen, his wife and six-year-old son in tow. Chris is a stay at home dad for his son, Henry. Not coincidentally, Chris has been pursuing his art for the last six years.

In 2007, Chris was in a job that he describes was “sucking the life out of him.” He received a degree in graphic design, and went on to get a Master’s in landscape architecture. He landed in a cubicle, designing landscape for parking lots. When the economic crisis of 2007 hit, Chris remembers sitting in his cubicle on his birthday, everyone around him getting called one by one to the conference room. He laughed while telling me this: “They felt too guilty laying me off me on my birthday, so they did it the next day.” Soon after, he and his wife found out they were pregnant.

“It was this combination of uncertainty, expectation, and my personal need for art that made this happen.” Prior to beginning his career as an artist, Chris had no wood working experience, really. He remembers playing in piles of wood scraps beneath his grandfather’s workbench, but that his childhood passion was drawing. At the time of his getting fired, and his wife’s belly growing with their son Henry, Chris started getting hired to do odd jobs by his elderly neighbors. “I fixed some sprinkler heads, moved heavy items, and cut down overgrown plants.” While cutting down a forsythia bush at his neighbor’s home, he paused, realizing each branch was hollow. He shoved the bundle of forsythia in his would-be-studio, and a few weeks later met a chokecherry bush, and became infatuated with what looks like a dot of crimson ink spreading from its cross section’s center.

With piles of homeless wood now stacked and bundled around his studio, he found a sketch of a triptych he had dreamed up for his wife a decade before. It was this sketch, a few accidental discoveries, and some unexpected circumstances that inspired him to become a maker.

When looking at Chris’ art, there is a fluid motion to each piece: the eyes are pulled towards an intricate center, or are asked to shoot from left to right, following your gaze to somewhere entirely new. What’s even more phenomenal is that this coherent, striking motion is made up of thousands of tiny pieces of wood, arranged slowly and thoughtfully. Chris describes his process as therapeutic: “I worry about every one of those thousands of little pieces. Each step on a single work’s journey has to be appropriate and careful and, well, right. What that means, is that I’m often stopping, and starting over.” He admits that he’ll never have enough time to make all the designs stacked in his head, with each piece taking anywhere from one to eight months. It’s doubtful he’ll change his process anytime soon, though.

“I try not to predict where I’m going to be. If I steer too hard, it won’t have the magic. I just want to follow it.” Chris seems to embody this practice in his artistic process, and in life in general. His end result comes from following the materials, feeling for each type of wood’s needs and wants. “Really, I’m in the art of remaking what no one wants.” He transforms what no one wants, into pieces that soon many will want. What’s more, is that his philosophy of art making also fits into one of environmental stewardship: “In this culture we’ve created, we’re disconnected from our way of being stewards of the earth. I like presenting things that make people come up with their own conclusions. People can see my work, and can perhaps conceive of themselves as caretakers of the environment. So much of what we face, is the challenge of getting people away from the battery operated and to look out into the world.”

Chris' art is gaining great momentum. His work has been shown all around Denver and the Front Range, with great success. Chris is represented by Walker Fine Art

If you're interested in Chris' work, find his contact information here