Scientist by day, artist by night: Bill Kwolek’s sculptures go on permanent display in Peoria, Peoria Heights
PEORIA — Bill Kwolek would never say what his abstract sculptures were about.
“He was more interested in what people were seeing in it,” said Jim Kwolek, Bill’s son, during a phone interview from his Texas home Tuesday morning. “When ’Whirlwind’ was out in front of our house, it was so fun when dog walkers or joggers or whoever would just stop by and strike up a conversation. He loved to sit back and watch people look at it.”
Today “Whirlwind,” a six-and-a-half-foot-tall sculpture carved from Indiana limestone, stands in front of Urban Artifacts on Sheridan Road. The spot gets a lot of foot traffic during First Friday events when artist studios in the neighboring Sunbeam building are open the public. The Kwolek family donated the sculpture to business owners Jon Walker and Steve Rouland with the stipulation that it remain in public view for many years.
“Our building is focused on the arts, so it seemed appropriate having local art out front,” said Walker. “We were thrilled to get it.”
With the help of Abel Monument Company the sculpture was moved and installed on a new base, and an unveiling was held Oct. 16. Though Jim was unable to attend, he visited the spot before the family decided to donate it.
“It’s a really good location. It sits in front of the windows so you have a three-dimensional view with the windows acting almost like a mirror most of the day,” said Jim. “All of these carvings are interesting to look at as the sunlight changes — you will often look at a sculpture in the morning, and if you see it in the evening you would see it differently. Some people have looked at these sculptures for years and will be like ‘oh I’ve never seen it before — now I get it.’”
“Whirlwind” is not the first of Kwolek’s sculptures to be displayed in Peoria. “Critters,” another tall stone sculpture covered with fanciful creatures, has been on display at the Peoria Zoo for years. And several more of Kwolek’s sculptures recently went to Peoria Heights where they can be seen on the Kellar Branch Trail at Glen Avenue. Hugh Higgins, owner of Hearth restaurant, was instrumental in that effort. After learning that Kwolek’s work was available for purchase, he solicited donations through the Peoria Heights Arts Collaborative, and made a donation of his own.
A biometrician at the Agriculture Research Service of USDA in Peoria by trade, Bill began making art in his spare time in the mid 1950s. Both statistics and entomology, which were lifelong passions, played a part in Bill’s artwork, said Jim.
“When you look at nature you see how things bifurcate and you see spirals and you see how things intertwine — he was always fascinated with that, and this whole concept of fractals and fractal geometry in nature,” said Jim. “And then when you look at entomology and the insect world, it’s incredible how mathematics plays a role in population explosions. ... So it’s played back and forth between his entomology and his mathematical mind when he was looking at nature, what he was taking from nature and bringing back to what he was going to be painting, and particularly later in life when he was into his abstract works.”
Bill began his art career with painting and progressed to wood carving. He started carving stone in early 1980s. A biography written by Bill’s children described how their father managed the difficult task of moving large chunks of stone:
“Luckily, the artist in his teen years learned a great deal about moving heavy objects while working at Lake County Monument Company. As an adult he would recall those lessons in order to move many tons of stone without the benefit of powered machinery — even into his senior years. It was B. Kwolek vs. A. Rock, and he was going to win. If he wanted to chisel and carve the stone, he first needed to move it - from source to backyard studio.”
As an artist Bill was mostly self-taught. He read books and took a few classes over the years, and he became friends with local sculptor Nita Sunderland, who undoubtedly taught him a thing or two. “Whirlwind” was created in Sunderland’s studio, which was equipped with lifts to move the one-and-a-half ton chunk of stone.
The Kwolek family had a big job when it came to finding good homes for all of their father’s artwork after their mother, Marie, died in 2019. Bill, who died in 2004, was very prolific.
“My father did over 150 stone carvings, and he did over 500 oil paintings. So when you are trying to distribute those kinds of numbers, well, paintings are easy, stone sculptures are harder, because they are so difficult to move,” said Jim.
The family and their friends kept a lot, and more was sold during an estate sale this summer. But in the end, “Whirlwind” was still sitting in the front yard, creating an opportunity for the family to find a public home for the piece, said Jim.
“We put a relatively high price hoping it wouldn’t sell, and in the end it didn’t, and I think we were happy about that.”
Leslie Renken can be reached at 270-8503 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.