Twin Cities Reader, February 14, 1996

Twin Cities Reader,
February 14, 1996

Boat With Wings
by J.Z. Grover

Minneapolis Sculptor/adventurer makes ocean from pine boards and builds boats that soar.
Released from the confines of a red, ear flapped winter hat, Michael Rathbun has just arrived from his day job as a carpenter at a display company to work on his installation at the MIA’s Minnesota Artist Exhibition gallery.

He is a shiny faced balding man of 32, With a peaceful face and slow deliberate speech. He gives the impression of someone who spends a lot of time alone, even in company, perhaps intuiting his way toward the next revelation. Rathbun is an artist who clears the decks for new insights thru physical challenges that become the basis for later works. If this sounds like performance art, its not: Documenting his journeys doesn’t interest him – only spiritual insights that take place during his open-end quests and the art that arises from them. Rathbun goes out to have experiences chiefly to create art in response to what those experiences teach him. At this he is unusually successful: His wooden sculpture has a presence that does not depend on the viewers knowledge of the process that antedated it.

Behind him rears the skeleton of his current work, a boat that will nearly graze the eighteen foot ceiling, set atop an undulating platform of wooden waves 16 feet wide and 24 feet deep. In it’s unfinished state, the boat suggest a cross between the balloon frame of a small house, executed in rough grade pine, and something languishing in dry dock. At it’s front end an immense wheel like device levitates above a curved wooden floor. It is attached to the boats naked hull by a foot square, wood-boxed universal joint.
The work is cryptic but powerful in scale and line and, for me, melancholy in it’s confinement, like the immense skeleton of some obsolesced beast. It seems to want more space than it gets, like a reconstructed dinosaur in the narrow confines of a natural history museum gallery.

But such is the nature of dreams: always bigger than reality. This is a dream that Rathbun is building to the Dimensions of the MAEP Gallery, Which stands at the navigational coordinates that give it it’s title: N44°57.88’, W93°16.353’. The emergent boat is a fantasy craft that moves upward rather than outward in space.
Boats as bearers of longing have figured for Rathbun since last spring, when he built a twelve foot center board boat and sailed it from Door Peninsula in Wisconsin across Lake Michigan to Sleeping Bear Dunes, a solo journey of some 70 miles and 15 hours. Rathbun undertook the trip in hopes that it might shake him free from the work he was then producing in his MFA program at the University of Minnesota, “stuff that looked like art, insular and studio based.”

Apparently the voyage worked: I came back with a vision of what I wanted to build: a boat and a universal joint. I did it in two weeks, no drawings, no planning – I just did it. A boat with wings.
That sculpture, his MFA project at the U of M under the dissertation director and mentor Guy Baldwin, And a second boat built for an October 1995 show at The Soap Factory were formal explorations of lateral space. N44°57.88’, W93°16.353’ instead celebrates height and the physical underpinnings that make imposing vertical structures possible. “ floor joists are a new thing for me,” he explains as we crouch atop the rolling planks of his wooden sea. I’m learning more about structure and about building. It’s sort of learn as you go.”
So far Rathbun has put one and a half months into constructing his vision; he plans to finish it by the opening day reception (Thursday, February 15, 7-9 pm. free). “Including thinking time, I’ve been working on it for about two months. It’s the most thought out piece I’ve done so far.”

That does not mean, however, that Rathbun has planned out the piece conventionally, by committing it’s design to paper. Like his solo sail across Lake Michigan, N44°57.88’, W93°16.353’ is a gesture intended to produce epiphanies, Joycean revelations in which physical sensations or objects unlock memory and feeling. Too deliberate planning, Rathbun believes, forecloses such spontaneous perceptions. It is the exploration of his materials, the activity of building his huge craft, that prompt epiphanies; the physical for Rathbun leads to the spiritual. The resulting work will embody his quest, a rough hewn reliquary for the holy and fugitive, a trace as well as an object.

The use of physical objects and activities as conduits to spiritual awareness is a technique Rathbun credits to his father, a baptist minister in Portland, Oregon. So to his confidence in his ability to build without formal plans: “My father always built, but it was a feel-your-way sort of building. He came out and helped me build the sculpture for my MFA show.”
Rathbun’s Quests are steadily growing in ambition and scale. In his MAEP Gallery show, he is manipulating thousands of board feet of lumber within an equally impressive volume of space with the vision in his head his only guide to construction. As a prelude to his next work, Rathbun hopes to make a trip with his two brothers (one a minister, the other a career military man) along the north Pacific coast in search of Blue Whales. “Sailing the earths biggest ocean in search of it’s biggest creature,” he says dreamily. We may not even find any whales – scientists often can’t locate them. But that won’t be the point, anyway. It’s the quest that counts.