East Bay sculptor hammers home a love of animals

In Ken Kalman’s perfect world, life-size aluminum polar bears, wild boars and elephants would stand sentinel-like in public spaces. Massive copper salamanders would lodge themselves on the sides of buildings.

Oh, wait, they already do.

The East Bay sculptor’s work can be seen on the edifices of Berkeley’s ARTech building and U.C. Storage. In addition to a long list of corporate commissions, his clients include author Danielle Steele, former NBA player Dennis Rodman and even the U.S. State Department.

San Francisco’s George Krevsky Gallery has just opened a retrospective of Kalman’s work, spanning 25 years. The exhibition runs through March 7.

The gallery show includes a few of those outsize metallic animal figures — a bucking horse, a cricket and a couple of dogs made the cut — as well as works of wood and paper. Among the latter is “Swingline,” a model of the standard desk stapler papered over with an antique map of the Middle East.

“It’s about how that part of the world is all hooked together,” Kalman says.

Kalman’s Jewish roots pop up from time to time in his work. “Counting the Omer,” a wall-mounted wooden box with 49 holes and a moveable peg, is covered with an old British map of Palestine, circa 1830. The piece is slated to hang at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco.

Ken Kalman in his studio

Another work, a large Star of David made of copper sheet and papered over with a map of the universe, is part of the gallery exhibition.

Yet another piece, “Sabbath Portal,” is a handmade Victorian-style door with Shabbat candles mounted on either side. “You can stand on one side with a thought or feeling,” Kalman says, “walk through, and maybe that thought or feeling changes and becomes more a positive.”

Kalman, 53, grew up in the Detroit suburbs, in what he describes as a humanistic Jewish family. He studied art at the University of New Mexico and later at the San Francisco Art Institute. He lives in Canyon — in the wilds of Contra Costa County’s unincorporated hills near Orinda — and maintains a studio in Emeryville.

Earlier in his career he experimented with abstract painting. The fascination didn’t last. “The formal aspects interested me,” he says, “but the subject matter doesn’t interest me. I went to nature.”

Working with aluminum and copper sheets, Kalman developed his signature style, employing old-fashioned rivets to hold his animal shapes together. The surfaces sometimes resemble the clean look of an airplane wing.

“It’s a different way of attaching materials,” Kalman notes. “It’s done with hammers and anvils. There’s an exacting precision, an engineering element.”

Kalman does all the hammering, cutting and riveting. He even has his own foundry to create the materials he needs.

As a former construction worker, Kalman knows how to build things, even if it’s an 8-foot-tall stallion. He has also taught art at Modesto Junior College. So far he can’t be sure if either of his two children have inherited his artistic talent.

If so, they have an ideal role model at home. Although Kalman is one of the lucky artists who found success, he’d be out in the studio riveting together the next pachyderm whether or not he had any interested buyers.

“It’s hard to sell art and make a living,” Kalman says, “but you don’t do it for that reason.”

Ken Kalman’s work is on display through March 7 at George Krevsky Gallery, 77 Geary St., S.F. Information: (415) 397-9748 or www.georgekrevskygallery.com.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.