The God of Small Things

Steve Kiwus's six-inch plastic universe

The typical Steve Kiwus sculpture is between five and eight inches tall. Usually the subject is a person, though Kiwus also sculpts the occasional eight-headed monster or putrefying corpse. Kiwus can make anything, but his specialty is brawny, lantern-jawed heroes who stand with their legs and arms arched, like sumo wrestlers just before a match. Kiwus works in wax, mostly, and before his pieces are finished, they're an off-yellow color that makes them look weirdly fetal.

Action figures are everywhere in Kiwus's three-room Minneapolis studio. In the artist's airy, high-ceilinged office, they're lined up, regimentlike, along the bookshelves. There's a tangled pile of them spilling across the conference table in the next room. And in a workshop at the back of the studio, Kiwus's sole employee is bent over a workbench chiseling at a muscled thigh. There's even a collection of figures modeled on pinup queen Betty Page, whom Kiwus regards as his creative muse.

Kiwus, who is 45, comes across as a laid-back, no-bullshit sort of guy. His plain dark T-shirt has collected bits of wax and dust from the workshop where he spends most of his days and many of his nights. Although he's among the most successful and best-regarded action-figure sculptors in the world, Kiwus isn't given to flights of grandiosity about his work. But he's feeling a bit more introspective these days, since he's working on a book about his studio and craft, tentatively titled Babes, Beasts, and Brawn: Sculpture of the Fantastic.

In addition, Kiwus's action figures are presently being featured in a Minnesota History Center exhibit called "Small Wonders, Little Giants." Still, Kiwus would never describe what he does as folk art, or pulp art, or any other kind of art for that matter. Now and again, he'll flip through a comic book to check out another artist's style. And, of course, he'll see a Hollywood movie if he's sculpted a toy associated with it. But about his work, and about popular culture in general, he is surprisingly unsentimental. "The reason I always say I'm not an artist is I'm not trying to say anything," he says.

A big-time toy executive once told Kiwus he wasn't getting a sculpting assignment because his style was too individual. The guy meant it as a compliment, but Kiwus didn't take it that way. "I don't have a style," he says. "My style is whatever a client wants it to be."

In fact, if you ever find yourself in the toy aisle of Wal-Mart or Target and you happen to come upon a rack of Kiwus's sculptures, you probably won't recognize them as such. That's not because Kiwus's sculptures look like everyone else's, though; it's because, after 25 years and more than 1,600 action figures, everyone else's toys look like Steve Kiwus's.

 

The phrase action figure was coined in 1963 by a canny toy executive named Don Levine. What Levine wanted, essentially, was to sell dolls to boys. What he came up with was a "movable man of action," a posable 12-inch-tall Barbie doll in combat fatigues. Watching television late one night, Levine happened to catch an old Robert Mitchum war movie: The Story of G.I. Joe.

During the peak years of the Vietnam War, Hasbro recast its World War II grunt as a freelance adventurer. The latter model, which can be viewed at the Minnesota History Center next to samples of Kiwus's work, has a beard, scraggly Kris Kristofferson hair, and, strangest of all, what appears to be a peace symbol around his neck. After the toy faded from popularity, Hasbro reintroduced G.I. Joe as "the real American hero" in 1982, just in time for Ronald Reagan's famous "Evil Empire" speech.

It was another empire that cemented the humble action figure's place in the terrain of American boyhood, though. In 1977, upon the release of Star Wars, 20th Century Fox gave George Lucas merchandising rights to the film, assuming there was no money it. By 1989, assorted Star Wars paraphernalia had raked in $2.6 billion and plastic 3.75-inch-tall action figures based on the movie were ubiquitous. More important: Star Wars was the first movie that effectively doubled as an advertisement for toys. Action figures, Hollywood discovered, could milk a cash cow like Lucas's film for decades.

While they started out as children's toys, action figures soon became popular among nostalgic adults--mostly male, one assumes--for whom they were tangible artifacts of childhood. One of the first to cash in on this phenomenon was Spawn creator Todd MacFarlane, whose company, MacFarlane Toys, produces lovingly crafted, adult-oriented figures based on sports figures, horror-movie characters, and even '70s bands like KISS. Today's action-figure consumer can find anything from anatomically faithful renderings of porn stars, to a machine-gun-armed Jesus, to George W. Bush in a fighter-jock's jumpsuit.

Kiwus tells a story about a lecture he gave a few years ago to a group of art students. An artist came up to him afterward and asked if he'd worked on the Star Wars line. (He hadn't.) "He got sort of sheepish," Kiwus recalls. "'I have all of those.' People are just rabid about this stuff." At trade shows and conventions, Kiwus occasionally gets dispirited at the number of young men who seem way too into his toys. "There's a lot of loneliness," he says.

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