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.

Noticing that the action-figure market seemed to be skewing older, a few years ago Kiwus and two partners started Modern Icons, which focused on figures like Rosie the Riveter and Betty Page instead of Spider-Man and Frodo. Whereas Kiwus's movie- and comic-book-based figures tended to be fairly faithful to their sources--he's famously adept at sculpting realistic hands and feet, and flowing hair and clothing--his Modern Icons work was slightly more cartoonish in style. It mostly featured big-breasted fantasy women in compromising pinup magazine poses.

Unfortunately, the line proved too racy for gift shops and Modern Icons folded after only a handful of figures. One protoype, however, still sits on a studio shelf: A buxom figurine based on Playboy magazine's "Little Annie Fanny."

 

Kiwus himself sounds almost incredulous when he tells the story of how he became an action-figure impresario. He was born on an air force base in California, although he grew up in the Twin Cities. "I was the artsy one in the family," he says. "My father is an aerospace engineer. My brother is an electrical engineer, and my other brother is an accountant. Where did I go wrong?

"Actually, I feel like I got the best of both worlds: The artsy thing, but there's an engineering head, too. That's what fits in so well with making toys. I mean, they're not just sculptures--they actually have to work. We recently did a Spider-Man that's going to crawl across the floor. Well, what I do is I have to figure out how that's going to happen."

Kiwus doesn't remember being particularly interested in comic books or in television as a child. His favorite thing, he says, was to mix up the parts of model car kits and then invent his own permutations. He thought he'd probably be an architect when he grew up.

Instead, Kiwus became a jeweler. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, he moved to New York City to attend the Parsons School of Design. In 1981, though, he came back for a summer internship at a now-defunct toy company called Lakeside Games, which produced board games like Aggravation and Barrel of Monkeys. A year later, Kiwus took a full-time job at Lakeside and designed his first toy, an accessory for the medieval-themed Crossbows & Catapults.

When Lakeside went under, Kiwus took a series of jobs at big East Coast toy companies. Commuting between New York and Minneapolis took its toll, though, and his first marriage, from which he has one daughter, eventually broke up. In 1986, tired of the corporate drudgery, Kiwus decided to set out on his own as a freelance sculptor. "When I started out, I was just faking it, making it up as I went along," he says.

It wasn't easy for a neophyte artist to break into the sometimes cutthroat toy business: When Kiwus was starting out, other artists wouldn't even share their secret recipes for sculpting wax. "Nobody would tell me what the formula was," he explains.

Kiwus goes to a toy chest to retrieve one of his first commissions: a three-inch-long plastic ice-cream cone. "I was doing a lot of stuff like this the first two years: accessories for dolls, just anything to pay the rent. Honestly, I don't know how I made it."

 

A couple of years ago, the buzz in the toy industry was that technology would soon put Kiwus, and all his fellow action-figure sculptors, out of business. Using a relatively new gizmo called a rapid prototype machine, toy companies could simply scan movie actors in costume and then pump out a 3-D image of them. Unlike Kiwus's sculptures, which often take two weeks to develop, these action figures could be produced instantly and would be flawless simulacra of the original.

Toy companies sometimes still use scanning to capture an actor's facial features. But executives quickly realized that Kiwus does more than churn out copies of Hollywood imagery. "I don't do reality," he explains. "I don't think I've ever done an accurate human sculpture. The trick to what I do is exaggerating things in the right way.

"It seems so obvious, but when I started doing this stuff, my big idea was, 'Hey, let's make the action figures look like the comic books.' Guys had always been posed generically, with their arms at their sides. And the company wanted to stay sort of neutral to get the articulation and the play-value. But if you arch the back a little, that gives it tension. If you pull some of the tendons in the hand, pull the fingers back a little, they look more tense. If you take a forearm or a thigh and give it a slight bend, that gives it tension."

As a demonstration, Kiwus pulls out a sample of his latest line, a series of figures from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Maybe anything as meticulously crafted as these are becomes art by default--whether they're destined to end up in a museum or in a Happy Meal. Kiwus allows himself just a flash of vanity: "I don't have any illusions that these things are great art," he says. "Most of them will just end up as landfill. But some of them will be around forever."

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