If You Lived Here, You'd Be in the Middle of Nowhere

Surreal skateboard artist and dreamworld designer Aaron Horkey left the city for a place where cats go to die

Aaron Horkey is showing off a dead cat--long dead--with hairless skin that's the color of the cardboard box that is its temporary resting place.

"Somebody shot it," the painter and graphic artist explains as we pause in our ramble around the automobile graveyard that rings the Horkey home. "It crawled inside an empty wheel rim and died. Then I just blundered upon it. I'm waiting for the last bits of skin to fall off so I can use the bones."

The gangly, clean-cut 26-year-old isn't planning to make a soup or a necklace. Like his father, a master woodcrafter who uses parts of the dead machines that surround us as models, Horkey gives this detritus another life in new guises. He doesn't stop at cars, though. Horkey salvages creatures, memories, images--even fonts. Horkey's handmade typography mystifies many people, me included. Why would anyone devote so much time and effort to mastering a skill that, for all intents and purposes, passed away decades ago?

"I was never into mechanical lettering," Horkey explains after we retire to his third-floor lair, a combination bedroom and studio neatly packed floor-to-ceiling with books and art. "I've been hand-lettering ever since I was little. I used to make my own coloring books and hand-letter all the text. Subconsciously, I was always devouring art nouveau packaging and stuff. We've got tons of antiques sitting around. Then I started getting into turn-of-the-century records and started collecting old sheet music and railroad bonds."

You might not take Horkey for an archivist: Neatly shorn and shaven, he wears a black hoodie, a skull-festooned T-shirt, and spotless, loose-fitting white chinos. He seems more like a skater, which he is at night. In a similar spirit, you might not expect to find an impressive repository of underground art and comics in a place that most city folks would consider the middle of nowhere. Horkey's relative isolation--about a mile from Windom (population roughly 4,500), in the southwestern corner of Minnesota--makes his studio seem all the more exotic.

He walks to one of the innumerable stacks and pulls out an ornate document issued by the Kansas City Northwestern line. "This is from 1894," he offers. "Look at how cool this is. I'm more into the stuff that's just nameless. For a while I had to use reference materials. Now I just knock myself out."

Horkey's boldly ornate extrapolations on yesteryear's typefaces (think of a turn-of-the-century department store sign) figure prominently on a wide range of gear. There are shirts and accessories--even a pewter belt buckle--that he's created for the surf, skate, and snowboard manufacturer RVCA, his primary outlet in the garment industry.

A look around the room reveals just how industrious Horkey has been in the last few years. The room is littered with countless stickers, patches, album covers, shirts, hats, and belt buckles that he has designed, as well as the canvas and paper originals, all carefully archived around us. He's a regular contributor to Life Sucks Die, the locally generated art and music glossy. He makes posters for Burlesque of North America, the Minneapolis-based design firm whose principals include LSD founder Wes Winship and Todd Bratrud, art director of industry leader Consolidated Skateboards. Horkey's handiwork has been featured on Consolidated's decks for the past five years. (A forthcoming Horkey series involves giant insectoid creatures lurking atop crumbling monoliths.) Plus, Horkey is contributing a one-of-a-kind, hand-painted toy to the Qeedrophonic exhibition, which opens at Ox-Op Gallery in July before moving on to galleries in Horkey strongholds Los Angeles and Tokyo.

"I got an e-mail account so I could communicate with my Japanese fans," the computer-scorning artist notes, "just because it's way too expensive to talk on the phone." One of those fans plans to open an Aaron Horkey shop in Tokyo offering everything from original art to Horkey's simple red-and-white manta ray logo stickers. "He just sent me some photos of the spot he's looking at. It looks pretty cool. I get all these crazy packages from him, jam-packed with toys from over there." Horkey reaches into a box in his closet and pulls out a tiny, exquisitely detailed diplodocus. "He sent me a whole bag of these crazy aquarium toys, dinosaurs and whatnot. I open one a day."

It seems that the admirer isn't just talking out of his Aaron Horkey trucker cap. He and his girlfriend flew in from Tokyo just to see Horkey's first solo exhibition at the Cottonwood County Historical Society's Robert Remick Gallery last year. "I didn't even get to see them," recalls Horkey, who was in L.A. on business at the time. "They took a bus from Minneapolis to Windom, saw the show, and then just assumed that they could hop another bus to Minneapolis and catch their flight back the next day. Luckily, a friend of mine was down here. He got them a ride."

Junkets to Los Angeles make up a good chunk of Horkey's work life these days. He has spent six weeks there in the past year as an artist-in-residence for RVCA. He'll be going back at least once in the next six months, as well as to Tokyo, where he hopes to catch "Qeedrophonic" in the ultra-trendy Laforet Department Store.

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