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

Lisa Jurgens

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.

But his heart belongs to Windom, as do his lungs. "I can breathe here," he notes. "Whenever I visit a city the size of Minneapolis or bigger, I get a splitting headache."


Like Horkey, abstract painter, philanthropist, and gallery namesake Robert Remick spent some time away from Windom before returning to his hometown. But Horkey came back much sooner. After graduating from the Arts High School in Golden Valley, he hung out in Minneapolis for a couple of years, doing graffiti and providing artwork for slew of rap-related endeavors, including Anticon's Hip Hop Music for the Advanced Listener EP and Rhymesayers Entertainment's Dynospectrum disc. He also invented the shredded-mic logo that served Rhymesayers for years.

Pausing in front of his drawing board for a moment, Horkey reflects on that stage of his work: "Graffiti is great when you're young. You can learn a lot about line, color, volume, and mass. But it's also easy to outgrow. Plus, it's dangerous as hell--not just the paint fumes. Cops are always a threat, you can get killed falling off a train. I didn't make any money at it, either."

At the time, Minneapolis hip hop paid considerably less than Windom wood. Horkey's father had begun supplementing his cabinet-making income with a line of handmade wooden parts and accessories for vintage cars (gorgeous planked pickup truck bed-liners, for example). His business was blowing up faster than Aaron's ex-roommate Slug. And Dad was willing to pay. Horkey moved back to Windom.

There were other compelling reasons for returning to the land where the Frontier Twirlers Square Dance Club is a major cultural attraction. "It's quiet here," he observes. "There are no distractions. There's a lot more in the way of vegetation and animal life, which is where a lot of my inspiration comes from. I can wander around, explore abandoned farmhouses."

An only child who grew up far from potential peers, Horkey learned to draw on his inner resources early in life. "I was this weird artist kid who skated and listened to punk rock," he says. "I didn't have much in common with most other kids around here. I've never had more than a few close friends."

The house Horkey shares with his parents seems like a pleasant sanctuary. The spacious, early 20th-century structure is full of antiques and art (heavy on the nouveau). His mom seems warm, friendly, and laid-back to the point that she doesn't even bat an eye when he says "fuck" in front of her. (Bruce Horkey is away.)

"My parents have always been my number-one fans," Horkey relates. "My dad is like O.G. punk-rocker DIY motherfucker. He won't sell out; he still does everything by hand. That kind of production quality is all but unheard of these days. Some of that definitely rubbed off on me."

So did some of the paternal way with wood. The frames Horkey makes for his paintings--the deep-brown iridescent one that surrounds the airborne manta ray I'm staring at in amazement now, for example--are nearly as striking as the art itself. "My dad uses a lot of exotic wood in his work," Horkey explains. "It's so beautiful--and so expensive--that we always keep the scraps. I wouldn't have the frames if it weren't for his business."

The benefits Horkey derives from his pop's enterprise include far more than use of the wood, tools, or the computer in the shop. The family auto plot also provides a steady source of inspiration, as is demonstrated by his cover for a 2003 release by rapper Jack Sparr.

Like American Graffiti gone horribly wrong, the image depicts the ruined interior of a mid-century car. The windshield is shattered, the driver's-side window nearly gone. The ceiling fabric hangs in shreds. The only good patch of upholstery holds a screwdriver, some rumpled garments, and what appear to be the scraps of something once alive. In the car's back seat, dressed in white bell-bottoms and gray vest, lace-cuffed shirt, waistcoat, gloves, and pink boutonniere sits a most unusual entity. It seems largely human, save for its majestically horned and crested half-bison, half-fish head. The creature holds an exceedingly plump kiwi bird on its lap. Its right hand rests on the seat, grasping an old-fashioned six-shooter. The kiwi looks nervous, its captor contented. A snow globe and a seashell sit nearby. You can almost taste the mud on Bisonfishman's slacks.  

"I'm super-enamored of realism in surrealism especially, like Dali and Todd Schorr," Horkey says of his work. "If there's a certain amount of craft and attention to detail but it's really twisted, then that's the way to go."

Given the mummified cat, the private junkyard, and the mysteries that lie beyond the stubbly fields that surround us, Horkey could almost be describing his own environment. More than anything else, though, this place is alive in a way that you simply don't encounter in the city. At dusk, just as I'm about to get in the car for the long ride back to Minneapolis, a pair of bunnies hops out of a nearby grove and starts frolicking. Not like wary urban rabbits, but with true lagomorphic abandon. A flock of red-winged blackbirds bursts into song. I notice something just above my head: a squadron of fledgling dragonflies, all about an inch long. I feel like I'm getting a 21-insect salute.

Then, as we head down the gravel road that leads back to Highway 60, a wild turkey nervously crosses our path--the first I've seen in my life. I can't say that I'd be totally surprised if a portly kiwi waddled out from the brush, nosing a seashell along in front of it.

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