Along Road In Minnesota, Drivers Brake For Huge Foot


Ken Nyberg is working on a huge electric plug made of metal, pounding and welding it. Next in line could be an old-fashioned clothespin. "Big enough," he says, "for someone to slip through the opening sideways." After that, who knows?

Evidence of what springs from Mr. Nyberg's bulky imagination is placed all over little Vining, population 84. A huge foot. A huge square knot. A huge doorknob. A huge cup suspended in air. All made of metal.

Something told Nyberg to make them. Does he think that people will gather around them and say, "Wow, this is art"? He's not sure. He doesn't know. He shrugs. "They are just grossly overgrown," he says.

Art or not, people stop their cars here in western Minnesota to touch the almost art and smile in delight.

Nyberg is a virtuoso scrap metalist, a sculptor from the bang-and-weld school who likes to build 'em big. "The foot weighs a ton," he says, leaning against it on Front Street as cars swish by on the adjacent highway. Many drivers strain sideways to look in disbelief at a 12-foot-high bare foot with bulbous metal toes.

The clothespin, Nyberg says, should be 20 feet high. The electric plug will have a cord that is suspended, maybe 10 feet long.

Two other sculptures - an Indian on horseback and a cowboy with long leg up on a fence - are life-size renderings minus any exaggerations.

Nyberg has spent most of his serious, adult life as a constructor and welder of grain elevators, feed mills, and fertilizer plants across the United States. "It's commercial agriculture work," he says, ready for his sculpture to someday displace his very serious agriculture work. "I just make these sculptures," he says, "and worry about where they go when the time comes. I like making them, but my inner feelings don't tell me it's art."

So far he hasn't sold any of them. The town has welcomed each one complete with a little festive gathering as the sculpture is fastened into place with a cement base. But Nyberg wouldn't mind selling them.

His sculpting with a blowtorch and hammer started a few years ago when he made a bushy tree as a heavy metal wedding gift. "I put together some scraps in the shape of a tree," he says, "and somebody suggested there should be a dog with it." So he made a dog, life-size and friendly looking.

Then, for reasons he can't explain, he started working on the foot in a work building surrounded by cornfields near his house. "I didn't dare tell anyone I was making a foot, " he says, "or I'd end up in a straitjacket."

In the meantime, the dog was liberated regularly from one place to another. Just before Halloween one year the dog was padlocked to a tree. "But somebody knocked the tree over and stole the dog," says Nyberg. The next Halloween the dog was returned with a nice note saying the dog had been well taken care of. "Next I heard it was in the showroom of the John Deere dealer chained to a tractor," says Nyberg, who has the rusty and battered dog for now.

Bud Reed is the curator for Nyberg's huge square knot. It sits on Mr. Reed's front lawn, just a short distance from the foot. "I think they are great," he says of the sculptures. "He can put anything he wants here. It's fun to watch people driving by on the highway from the west, then they see the foot, and the tail lights come on. They turn around, come back, and get out."

The sculptures have proved to be utilitarian, too. "People use them as landmarks," says Nyberg. "Invite someone up, and they'll say, well, turn by the foot, or my house is so many doors past the doorknob."

What may happen is that Nyberg's foot, at least, will take its place in the pantheon of the best roadside architecture in Minnesota. An Internet listing has about 300 "sculptures" that dot the roadsides of Minnesota. The foot is included.

"A lot of towns around here have statues of birds or animals," says Nyberg, "or Paul Bunyan, but I didn't want to be like everybody else. Whether or not I am a normal person, I don't know," he says, laughing.

His great-grandfather homesteaded in Vining in the late 1870s. No one else in the family, as far as Nyberg knows, had the urge to make something big and memorable out of scraps of iron. "I've got two sons and four daughters," he says, "all grown now, but none of them doing anything like this."

Nyberg makes rough sketches of the objects in the beginning but seems to have a natural sense of proportion and great skill at shaping the hunks of metal as he goes along. "I have a vision of what it will look like," he says. "If that wasn't there, I guess I wouldn't know where to go."

Sounds just like an artist at work.

*For more information about Nyberg's sculptures, contact the artist at RR 1, Box 141, Vining, MN 56588.

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