Industrial Strength

Artist and carpenter Frank Strunk III enters the red zone.

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click to enlarge THE RED BARON: Strunk with his mixed-media work, "By Any Other Name." - Phil Bardi
Phil Bardi
THE RED BARON: Strunk with his mixed-media work, "By Any Other Name."

Walk into Frank Strunk III's house and the first thing you see is a huge kinetic sculpture shaped like a Ferris wheel. This is no amusement-park ride: It's fringed with hammers and nails, arranged so that each nail is positioned directly beneath a hammerhead. When the motor is running, the gears turn, the contraption rotates and the hammers rise and fall to strike the nails again and again. Elsewhere in the house there's another rumination on labor — a mixed-media work called "Early to Bed." In it, a hammer hovers over a nail at one end of a two-by-four that is partially charred and scarred.

The pieces suggest the futility of work, the deadening effect of the daily grind. Yet the artist himself thrives on hard labor — it's what got him where he is today. Over the past five years, Strunk has developed a reputation for sculptures, installations, collaborations with other artists, even fashion — all with a jagged industrial edge.

Strunk reveals his latest series, RED, this Friday night in the swanky rear lounge of The Bank Nightclub and Concert Venue. The idea came from his simple love of the color red and its multitude of meanings. "When you're pissed off, you see red, but it's also the color for love and lust, and it can be both sexy and dramatic," he said.

The color is key. Strunk was satisfied that he'd found the right hues only after weeks of pounding, cutting and bolting together sheet metal that he painted and lacquered and splashed with a special (but secret) chemical formula. Then he set the whole mess on fire, extinguished it and finished the color process with textile dyes. The resulting works pulse with lush red highlights that bleed through the charred areas in flaming swirls.

Strunk's industrial perspective began taking shape in his adolescence, when he operated the printing press at his dad's print shop in Rockville, Md. After graduating high school, he tried his hand at college but discovered that he wasn't academically inclined and went back to being "print guy." Ultimately, his natural affinity for tools and love of working with his hands led him to a career in carpentry.

In 1995, Strunk moved to St. Petersburg with his then-girlfriend and tried his hand at real estate. His carpentry skills came in handy when he was fixing up an old house, but the whole buy-fix-sell process got old quick.

"It really left no time for anything else. I worked 50 to 60 hours a week and was very stressed." After he and the girlfriend parted ways, Strunk abandoned the real estate business entirely.

"At that time, I was experiencing an undercurrent of creative stiflement, and was feeling depressed and unfulfilled with everything." Then, he says, he had a spiritual awakening — and with it came an urgent desire to make something. Soon he was using his carpentry skills to craft industrial-style lamps from old pipes.

"When the first waves of inspiration and creativity washed over me, I'd go into my studio at 8 p.m. and work nonstop, and I'd look up at my clock and it'd be like 3 or 4 a.m." He was zoned in, "communicating with a source of the universe, which was surging out of me through my hands."

In the late '90s, after assembling enough work for a show, he answered a call for artists from an Ybor City gallery, Eighth End. Every piece in his portfolio was accepted, all were priced low for the show and by the end, he'd sold each one. "I was on my way at that point."

Strunk continued showing his work around town, getting involved with The Bank Nightclub and Concert Venue after owner Bill Hillman saw some of his works in 2004 at an Arts Center show in St. Pete. "He called me and was like, 'Hey, I'm opening this gigantic club, I love your art, let's do something together.'" Soon enough, Strunk was given free rein to transform the club with his design ideas and artwork. Evidence of his industrial touch is everywhere, from the 12-foot steel partitions in the men's bathroom to the unique lamps and lighting fixtures that are scattered throughout. "My friends call it Club Strunk."

The stocky, 41-year-old Strunk still practices more traditional forms of carpentry. ("Sometimes I feel like it's unfair to enjoy something so much and still get paid for it.") He specializes in pre-1950s construction because "it takes more of an artist's eye to keep the design authentic and respect the way a home was originally intended to be."

When he's not working, he hangs with his live-in girlfriend Bethany, whose bright red hair was another inspiration for his show, and Mia, his adorable, red-bead-and-boa-wearing mutt. But he spends most of his spare time toiling away in his backyard studio.

His methods vary; kinetic sculptures are planned out, with Strunk spending a week or longer sketching plans for parts, motors, gearboxes and whatever else he may need, sometimes going so far as to create a test mechanism. Other times, it's a more a flash of inspiration that gets him moving. "I feel like I'm not even there, when a piece just makes itself with my hands doing the work. Almost like I'm channeling the art."

This is why you won't find Strunk taking absolute credit for his creations. "What gave me the idea? A higher power or the universe? What makes any idea happen in your head that you later on claim as your own? I don't know. I just do it."

The art he creates — and the life he's created for himself — take a cue from scholar Joseph Campbell's famous catchphrase "Follow your bliss."

"I take a back-door approach in saying that we as a culture are too obsessed with work and our careers and things that are material ... when I make pieces about work, my point is that the day after you die, there will still be nails to pound. Work is never done but life will be done someday, so spend no time doing things that aren't your soul's true purpose."

For Strunk, that purpose is already being realized.

"People ask me, 'When do you think you'll stop making art?' and I'm like, 'What?!'" He laughs at the absurdity. "If I'm lucky, I will die in my 90s, collapsed on my last piece of art. I don't want to stop — that would mark the beginning of my death as a creative being."

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