Gay artist Kevin Kloppenburg turns paper into hand-crafted art — especially for the holidays
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For most, the Yuletide season kicks off the day after Thanksgiving. For out artist Kevin Kloppenburg, however, every day is Christmas. Throughout the year, his Springfield, Mo., home is filled with baskets of handcrafted cast-paper Santa faces, nutcrackers, angels and other holiday ornaments in various stages of completion. Kloppenburg creates and hand paints the paper decorations in small batches to sell during his “high season” — the time between Halloween and Christmas. For Kloppenburg, this period becomes “one big blur.”
“When I get to this time of year, I simply run out of time,” Kloppenburg says. “I haven’t painted a single angel yet this year. The only angels I have are the ones left over from last year.”
Kloppenburg, a retired public school art teacher who currently teaches art at Ozarks Technical Community College, learned the craft of paper casting while he was a student at Drury University. Kloppenburg needed a flexible, independent study class to fit his student-teaching schedule. A professor needed someone to cast paper for her art projects. The collaboration was serendipitous.
“I was helping her create her art,” Kloppenburg recalls of the apprenticeship. “In that process we did a lot of casting. You take the pulp and cast it into a mold. It takes the shape of whatever the mold is. I would go at night and work in the studio for her and learned the process.”
Soon afterwards, Kloppenburg began teaching. As the holidays arrived, he found that his first-year teacher’s salary left him “flat-out broke.” With little money for Christmas gifts, he decided to cast and paint paper ornaments to give to family and friends.
“Everybody who got them went crazy for them,” he says. “They begged me to make more, saying that if I made more the next year, they would buy them from me. The first batch I made to sell was in 1987. It’s been a snowball effect ever since.”
This year, Kloppenburg has completed and will market about 1,200 ornaments. Because each piece is handcrafted, no two are exactly alike. Kloppenburg’s customers find this one-of-a-kind quality both delightful and befuddling.
“That’s what drives some people crazy,” says Kloppenburg. “I will pull out a dozen pieces from the same mold. Even if I try to paint them the same, I cannot. [An example] is Santa faces. Some look cheerier, some look sadder. Some look older, some look younger. They all take on their own little life. Some people find that very [frustrating]. They don’t know which one to pick.”
Kloppenburg personalizes many of the ornaments he creates at the buyer’s request. Customers have asked him to paint the names of children on angel ornaments and the names of family dogs and cats on pet ornaments. For one fan of The Polar Express, he added a silver jingle bell to a Santa ornament. In fact, Kloppenburg attributes the popularity of his top selling item, a snowy Christmas cottage, to such personalization.
“The one [ornament] I sell like crazy every year is this little house,” Kloppenburg says. “It’s the perfect gift for people who have just bought a new home. I personalize it with the name over the door or with the address on it. Once it’s personalized, people buy multiples of them. I always sell out. I have a lot of realtors who will buy them and give them to clients who just bought a house.”
It is another ornament from his collection, though, that captures Kloppenburg’s heart. His favorite holiday adornment features a deer in the winter woods at night. Kloppenburg feels that, when it’s finished, the piece has an almost stained glass quality. “What makes it spectacular to me is the blue,” Kloppenburg says. “I paint the blue sky to fade out. That’s what people tell me that they like about my painting style. I paint the sky dark to light with a gradual fade. I just really love that one. I don’t know why. I just think it’s pretty.”
Kloppenburg also crafts a few ornaments to appeal to LGBT buyers. With his Santa face ornaments, for instance, he replaces Father Christmas’ iconic red hat with one featuring Pride-colored stripes. And for his hirsute clientele, Kloppenburg keeps an inventory of bear ornaments.
“In Kansas City [at an annual trunk show], I get these big, brawny bears who come in,” Kloppenburg laughs. “They always ask, ‘Do you have any bear ornaments? Do you have any black bears? Do you have any brown bears? Do you have any polar bears?’”
Despite his best efforts to create a variety of pieces with broad appeal, Kloppenburg finds that he simply cannot please everyone. For example, his collection currently features six or seven dog breeds. Yet when dog lovers do not find their preferred breed among them, they are often disappointed.
“Dog people are relentless!” Kloppenburg says. “There are so many varieties of dogs. If I did nothing but dogs, I still wouldn’t have all the right ones.”
Still, he is grateful for the positive response his handcrafted ornaments have received. He feels the strong interest in his work is a validation of his tireless efforts. But the demand for his pieces has become somewhat difficult for him to manage.
“I work on this morning, noon and night all the time,” Kloppenburg says. “I don’t know how I could do any more. I literally start on December 26. When I am not teaching, I am making ornaments. It’s how I relax. It’s a passion.”
For more information, search Kevin’s Paper Ornaments on Facebook.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 02, 2016.