Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Junk is his palette

By Rachel Baruch Yackley
Daily Herald Correspondent
Posted Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Joe Gagnepain -- or Frances Joseph Gagnepain IV, his full name -- has considered himself an artist since the age of 3. It is astounding to see how much artwork this 29-year-old sculptor and muralist has created in a relatively short period. And he pretty much does it all using items everyone else discards.

Known for sculptures made from bicycle parts, Gagnepain said, "Some would call it junk; I call it potential. When I see junk, I want to use it.

"Usually, finding an object reminds me of part of an animal, and inspires me to sculpt. Then I find the rest of the pieces to fill in the form."

Gagnepain, who sees himself as an environmentalist, is a freelance artist in the Tri-Cities. He creates virtually anything of a visual nature for communities, businesses, schools and private homes.

A native of St. Charles, Gagnepain lives in Batavia with his wife, Rebecca, and their two children, Logan and Hannah.

In the Tri-Cities alone, Gagnepain has numerous public murals, monumental sculptures and eye-popping signage on display.

More than 24 murals, over 30 sculptures, at least a dozen signs for businesses around the country, as well as drawings, photographs, railings, metalwork, posters, and even art cars, have all been created and crafted by Gagnepain's magic touch.

"There are a number of emerging young artists who work with found objects," said prominent St. Charles artist Ray Kobald. "Oftentimes emerging artists use these materials because they are less expensive, and it's a fun way to express yourself."

Gagnepain's success in painting at a young age gave him the confidence to press on.

Gagnepain left St. Charles High School in January 1994, after the first semester of his junior year, and transferred to the Chicago Academy of Arts High School. He graduated with honors and won a Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation scholarship, which took him to Colorado Springs for summer classes.

Gagnepain's formal education continued at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design for two years, where he won a MCAD Merit scholarship.

Work easily seen

One of the skills which Gagnepain has put to good use is the art of self-promotion.

"To be an artist you have to believe in yourself and promote yourself," Kobald said.

It doesn't hurt to have entire blocks taken up with your art, either. Anyone who has passed by the triangular intersection at Illinois, First and Second streets in St. Charles over the past year or two has witnessed the growing number of murals and sculptures surrounding Jalapeño Grill. With a tiny bit still to do, there's virtually no exterior surface of this business that's been left untouched by Gagnepain.

"He really improved the look of our building," said Mary Calderon, who along with her husband, Anastacio, owns Jalapeño Grill. Although the Calderons do not own the building, they got permission from the owner to have it transformed with Gagnepain's artwork.

"I love to look at it. I drive to and from (the restaurant), and I can't wait to get to the corner each day to look at it. I love having his sculptures out there, too. It all give people something to look at. It's very colorful, and very inviting," Calderon said.

The Calderons also have a mural by Gagnepain in their new restaurant, Anastacio's, in East Dundee, and plan to commission sculptures from him for outside.

Calderon first met Gagnepain when he was eating at the Grill with his family.

"I'm happy I met him. It's gotten me more involved in art, and in getting my kids involved in art programs," she said.

Each artist finds his or her own muse, and for Gagnepain it seems to be the shape of things.

"I can see form. I was really good in geometry (in school). A lot of this is geometry and proportion. And with that proportion is how I can do big murals and sculptures with found objects. They already have the proportions," he said.

Inspired by bicycles

"Bike parts are great for sculpting animals because you already have circles and other shapes in proportions, and the frames are skeletal looking. The pieces dictate form; it's sometimes effortless," he said. "And the easiest to work with is steel, because I can weld it. I use MIG (metal inert gas) welding."

Among his most recent works is a commissioned fleur de lis steel statue which was installed earlier this year at St. Charles East High School; two sculptures -- "Fisonomia" and "A Bucklaew Bison" -- which are part of the "Sculpture in the Park" exhibit in Mount St. Mary Park in St. Charles; a statue of a mustang commissioned for Munhall Elementary School in St. Charles; a kinetic sculpture commissioned for the DuPage Children's Museum in Naperville; and a sign for Fox Valley Institute, a new Geneva business.

Completed earlier this month were 12 sculptures for "Medicine Woman, Metal Man," an exhibit at Beacon Street Gallery, 410 S. Michigan Ave. in Chicago, running through June 30. Among these is a large lion made mostly of bike parts, fashioned after the lions in front of the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as a fish with saw blades for gills and a catalytic converter cover for a body.

"You have whimsical sculpture with an edge to it," said Gagnepain, while brushing off the saw blades. "That's the nature of it."

You also have to be flexible, well-organized, and have a lot of energy if you're Gagnepain, as he gets calls for commissions "sometimes every day, and some days it's once a week," he said.

With so many things going on at once, some of the work happens in a very short period of time. He had the idea for the lion a few years ago, and made it in less than a week.

"I imagined making it to scale with the lions at the Art Institute," he said.

Scaled down a bit to accommodate the doorways and elevators at the gallery, Gagnepain's lion is no less majestic, and unquestionably more ingenious, with a movable head and tail.

Always needing more room to spread his wings, Gagnepain recently moved into a studio space near Kirk Road and Route 38 in Geneva Township, near Kirk Road and Route 38. It has a metal shop, office space, and even a shipping container in which he stores about 100 bicycles (which he refers to as "bike mound.")

When he's not in the shop welding, you may spot Gagnepain working on murals around the area.

"The painting makes more money, and I'm quicker at it," he said. "The sculpture is a public thing. I keep doing it because it is so unique."

To learn more about Gagnepain, visit

Look for it

Where to see Joe Gagnepain's works of art:

"Medicine Woman, Metal Man," through June 30. Sculptures by Joseph Gagnepain and Sonja Henderson at Beacon Street Gallery, 410 S. Michigan Ave. Chicago.

"Mustang Spirit," a 10-foot black mustang sculpture at Munhall Elementary School in St. Charles.

St. Charles "Sculpture in The Park:" "Fisonomia" and "The Bucklaew Bison" on display through September.

Swedish Days Parade: "Joe's Truck" will be redefined as a large clipper ship, with deck, portholes, sails, rigging, and lots of swashbuckling pirates, to boot.

Visit for details on these projects and more.

Career highlights

Francis Joseph Gagnepain IV is known for his murals, sculptures, art cars, and in smaller circles for his performance art, costume design and improvisational dancing. Here's a look at his career, so far ...

Previous mural commissions include:

In 2006: Jalapeño Grille; Fox River Cafà and Deli; and Dimitri's Mediterranean Grill.

In 2004: Cocoa Bean; East Side Sports Pub; and Martini Blu.

In 2003: Miguel's on the Fox; Hansen Baking Co.; and Pizzeria Venti franchises (ongoing).

Public sculpture includes:

In 2006: "Medusa" for "Hose Idea is That Anyway?;" "Tri-Tops" for "Sculpture Under The Sky;" and "Racine Raven" for Bird is the Word.

In 2005: "Bucklaew Bison" and "Iron Face" for Algonquin Public Art; and "Dolphin, Turtle, SeaHorse" for "Wire You Doing That?"

In 2003: "Mooseart" for St. Charles Moose Lodge; and "FoxCycle," a St. Charles Public Art Committee purchase.

In 2000: "ReCycled Dali Horse" for "Pedal Geneva."

Gagnepain made signs commissioned by the following businesses:

Geneva Police Department (2005); Northwest Community Hospital and "Historic Downtown Geneva" City of Geneva (2004); and ACT II Hair Salon (2002).

He has designed posters for:

"Les Uncomfortablos," Danny's Skybox, Second City, Chicago (2006); Festival Concours (2004); Swedish Days Custom and Classic Motorcycle Show (2004); Venetian Boat Parade (2003); and Art Around the Fox (2003).


For his murals at Jalapeño Grill, Gagnepain won a 2006 Downtown Pride Award presented by the St. Charles Downtown Partnership, and a 2006 Community Image Award presented by the St. Charles Chamber of Commerce.

His business, Art by Joseph, won the First Place Business Showcase Award in the 2006 Miracle on 64th St. St. Charles Christmas Parade.

As a member of the Starvin' Carvists -- a snow sculpture team -- he won second place in the 2007 Snow Visions event in Mount Prospect, and third place in the International Category at the 2007 Snowfest in Frankenmuth, Mich.

In art exhibitions, he won the Arts Infusion Purchase Prize 2005; Spotlight on the Arts First Prize 2002; and the Winter Show First Prize at the Campbell House Gallery in 2000 .

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