Wherever you turn in Kalamazoo, you’re bound to find a large and colorful mural painted on the side of a building, brightening up a lobby, or creating a wonderland inside a children’s library. These immense paintings are the work of Conrad Kaufman. He also creates unique pieces of furniture as well as two-dimensional works out of papier mâché.
Where did all this creativity come from? Kaufman says it came from being on a “hippy farm” in Bangor, Michigan.
“Farming is really about problem-solving,” Kaufman says. “You can’t depend on weather, you can’t depend on machinery that’s old, so you have to fix things a lot. That led me to learn how to creatively solve all kinds of problems, which, in my opinion, is the core of the creative process.”
Adding to life on the farm was the fact that Kaufman spent many of his growing years without a TV. The family television set broke during a Bruce Lee movie when he was ten years old. It wasn't replaced until 12 years later. Kaufman grew up with a vivid and colorful imagination and an ability to entertain himself — all tools for the future artist.
Kaufman majored in art and math when he enrolled at Western Michigan University, but he soon dropped both subjects for anthropology. Art remained his personal means of expression, however, and in 1992 he was invited to paint a mural at the Kalamazoo Public Library. Painting that, Kaufman says, was the beginning of his career as a muralist.
Kaufman’s murals can be seen at the library, at many buildings on WMU's campus, and at Food Dance Café, the People’s Food Co-op, the Bangor Health Clinic, Family and Children Services, Tiffany’s, Bravo Restaurant, and Lake Michigan College as well as a number of area schools and other places.
Right now, Kaufman is working on a Firefighter Memorial in Comstock.
“This has been a real mind-twister for me,” Kaufman says. “About six years ago I was asked to design a memorial on the site of the original fire department in Comstock. Then, about two years ago, the fire chief was killed in action and they got serious about fundraising. We went back over the design and changed a few things. My part of the project is a six-foot by 24-foot tile mosaic from seven different clay bodies. Altogether, it’s about 3,000 pieces.”
Kaufman hopes to get the project installed by mid-October with an unveiling in the spring of 2020.
In his Fence Rows Studio, Kaufman offers classes to artists, from beginners to advanced, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Listen to WMUK's Art Beat every Friday at 7:50 a.m. and 4:20 p.m.