KEENE - Transformation is magic.
This is the work of wizards: changing one thing into something else. This is what Cinderella's fairy godmother did when she turned a pumpkin into a coach. This is what artist Kay Kowanko does when she gives a simple chair wings worthy of an angel or a pegasus, constructed of papiermache, glazed over with readable funny papers. Or turns her friends Peg and Bob into lizards.
Born Kay Torgeson, she grew up on a dairy farm outside the small town of Kensington, Minn. When she was in kindergarten, the cows were sold off, but the Torgeson family stayed on. It was a solitary life for a little girl. Kowanko spent much of her time playing by herself. She learned to sew by watching her mother, a skilled needlewoman and upholsterer. She has always liked working with her hands, something she has in common with her father, a self-taught carpenter.
Kay Kowanko (Photo — Martha Allen)
After high school graduation, Kowanko attended Moorhead State University in Minnesota and transferred to Pratt Institute School of Art and Design in Brooklyn, where she graduated with a bachelor's degree in fine arts. She remained in New York City for 13 years, then lived in Columbus, Ohio and Seattle, Wash., before moving to Upper Jay with her husband, Chris, and daughter, Anna, 11 years ago.
"I love thrift stores," Kowanko said. "At home I have tables, chairs, lamps, lampshades I've collected. I fall in love with things I find. I put a spin on them. When I finish a project, I feel like I'm done with it."
"Kay can fix anything," commented Stephen McCracken, an admiring coworker at Dartbrook Rustic Goods in Keene. An example is a painting with a hole in it, mended and retouched so that no damage is visible.
"She just has no fear," McCracken said. "She'll jump in and tackle anything."
"I like matching color," Kowanko said modestly.
Restoring antiques is a specialty she practices at work. Jay Haws, who co-owns Dartbrook with Steve Pounian, said, "Kay is incredibly talented. She has great taste, great instincts."
According to Haws, she took a small replica of ship and fitted it out with sails and rigging. An antique taxidermy piece was unrecognizable before she cleaned and restored two ducks and the glass dome that had covered them for decades.
Five years ago, Scott Renderer asked Kowanko to create lizard costumes for a play, "Seascape," by Edward Albee, to be presented at the Recovery Lounge in Upper Jay that summer. She had never made costumes for theatrical productions before, but, fearlessly, she accepted and put her magic to work, designing/constructing reptile suits.
Lizard wizard! Poof! Kowanko turned humans Bob Andrews and Peg Wilson into lizards.
"I like figuring things out," Kowanko said.
Well, not exactly poof. There was work involved.
"She worked on the costumes all summer," said Peg Wilson. "Bob and I went in for fittings several times. Every time we went in, she had added some intricate detail."
Heavy-duty work gloves were fashioned into reptilian feet, to be worn on the actors' hands and feet. At the ends of the glove fingers, Kowanko added long Sculpy claws.
The tails were the real masterpiece, according to Andrews. Constructed of styrofoam board insulation, they were articulated as if composed of vertebrae and secured so that they moved realistically and dramatically with the actors' body movements. The tails were built in proportion to the actors' size; Andrews' tail was 6 feet long, while Wilson's tail measured 5 feet.
Kowanko also did the face makeup for the costumes every night the play ran, from July 30 through Aug. 9. Altogether, suiting up and getting made up took about two hours each night, Wilson said.
The final effect was disconcertingly transformational. The lizards were a little scary - just at first.
So who says you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear?
You couldn't prove it by artist Kay Kowanko.