Getting Back on Two Feet: Sculptor Uses Personal Experiences For Inspiration

In the 1970s, Terry Karpowicz, then a painter, became inspired to sell his paints and become a sculptor while assisting in the installation of friend and mentor Mark Di Suvero’s steel sculpture.

Terry Karpowicz studied the structure of
windmills to improve his sculpting skills.

Images: Jyoti Srivastava

Karpowicz started out by building large kinetic wooden structures but would find them knocked over by the wind when they were outside.

“I applied for a Fulbright Fellowship to go to England and study the technical and mechanical aspects of wind and watermills as it related to my work as a sculptor,” Karpowicz told O&P Business News. “[I wanted] to study how [windmills] are made to last hundreds of years while continuing to move with beauty and grace.”

After being awarded the Fulbright and less than a year after starting his research in England, Karpowicz was in a motorcycle accident and had to have his right leg amputated.

“I was 27 when the accident happened. I had lost a lot of weight, I had to regain my strength and balance and I had to get a properly fitting prosthetic limb,” he said. “Once those things happened, I started to rediscover my life as an amputee.”

His early works after his amputation were smaller and “moved through space more gracefully than I did,” Karpowicz said. But using techniques derived from his experience working with a millwright in England, he has continued to enlarge and embolden his sculptures, confident that they will last a lifetime.

Cows on parade

Undeterred by his amputation, Karpowicz continues to sculpt using stone and steel, although wood is his preferred medium. His sculptures are displayed around the world, including in Switzerland and Russia, as well as in Chicago, where he lives.

“Mount” is currently on exhibit in Michigan City,

In 1999, Karpowicz participated in the Cows on Parade project in Chicago, where fiberglass cows were decorated by local artists and displayed throughout the city. It was during the event that he created what he considers as one of his personal best: a cow with four prosthetic legs.

“I had been volunteering at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago at the time and I asked my prosthetist, Elaine Uellendahl, of New Touch Prosthetics Inc., if she would assist me in making this cow,” Karpowicz said. “Together we amputated the cow’s legs and put prosthetic limbs on it.”

“Symbotic Parallax” is permanently installed at the University of Illinois Molecular Biology Building in Chicago.

But the cow with the prosthetic legs is not the first or only sculpture he created that was inspired by his amputation. He spoke of one sculpture with large, 2,000-3,000 pound stones, sitting precariously atop a cone.

“They look very tenuous, like they could fall at any moment, but in fact they’re stable, they’re solid and they’re sturdy. It’s a lot like me. By looking at me you don’t know I have a prosthetic leg because I’m walking on land, standing on ladders and moving materials around. There is appearance vs. reality,” Karpowicz said.

“What we do as artists, I think, is we just make psychic self-portraits,” he said. “It’s impossible for me to do something that is not influenced by my experiences as an amputee, as a man and as a learning adult.”

Giving back

Niles Library sculpture, Chicago.
Made mostly of cedar, the sculpture
is Terry Karpowicz’s tallest.

When Karpowicz isn’t sculpting, he spends time at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) where he tests new prosthetic legs.

“That is my way of giving back as an amputee,” Karpowicz said. “It is easy to take things, but it’s not so easy to give back and this is a tiny way that I can do that.”

First introduced to the idea by one of his physicians, Yeongchi Wu, MD, who worked at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago at the time, Karpowicz was unable to volunteer while he was still trying to get used to life as an amputee, but he began to volunteer a few years later at the RIC. Recently he participated in RIC’s study on the first thought-controlled bionic leg, which was published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

“The leg has motors that will allow amputees to walk upstairs, leg over leg, and amputees can sit down and the leg will project them up,” Karpowicz said. “The motorized leg is doing a lot of the work the amputee’s sound leg would be doing otherwise. It is an amazing thing and I can’t wait for it to be a product.”

Future goals

“Finish” is on exhibit at the Bridgeport Art
Center in Chicago.

Karpowicz admitted that he is hard on his prosthetic leg, as his work requires climbing ladders and working with heavy materials. But with 40 years of sculpting under his belt, Karpowicz is not ready to slow down.

“Of course I would love to be a MacArthur Fellow and I’d love to get my work in the Guggenheim, but those are probably things I won’t achieve,” Karpowicz said. “What I know I can achieve is to push the boundaries of what I know right now in terms of materials and marrying materials. I think my goal is just to continue to make the best sculptures that I possibly can for as long as I can.”

For recent amputees trying to deal with the challenges of their new life, Karpowicz advised they continue living life and to not let neither amputation or ego get in the way.

“I’ve always told people a leg is not a heart. A leg is not a soul. Just pursue the dreams you had prior to your amputation,” he said. “Live the life you have, not the life you think you should have.” — by Casey Tingle

Disclosure: Karpowicz has no relevant financial disclosures.

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