It's not of this world, the 20-foot-tall heron of welded steel. Its brilliant plumage consists of scraps of recycled plastic signs: an array of Amoco blue, Mr. Donut orange and Cogo's red. Yet even when the heron's manic cartoon eyes peer down at you over its rich yellow beak, the bird looks merely curious, even friendly.
Tim Kaulen's "One Great Blue" stands in the high-ceilinged lobby of the Pittsburgh Children's Museum. By day, admiring parents and wide-eyed kids point, gape, move close. At night, it lights up from within, visible through the museum's windows like a huge, post-consumer Tiffany lamp.
On a rainy spring afternoon, the rough-shaven Kaulen, 40, sits on a bench nearby. As usual, he's laid-back, even laconic. But he's got a right to be pleased: Some 20 years into an art career largely defined by guerilla techniques and unconventional materials, he's still making work he likes ... and often even getting paid for it.
Kaulen grew up in Greenville, a small town north of Pittsburgh. He came to the city in 1984, to study graphic design and illustration at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. But he soon found himself drawn to work made in three dimensions, using a nonacademic approach and recycled media.
"When I drive around, I'm always drawn to things that people neglect," he says.
He's a co-founder of the Industrial Arts Co-Op, a seminal local group that in the mid-1990s began creating large experimental sculptures in Pittsburgh's abandoned mills, factories and warehouses. Mostly using materials found on site, the group has built a reputation around several high-profile efforts. There's "Space Monkey," a cartoonish simian which railroad authorities once removed from a prominent Downtown trestle bridge; a giant owl, hung inside a shuttered Monongahela Valley steel mill; and, at the same site, a stunning, 30-foot-tall deer head which still stands -- and is now featured on official heritage tours of the site.
George Davis, a colleague and IAC co-founder, says Kaulen's aesthetic was to keep things simple, even "logo-like." But Davis also notes Kaulen's organizational skills. When IAC needed more hands for a project, says Davis, Kaulen "kept people coming and tried to keep a forward motion."
Kaulen works solo, too. His collages, pieced from old billboards to gently mock consumer culture, have appeared overnight on playground fences and abandoned gas stations. Area bridges and blank brick walls have sported his graffiti animal silhouettes, sometimes for years. Kaulen's bestiary is easily recognizable, even iconic: a rampant bull, a ram, or small flocks of placid geese, the last inspired by his grandfather's handmade decoys.
At least one of those works is part of the local art world's lore. Once, during the Carnegie Museum of Art's prestigious International, Kaulen parked a giant goose -- with a vintage trailer-camper for a body -- near the museum, where it drew at least as much attention as the work inside.
But Kaulen has found his way inside official venues as well. In 1997, his 25-foot inflatable "Stay Puff Marshmallow Girl" starred at the famed Burning Man Festival, in Nevada -- and also at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Arts Festival.
Likewise, since 1998, he and other IAC members have been working on a giant sculpture to honor the region's steelworkers. Constructed in an old coke works, the piece incorporates a huge industrial ladle. The IAC hopes to finish by 2008 for installation near the South Side Works, a mill site turned retail-and-office complex along the Monongahela River.
Kaulen also created another work for the Children's Museum: a giant inflatable dinosaur made of vinyl ice-cream billboards, sitting on a cafeteria window ledge. But it's "One Great Blue" that makes the first impression on visitors.
"It was like, 'Oh, my gosh, it's amazing,'" says Penny Lodge, the museum's director of exhibits. "It's a great entry piece. It's playful, it's fun. Kids just love walking underneath it, through its legs, and looking up at it."
Kaulen, sitting near his heron, says that he would like to make his living with art. It's an unrealized goal for now, despite occasional commissions -- a total of $50,000 from the City of Pittsburgh and the Heinz Endowments for the steelworker memorial, for instance. So Kaulen (who's a new father) continues to butter his bread with a photography gig at Carnegie Mellon University.
Still, he says, "I consider this my real job and where I'm at my best, and where I'm happy, and where I serve the community best." Wryly, he adds, "I need to do some business planning."