Santa Barbara artist Kenneth Korten was a soft-spoken and passionate person who lived an almost monkish life, mindfully minimizing his impact on his environment. He shopped at thrift stores and made his own stylistic alterations to the secondhand clothes he purchased so he was always looking good. He was a disciplined craftsman who slept on a mat in his workspace. He worked with metal, stone, paper, and wood and was largely self-taught.
The beautiful objects Ken created will always be with us. He possessed an amazing and intuitive ability to perceive and understand structures in nature. He created his elaborate designs without mathematical calculation — just careful observation, patience, and craftsmanship. He made lamps with folded paper, intricately folded metal sculptures, and beautiful carved pieces from hardwood. He would sometimes carve two intertwining spirals from a single piece of hardwood. His mobiles are perhaps his best-known sculptures.
Art reviewer Joan Crowder wrote, “Some of Korten’s works appear deceptively simple, but they look that way to us because their principles underlie many ordinary objects. Here, those principles become the art itself.” Crowder also wrote: “[T]he physical harmony of his forms triggers a similar feeling of harmony in the viewer.” Similarly, Ken often explained that his inspirations were “gifts” that came to him and that his objects were “tools” for meditation.
Over the years his artwork has appeared in exhibitions at many local galleries including Contemporary Arts Forum, Channing Peake Gallery, Marcia Burtt Gallery, Faulkner East Gallery, and Santa Barbara City College’s Atkinson Gallery. Since 2006, his mobiles and folded metal wall pieces have been featured at Entenza Modern Classics on State Street in Santa Barbara. Ken’s works are held in the Barry Berkus Family Collection, Berkeley Bank, Siemens Pacemaker, and the Santa Barbara County Arts Commission.
Artists often feel their artworks alone are not enough to address the immediate issues of their time. Ken felt this way, so he also sought to have an impact on this world through his actions. For many years he was a regular participant in the Solstice Parade, appearing as a dancing green gecko, rolling an enormous Buckminster Fuller–inspired geodesic globe, or sometimes carrying one of his mobiles, which he referred to as “clouds” or “sacred smoke,” aloft on a bamboo pole.
Years ago, Ken hosted “fire circles” for his friends. These were gatherings that were intended to bring people together to sing, talk, and watch an elaborate wooden structure that he had assembled gradually burn to ash. Ken was also a gifted vocalizer, sometimes channeling his Scotch-Irish heritage with traditional folk songs, and sometimes, when inspiration struck, with operatic bellows.
An idealist and an antiwar activist, Ken was a volunteer with the Veterans for Peace in their weekly creation of the symbolic Arlington West cemetery. Crafting new crosses each week, the volunteers would neatly align the hundreds of crosses in the sand next to Stearns Wharf to mark the dead in the Middle East wars. Ken made himself an oversized rake that he used to groom the sand around and between all of the crosses, making lined patterns in the sand to honor those who died in those conflicts.
Ken earned a living as a certified massage therapist and a senior caregiver. On weekends he was a presence at the Santa Barbara Farmers Market, where he gave sit-down massages and stimulated his subjects’ minds with a “Cosmic Gong” he had crafted. This was a piece of bent steel that he would suspend over the head of his subject and gently tap with a soft mallet so that the vibrations could pass through the mind of the subject — it was a pleasurable experience.
Ken died on October 13, at age 61, from complications of craniopharyngioma, a complex medical condition that affected his endocrine system; he dealt with it for most of his life. Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he moved to Santa Barbara with his family in 1963, graduated from Dos Pueblos High School, and attended Santa Barbara City College.
Ken is survived by his mother and stepfather, Jane Carey and Christian Brun of Goleta; his siblings Noel, Christopher, Jerome, Kate, and Tristram Korten; Erik Brun; and 13 nieces and nephews.
A memorial will be held on Saturday, December 5, at 2 p.m. at Casa Las Palmas, 323 East Cabrillo Boulevard — family and friends are welcome. Donations can be made to the Foundation for SBCC to support the Atkinson Gallery in Kenneth Korten’s memory.