Rethinking the Frame

On a Saturday visit to Minnesota artist Ken Moylan's studio, I felt as if I were overlooking a garden in Kyoto, Japan, even though my feet were planted in St Louis Park.

Moylan (no relation to MPR reporter Martin Moylan) creates three-dimensional artwork that gives the viewer the sense of standing in a space, looking through a window and onto a view. His artwork typically consists of an intricately detailed window frame surrounding an oil painting that contains the realism and plays of light similar to the work of American landscape painters such as Thomas Moran or Albert Bierstadt.

Much of Moylan's work depicts places he's actually visited. Kyoto's Ginkaku-ji Temple, for example. "It's communicating the way I see things, trying to give as much of an experience of that," Moylan says. "I communicate through my work."


Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

Ken Moylan's Ginkaku-ji (2006)

Moylan's art combines what he calls "the big three": painting, sculpture and architecture. "Those are the three widely accepted strong categories of fine art, historically," he says. "I thought the combination was a great idea for making grounded, strong work and for having a fertile ground of ideas, references and inspirations."

A recent work is Moylan's Great Buddha of Bamiyan, which portrays a view of a massive stone carving in Afghanistan. The actual Great Buddha was created circa 300 CE but was destroyed by the Taliban in 1999.


Great Buddha of Bamiyan (2010)

"I was inspired to preserve the memory apart from what the fanatics did to it," Moylan explains. "It's like when someone close to you dies, you don't necessarily want to have their death mask around. You'd rather remember the good memories, so maybe it's similar to that."

A full-time artist since 1981, Moylan grew up in Eveleth, Minn., and attended the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where he studied printmaking, painting and drawing. Moylan's unique artwork evolved from a vision he had that riffed on Marcel Duchamp's 1924 sculpture Fresh Widow. He's been expanding on that vision ever since.

"I have an order in which I do things, and it's totally opposite of the order that any other artist works in," Moylan says of his process. "Most artists make a painting and then they'll frame it or get it framed. Mine physically starts with the frame."

When he begins a new work, Moylan makes a scale drawing and determines time of day, direction of light, materials and composition. He then builds the wooden frame, using inlay techniques such as intarsia and marquetry to develop the architectural space. From there, he'll do any stonework or carving. The final steps involve applying gesso to the surface that will be painted, then using oil paints to create the view outside the window. "I go through rolls and rolls of masking tape," Moylan chuckles. "All the detail work I do at the end is done with really small brushes, and I burn through them at a ridiculous rate."


Paintbrushes in Ken Moylan's studio

Japanese landscapes are close to Moylan's heart. His wife is originally from Japan and after spending much time there, Moylan was inspired to do a series of Japanese places. He's currently working on a piece called Hiroshima Hypocenter, which depicts a view from a shattered casement after the 1945 atomic blast. "Since that moment 65 years ago, the whole world just shifted, just changed, and it affected everything about everything from that moment on," Moylan says.


Hiroshima Hypocenter (2010)

He's also delving into the world of imagination by bringing to life the fantastical works of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an 18th-century engraver who etched a series of imagined views. True to form, Moylan is creating an architectural space the viewer can inhabit.


Moylan poses with his Piranesi-inspired work, still in progress.

Although he has made many standalone paintings, Moylan thinks his works that integrate the frame communicate more powerfully. "If they were just paintings, I don't think that they would be really anything all that special," he says. "To me, it's not enough. I have something else to contribute. ... I think having that added illusion and that added sense of point-of-view creates a much more engaging work to experience."

More of Moylan's work as well as a list of his exhibitions, commissions and the collections in which his work appears are on his website,