Kjell Engman

Hovering at the bottom of the mountain are angels of glass. The mystical creature burns in red and orange. It appears to be moving. The devil is lurking in a corner. His large body spies down from the roof of the cave. Mystical music and sounds transport the visitors to another world. Kjell Engman’s world. His exhibitions are usually not an exhibition. They are magnificent performances.

It is a tale of good and evil. Heaven and Earth. However, it could just as well be about a night of dancing in the famous Swedish Brunnsparken dance bar in the sixties. It could even be yuppies from the eighties, who today are wrinkled and bald. Music, light and set design allow the glass sculptures to tell their stories.

The director’s name is Kjell Engman. Just like the musician, light technician, set designer and glass artist. He is a multi-talented artist who mixes highs and lows precisely as he wishes. Gigantic glass dresses, gods, faces, fish, birds, guitars, Jesus and high heeled shoes. The mystical creature, African chiefs and spying ravens. People can think what they want.

Preferably dark and scruffy

In Kjell Engman’s world inspiration is everywhere. Likewise, are the images.

  • On a manhole cover or in a crack in the wall. Anything. I think that I see more images than the average person. The dramaturgy begins in the head.

Recently he was at an old abandoned shack. He stood outside for a long time and looked through the little window. Suddenly, real people appear inside. A family with eleven children. The room filled up with life and details. A worn robe on a hanger. A hat. Some plates on the wall. Hands that fed the kids. He saw everything. The ideas flowed.

  • It is so frustrating when you cannot realize everything.

However, it must come from here, as he touches his chest.

Kjell Engman’s way of working is reminiscent of film or a theatre production. From the inner dramaturgy he draws up a storyboard. Sketching the various scenes and working with lighting to enhance the characters. The scenes are important and he likes dark, scruffy settings.

He has put together performances in a man-made cave, a power plant, in Malmö’s tobacco factory and an old abandoned shoe factory in Örebro (a small town in the heart of Sweden). He had one exhibition in the 32 meter long attic of a malt factory in Ebeltoft, Denmark. He also strives to implement elements of the history and character, which will reflect the places he uses in the shows.

Cymbal became the howling wolf

He writes the electronic music with enigmatic sound effects himself in his home studio on Öland (an island off the east coast of Sweden). He is very picky and is constantly looking for the perfect sound. The music and images must be completely complimentary to one another.

  • When I watch a movie I almost always become irritated because the

music and images rarely fit together, he says.

In one particular show he wanted to have howling wolves, however the noise he bought did not provide the right chilling effect. He experimented and discovered that he could attain the perfect sound by striking a cymbal and holding it under water. He recorded the sound in high speed and then played it backwards. The howling sound made his hairs stand up.

Music has always played an important part for Kjell Engman. His father was a musician, a typical jazzman who could play most instruments. However, when he became a father and family man he traded it in to become a barber.

In the beginning of the sixties pop music came along and Kjell played base in a group from Örebro called The Merchants. They had some degrees of success and even placed third in a pop band competition held by Swedish Radio.

Lousy salesman

  • I was living a double life, he recalls. Like Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. During the daytime he went to work as a salesman at Facit. Neatly combed in a suit and tie.

  • I was a lousy salesman. I could not stand in front of our customers and tell them that our typewriter was the best, when I knew IBM’s was much better.

After work, he would ruffle his hair and throw on a pair of old jeans. The hopeless typerwriter salesman transformed into a pop star. His little brother Bengt played the guitar and sang.

  • I taught him three chords and he quickly blew past me. He became incredibly talented. However, he was a fanatic. Practiced scales and so on. I didn’t have the will. I wanted to be able to do it all right away. Didn’t have the motivation to carry on and practice.

  • For example, when I took my swimming certificates I did it with one foot on the bottom of the pool, he says.

He also guest performed for the Whisperings, which is an orchestra that played big band jazz music.

However, there was a problem. Kjell did not like to play by the rules and the big band orchestra expected him to play every note to precision.

  • I wanted to make small curlicues with the base. As I wished.

It was not appreciated and the guest appearances were short lived.

-The freedom I was looking for did not exist there, he says.

The gnome was the worst

The lack of patience with rules and learning largely comes from his school days. Kjell is dyslexic, but during the fifties this learning disability was largely unknown. When he made a mistake the teacher had a hard and cracking ruler, which they slapped across his fingers. This was also the case when he became restless or had difficulty sitting still. If you had a tough time reading or writing you were considered to be lazy, stupid or a slob. The ruler was, therefore, deemed to be the best form of punishment.

  • The worst teacher of them all was nicknamed the “gnome", because he was so little. When he was going to pull a student by the ear, he would have to go to the stairs and take two steps up to be able to reach.

  • In school my thoughts were always somewhere else, he says. I skipped school often and didn’t care about anything that was boring. However, I was good at drawing, music and math. My mom thought I would become an art teacher.

He got into Konstfack (Sweden’s largest college of arts, crafts and design) and did a one semester internship at Kosta Boda.

  • It was something completely new to me, he says. I was so excited about the transparency and made up my mind immediately. I would have my own glassworks, become a great artist and wear a beret!

During a sabbatical he interned with Bertil Vallien in Åfors (who already had his own glassworks, was a great artist and wore a beret). There was not a lot of work so he asked CEO Erik Rosén about getting some assignments. Yes, you can make something in clear glass. Something Swedish and mainstream, recommended Rosén.

So came “Rapsodi" to be. A spun bowl, made of slightly rougher glass with a Midsummer pole and a dancing couple. In local dialogue it is often referred to as Sweden’s bowl. Kjell Engman’s first product produced sales of 24 million Swedish crowns (approximately 2.7 million euros) and soon afterwards he was offered a job at Kosta Boda.

Here he found some of that freedom he was seeking.

Dreams of melting ice

  • There is a degree of freedom that comes from responsibility, he says. You also have to make things that sell. There are, of course, a lot of rules within design, but they are there to be broken.

The dream project is there to be made.

He envisions an ice sculpture by the famous ice hotel in Jakkasjärvi, in northern Sweden. The focus would be on the melting ice. Not on the solid structure.

  • I would freeze in various objects, which would be revealed as the ice melted.

However, there are consequences to finding himself engulfed in the chronic flow of ideas. He has had three heart attacks.

He must take it a little easier, go down a gear. He knows where he kind find this peace.

  • I go down to the sea and when the orchids are in bloom it’s sometimes purple all the way across Alvaret (a limestone barren plain on the island of Öland, Sweden).

By Eva-Pia Worland (translated by Kosta Boda Art Gallery)