SIOUX CITY | Outstretched limbs of steel bend like a ballerina, pushing the faceless figure forward in a whimsical range of motion that the one-legged artist can’t match.
Yet, he rivals the sculpture’s take-charge attitude.
When Terry Karpowicz lost his right leg 40 years ago, he didn’t sit back and say, “Woe is me! My life is over.” No, he got up and returned to his life as a sculptor, going back to work in a month.
“A leg’s not a heart, not a soul. It’s just a tool,” he said.
One of his latest works, “Let’s Go,” stands along Pierce Street as part of the 11th exhibition of Sculpt Siouxland. It reminds him of the dancing elephants in Disney’s animated film “Fantasia.” Though hefty, the piece appears poised.
“I hope that when people see this, they get the message and not just the novelty,” he said. “While it is fun … there is a serious message here: don’t sit back and wait for things to happen to you. Make things happen for yourself.”
Right out of college, Karpowicz moved to New York to pursue his passion. The aspiring painter worked as a busboy at Max’s Kansas City, a nightclub where luminaries like Andy Warhol and Janis Joplin mingled in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was the place to be.
Installing a sculpture by Mark di Suvero changed his artistic approach from brush and canvas to constructing cumbersome works of wood, stone and steel.
“I knew that painting was never going to satisfy me,” he said. “I realized at that moment that sculpture is about using your whole body and not just your mind and wrist.”
He pursued a graduate degree in sculpture and studied medieval wind and watermills in the United Kingdom as a Fulbright-Hays Fellow.
Karpowicz traveled the English countryside, learning how to marry materials and make them last a lifetime. He’d always take scenic byways and stop by properties that had old barns and mills.
Crossing a bridge on a motorcycle, his right leg took a glancing blow. He side-swiped an oncoming truck. And he had a choice: his leg or his life.
“There was a brief moment … I was concerned,” he said. But then he thought of di Suvero, a sculptor who suffered a severe spinal injury at age 27 and was told he would never walk again. “As I lay there in bed, with this feeling, I’m thinking, I’ll still have one good leg up on him. He’s been my inspiration.
“I’m a sculptor who happens to have a disability.”
The amputation doesn’t define him. Though, it did inspire and inform some of his early works. He built kinetic sculptures “that moved through space with more grace” than he did.
“Let’s Go” is part of a figurative sculpture series, started in 2005. The first one was a commission for a health club.
Karpowicz, 67, works out of a downtown Chicago studio, in the shadow of the Sears Tower. When he’s not there, he’s at home in a converted church with his wife and two dogs, a Chihuahua and a miniature dachshund. “They keep me on my toe,” he said.
He’s also been involved with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago for about two decades. It’s his way of giving back. Earlier this month, he demonstrated the functions of a robotic leg for the visiting king and queen of the Netherlands.
For the past five years, Karpowicz has been testing a thought-controlled bionic leg that learns his movements and adjusts with each step. He was one of seven lower-limb amputees to participate in the clinical trial and never anticipated the kind of celebrity that would come with the innovative prosthetic.
“My wife asked me to refer to her now as Mrs. Steve Austin. He was 'The Six Million Dollar Man,' you know,” Karpowicz said. “It is unlike anything I’ve ever done before. I’m part of a team that is changing the world. And that’s a wonderful feeling.
“The whole process of life is a treat, something new every day.”