Artist for life – Bill Kolok’s teaching, sculptures enrich UM institutions

William “Bill” Kolok regularly scavenges for materials to use in his stone, wood or mixed-media sculptures, and sometimes he finds old tools he can repurpose as decorative objects.

Mr. Kolok’s long career teaching at Kentucky Wesleyan College is coming to an end, and he looks forward to having more time to make sculptures. He has established his own studio and gallery in Owensboro, Ky.

It pleases him to take an object from the world of labor and extend its life through art.

“The idea of the strong work ethic is important to me,” he said.

Mr. Kolok’s own work ethic is formidable, and the United Methodist Church has been a beneficiary.

For more than three decades, he’s been on the faculty at UMC-affiliated Kentucky Wesleyan University, teaching both studio art courses and art history.

And when away from the classroom, he’s often been making art, with many of the pieces ending up in a United Methodist church or some other UM setting.

“About a third of what I do is liturgical sculpture,” he said. “It comes by way of my belief systems and I guess a need to make visible the feelings that I have about religion and God.”

Mr. Kolok, who is retiring from teaching at the end of this school year, grew up in a working class neighborhood in Connecticut. When it came time for college in the late 1960s, he wanted to get far away and chose Berry College, in northwest Georgia.

This mixed-wood liturgical sculpture by Mr. Kolok is titled “Brothers in Christ.” PHOTOS COURTESY BILL AND JOAN KOLOK, KENTUCKY CONFERENCE

There he planned to study biology, but got sidetracked by an elective.

“I took an art course and fell in love with art,” he said. “I’ve been an artist ever since.”

After Berry, he taught in a high school for a few years, then earned a master in fine arts at the University of Georgia, specializing in sculpture.

He joined the faculty of Kentucky Wesleyan, in Owensboro, in 1979. Because it’s a relatively small school, he has always taught both studio art classes and art history.

To his surprise, he found he enjoyed teaching a 15-week survey course. He’ll hurtle through the centuries, pausing to dwell on his favorite artists, including the pre-Renaissance painter Giotto and modern British sculptor Henry Moore.

“It’s front page news to these kids,” Mr. Kolok said. “Very few of them know anything about art, and a percentage of them get excited.”

Mr. Kolok notes with satisfaction that many of his former students are now art teachers themselves.

“Font,” a limestone/ceramic sculpture, shows Mr. Kolok’s fondness for mixed media. PHOTOS COURTESY BILL AND JOAN KOLOK, KENTUCKY CONFERENCE

Chisel, hammer, saw

Through the years, Mr. Kolok has found time to stay engaged as a working artist. He started as a painter, and then moved to sculpture, working in both wood and stone, and often combining the two.

He favors limestone and alabaster, and walnut, cherry and oak. For limestone, he heads to a Bedford, Ind., quarry. He helps a local furniture maker prepare wood for pieces, and gets to keep the scraps.

Mr. Kolok’s tools include pneumatic chisels and hammers, band saws, and blades for carving by hand.

His works have been widely exhibited, and he’s had numerous commissions, particularly in Owensboro. Commissioned pieces of his are in the Owensboro Medical Health System, the Owensboro Museum of Fine Arts, the Wendell Foster Sensory Park and the chapel of the Mercy Health Park.

Mr. Kolok’s works on religious themes can be found in various churches, Protestant and Catholic. Probably the most far-flung is the Jablonne Cross, a mixed wood piece, made for the Jablonne United Methodist Church in Czechoslovakia.

With his wife, Joan, Mr. Kolok is a longtime member of Settle Memorial UMC in Owensboro, and that church is home to a number of his works, including 14 mixed-wood, textured crosses known as the Wall of Crosses. One large cross incorporates small crosses donated by church members.

“What I did, I asked everybody in the church, I said, ‘If you have a small cross of any kind which is sentimental to you but you don’t wear, give it to me and I’ll put it in a big cross and call it a community cross,’” Mr. Kolok said. “I got about 85 of them. A man came up to me and said ‘I carried a silver dollar through the second World War, would you put that in there?’ I said yes.”

This Celtic cross was made by Mr. Kolok for the Rev. Jim Keegan, associate pastor at Settle Memorial UMC, and combines several kinds of wood. PHOTOS COURTESY BILL AND JOAN KOLOK, KENTUCKY CONFERENCE

Mr. Kolok recalled that at the dedication, he was approached by an elderly woman.

“She said, ‘I can’t see them. I’m so sorry, but I’m nearly blind,’” he said. “So I walked her up to the crosses and let her feel every one.”

Supplying a shepherd

The Rev. Jim Keegan, an associate pastor at Settle Memorial, received from his wife an unusual 60th birthday present—a commission for a work by Mr. Kolok.

Mr. Keegan requested a Celtic cross.

“That’s a favorite symbol of mine, because I’m of Irish ancestry,” he said. “I showed him one kind of cross I already had and said I would like something like that. He came up with his own design, which I loved. And he used, I think, seven different kinds of wood.”

“Feed My Sheep” is a kid-friendly stone sculpture Mr. Kolok made for Settle Memorial UMC in Owensboro. PHOTOS COURTESY BILL AND JOAN KOLOK, KENTUCKY CONFERENCE

One high-profile commission for Mr. Kolok was to make a staff, or crosier, for use by Bishop Lindsey Davis of the Kentucky Conference. Given free rein by the clergyman who ordered it, Mr. Kolok had it ready for the bishop’s welcoming service in 2008.

“It’s a beautiful shepherd’s crook made out of native Kentucky hardwoods,” Bishop Davis said by email. “It is a sign of my office and a reminder that I am to watch over God’s people with the love of the good shepherd. I am deeply grateful to Bill.”

Anticipating retirement from Kentucky Wesleyan, Mr. Kolok bought a building in Owensboro and turned it into a combination studio and gallery.

Mr. Kolok is currently working on a major commission for an Owensboro hospital, and when he wraps up his teaching career, he’ll kick his sculpture making into high gear.

It’s that work ethic thing again.

“I plan on being an artist till I can’t lift up my tools,” he said.

Mr. Kolok’s website is

Sam Hodges, Former Managing Editor, UMR

Sam Hodges

Sam Hodges was the managing editor of The United Methodist Reporter from 2011-2013. A formee reporter for the Dallas Morning News and the Charlotte Observer, Sam is a respected voice in United Methodist journalism.

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