Howard Lake-Waverly Herald, February 15, 1999
Local artist makes dragons for Renaissance Festival, other shows
By Andrea Vargo
Magically flying fingers fashion warm wax into a baby dragon, as artist Ken Reddie talks about his craft in his studio, Dragon's Lair Wax Works, north of Waverly.
A baby dragon? Yes, Reddie has a thing for dragons of all sizes and colors and makes many thousands of them and other creatures for the Renaissance Festival in Shakopee every fall.
As he spoke of art, technique, ambition, and people, he continued to sculpt dragon after colorful dragon. Then he threw in an iridescent green unicorn for good measure.
The deft fingers form and score and tuck the wax. The support for the piece is worked into it and sometimes driftwood is a base to support the claws and toenails. The triangle shape of the wings on a dragon help give it strength.
By fall, Reddie must have 4,000 or so items to sell at the Renaissance Festival, during its 15- day run.
His storeroom will be literally bulging with product, and he will work all week between the weekend shows to keep the most popular wax figures available for his customers.
Each piece must be perfect, or it goes into a (very small) scrap box. He doesn't seem to make many mistakes, and most of the rejected wizards and toads have chips from just being handled or transported.
This will be Reddie's tenth year at the festival, and it will be a far cry from his first year's experience, he said.
He didn't have any idea what to expect, so he brought a few dozen of each item to his first festival.
Those few items were quickly gone, and he faced irate customers. It wasn't what he wanted at all.
"Boy, did I pack in the hours making things between weekends," he said. "I felt so bad that I had disappointed customers."
Better prepared for the next show in Tennessee, Reddie made money when other vendors and artists did not.
People want something new every year, explained Reddie. He has lots of regular customers that come to the Renaissance Festival, and he has a cast of about 35 characters that he makes for their enjoyment.
Reddie loves the Renaissance Festival for its atmosphere and the variety of people he gets to meet.
People from all over the world come to the festival.
Most are on tours of Minnesota, taking in everything from Duluth to the Mall of America, he said.
"You can't talk to them because of the language barrier, but you can communicate with them, using your hands and gestures," Reddie said.
He made a karate figure for a man from Japan, he said.
Communicating with the festival-goers has made a profound change in Reddie's life, he explained.
"For many years, I was the most closed-up person you could ever meet," stated Reddie.
His first experience at the festival was as a patron. He went with a group of guys and couldn't figure out how anyone could enjoy this stuff.
"I mean, there were people dressed up weird and talking funny," he said. "I couldn't get into that."
Participating in the festival and communicating with people through his art brought Reddie's personality out, and let him open up to people.
"When I got into this, I broke out of my shell, like cracking open an egg and finding out it wasn't rotten," said Reddie.
"I did my first show, and I was shaking," he said, "because now people are watching me."
As a working artist, he said, people would drift over a few at a time to watch him make his wax figures.
"I couldn't believe it. They were coming to see me," he said.
"Then more and more would gather and maybe 40 or 50 people would be standing around me," he said.
It was much easier and almost natural for Reddie to talk about his beloved dragons to the gathering.
Now he sews his own "funny" clothes and shoes and talks "weird" just like the rest of the vendors at the festival. He loves it.
Some of the regular customers want their figure to be made right in front of them. It's like watching a baby being born, he said.
Reddie laughed, "I had to finally cut some of them off and make them buy finished figures. I told them others had to have a chance (at the newborns), too."
One woman came up with a figure in her hands, put it down on the table and went to look at some others. Another woman picked up the figure and wanted to buy it.
The first lady returned and wanted her figure back, and a verbal fight ensued.
Reddie's wife finally calmed them down and tossed a coin, with the loser getting a new figure made immediately for her.
It seems we all have a spot in our hearts for a dragon, he said. He has fashioned a granny dragon, complete with nightcap, wire glasses, cane, and shawl for a little old lady.
Some people like their dragons big and ferocious; others like theirs to be cute and cuddly. Reddie loves them all.
One of Reddie special times came when a group of disabled people were being guided through the festival.
As they paused before his table, one of the guides explained what was taking place.
Reddie gave one little girl, who was blind, a finished figure to touch. "Her hands flew over it and she got so excited," he said.
Then he gave her a piece of the warm wax to play with and within minutes she had created a beautiful swan that anyone would have recognized, he said.
He held it up for everyone to see, and she was so tickled, he said. That was special.
Getting into wax sculpture was an opportunity Reddie was not meant to pass up.
He said he had worked many jobs in his life, most of which he didn't like.
At one point, needing a more creative outlet than stacking pallets, Reddie went to school and became a dog groomer.
He won awards at competitions and gained a good clientele, but it lasted only two years.
One of his customers, Bob, worked in wax, and asked Reddie to dip wax for him, as a source of extra income.
Reddie learned about colors and dyes and dipped a lot of wax.
One day he picked up a piece of warm wax and created his first dragon. He stuck it around the corner of a door and growled at Bob.
"Get in here," yelled Bob. "You should be doing that, not dipping wax!"
Almost all of Reddie expertise is self-taught. Each piece he creates has a method.
"I usually start with the head and get the basic form down. Then I add the detail, like fingers, nails, and tails," he explained.
When working in a medium like clay, Reddie said, several different processes and coloring take place before the final figure is complete.
But in wax, the coloring is done first, and the creation of the figure itself is the final product.
The colors are dipped on wooden dowels, and there is technique to this. The wax layers must be smooth, without drips or runs on the surface.
It takes about 80 layers of wax on a dowel to make a cylinder large enough to work.
Learning about pigments and dyes, how the finished color is not the same as what is in the tank in liquid form; all this is a self-taught process. Learn as you go.
The colors I've developed provide transparency, and brighter, bolder colors that last a long time.
"Ideas come from animation, cartoons, color books, and from inside my mind," he said.
Reddie has been known to get up in the middle of the night and travel to his studio to create an idea that just appeared in his mind.
Making the income is a bonus. The growth of the art is what is important.
"You have to sell some of it (your art) to make room for more ideas and, of course, to buy supplies," he explained.
Reddie buys those supplies, but he makes most of his own equipment.
His heat tank is made from an old chest freezer and contains about 1,000 pounds of melted, dyed wax at any one time.
The wax is in floating containers, separated by color, and is held at 155 degrees.
Other things he makes are his own tools. Nothing fancy here. A table knife is sharpened for cutting; an old fork has been ground to a curved, sharpened blade; an old toilet tank rod has been sharpened to a point and serves to punch the necessary holes for the wicks.
Yes, the figures are all candles, but Reddie said he has yet to hear of anyone setting a match to one.
By the way, he built his own studio. It has a kitchen, bathroom, living room, storage and work areas, and a two-car garage. All those different jobs he had came in handy.
The view from his studio is spectacular, overlooking a lake and lots of wetlands.
Wildlife abounds, and as we watch, two hawks vie for territory over the marsh.
Reddie and his wife, Marylee, live southwest of Buffalo now, but someday they will build a home next to the shop.
"This is my little piece of heaven," said Reddie.
So, does he have any advice for young artists?
Reddie said, "You can do anything you set your mind to. I think you can sell dead grass, if you really try.
"Can you make a good living out of art? Yes, if you take pride in your work. It takes a while for any business to get established.
"Even with my own work, what I don't personally like, someone else will. Don't judge your own work; let others do that for you, and don't be insulted by what they have to say. Learn from it."
"I know I'm an artist, because that's what it says on my income tax forms," he said.
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