Sculpture melds art with history of early man

Courtesy Photos Artist Mike Lempinen brought over 35 years of design experience to his piece for Alpena’s new History of Industry Sculpture Series. He is shown here alongside one of his other recent projects, a sculpture titled Negaunee Mine Memorial. The piece commemorates a 1902 mine disaster that took the lives of 10 miners.

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a six-part series on Alpena’s History of Industry Sculptures being created by a mix of local and regional artists. Today’s feature focuses on Mike Lempinen and his sculpture titled, Indigenous Copper Workers.


Over the next few weeks, six new sculptures destined for the Alpena Bi-Path will be installed on large, locally quarried limestone blocks. Each art installation is being created by a different Michigan artist and in keeping with an over-arching History of Industry theme.

The ambitious project spearheaded by the Thunder Bay Arts Council and Alpena Community College proved the perfect opportunity for Mike Lempinen to dovetail his talent as an artist with his avid appreciation for history, especially when it comes to Paleo human activity in Michigan.

“I live on the Keweenah Peninsula where there’s a native copper laying on the ground up here and has been for thousands of years,” Lempinen said. “Paleo human ancestors of 5,000 to 6,000 years ago would make things out of copper and use them as a trade medium.”

Fittingly, his work was selected to represent Native American copper processing and will end up on exhibit near an apparent site of early copper mining activity in Alpena.

A now semi-retired architectural designer by trade, Lempinen also is a freelance illustrator, watercolorist and metal sculptor with many commissioned pieces on public display and in private collections. For Alpena’s latest sculpture effort, he created a piece titled Indigenous Copper Workers.

“It’s a bas-relief bronze sculpture that measures approximately 36 inches wide by 24 inches tall and is about four to five inches thick,” Lempinen said. “It weighs approximately 42 pounds.”

His Indigenous Copper Workers features two Paleo human figures making copper implements, weapons and vessels thousands of years ago. He said bas-relief refers to a technique where figures show less depth than they actually have when measured proportionately to scale. This technique retains the natural contours of the figures, and allows the work to be viewed from many angles without distortion of the figures themselves.

In creating the piece, Lempinen said he started with a composite sketch done with graphite.

“I had an inkling of what I wanted to do,” he said. “I kind of developed it a bit, and it seemed to fit the theme.”

After his concept received approval from the sculpture committee, he next created a full-size clay model. The model then was transported to Michigan Art Castings in Leslie, a foundry specializing in bronze art castings.

“I’d never done a bronze sculpture before so I had to research casting,” he said. “Luckily, I found one in Michigan. He’s also an artist, so it was a very good relationship.”

The piece is completed and awaiting installation next week in Alpena, where Lempinen already has some established connections. His wife, the former Vicki Reynolds, is a graduate of Alpena High School.

“I’m already very familiar with Alpena, so now I’m going to have a piece of artwork in her hometown,” he said.

Lempinen also previously exhibited his work in the TBAC Gallery, which helped to bring him to the attention of the sculpture committee who encouraged artists to submit concepts for the History of Industry Sculpture Series.

All of the artists are either locally based or from Michigan, which TBAC and other partners working on the project deemed important. Finding artists such as Lempinen willing to work in a large-scale format and in a medium that could stand up to the elements proved somewhat challenging.

“While Northeast Michigan has a tremendous number of superb artists of all sorts, it was particularly challenging to find local artists who could produce large scale durable outdoor sculptures,” said Tim Kuehnlein, a long-time TBAC board member who has been heavily involved in the sculpture committee. “It was no easy task, but we do have two local artists and the rest regional, northern Michiganders. Each of the artists involved has a track record of meeting the challenge of large scale outdoor sculpture, while also producing really beautiful, quality artistic work.”

Among previous commissioned pieces by Lempinen are a “Flying” Ski Jumper Sculpture prominently displayed outside the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame and Museum in Ishpeming and two sculptures on the Iron Ore Heritage Trail, including one that pays homage to 10 miners kills in a Negaunee Mine disaster in 1902.

After the sculptures are installed, they will be covered until a formal unveiling ceremony set for Sept. 21.