By Mark Peterson
When his friends were asked for a word to describe David Felker, “visionary” came up more than once. Felker, who died December 31 in Washington State following an earlier stroke and COVID-19, played a pivotal role in the creation of Art-A-Whirl® and the resultant flowering of the Northeast Minneapolis Arts District in the 1990s.
California Building president John Kremer said Felker came into his office in 1995 with a proposal for an art studio tour of the neighborhood. Felker had his own studio/gallery in the Thorp building, and told Kremer about having organized a studio tour in Anchorage, Alaska, where he had taught at a local college and helped start an art gallery. Kremer noted, “As an outsider, he had a perspective about the Northeast area that locals were too close to see. He ignored the limitations. He saw how special the area was, and he focused on ‘fine art and quality.’ He was also a lone wolf, and someone who stood to gain nothing personally by his efforts.”
Artist Dean Trisko said, “Felker had rallied 30 local artists to meet at his space on a cold winter night where he proposed having an open studio tour event in Northeast Minneapolis. His confident and bold claim was that the same could and should happen in Northeast because we had more (and better) artists.”
David Felker was born in Spokane, WA, July 6, 1940. After graduating from North Central High School in 1958, he worked as a salesman for a sporting goods store, bartender, roustabout for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus, and as a draftsman for Kaiser Shipbuilding Company. A Vietnam war vet, he used the GI Bill to pursue his studies in art, earning BA degrees in Art History and Fine Art from Eastern Washington University in 1975, and an MFA degree in Sculpture from Washington State University in 1978.
Throughout the 1980s, Felker worked as a sculptor and as an instructor/assistant professor for Alaska Pacific University, Chapman College R.E.C. Remote Program, and the University of Alaska in Anchorage. During that time he was also Director and Curator for International Gallery of Contemporary Art (IGCA) in Anchorage, and the Director of Sculpture and Artist in Residence at the Visual Arts Center of Alaska. Felker received more than a dozen grants and fellowships and had exhibitions of his work almost yearly from 1990 to 2014. “As an artist and master craftsman, he was a creator of esoteric and enigmatic installations inspired by anything from alchemy to electric generators, from salt to space and time. His work was frequently, if not entirely, constructed from found and foraged materials,” said ex-wife Lois Zabel Felker.
Current IGCA President Don Mohr said, “Felker was an important artist, but he left that behind when he talked to people; he was a generous guy who always wanted to know how he could help you.”
While their time in the Twin Cities was relatively brief, the Felkers had an outsized effect on the budding art scene in Northeast Minneapolis. Trisko remembered: “I will admit that when [David] pitched the open studio tour idea, I thought it would be another low return effort at artist self-promotion. We all could feel the energy and interest it generated. Felker’s concept and enthusiasm for the local Northeast art scene sparked an artist-led explosion. Talking to him years later, he was quick to credit the local artists for keeping the idea going. Dave really was only involved in year one….but he helped us realize the potential that was here around us. He was the original Art-A-Whirl® coordinator.
“Dave had an anything-is-possible attitude. He was a bit of a joker, sarcastic, irascible at times, but always ready with ideas and opinions – a quintessential artist type. Dave also had that hunger to try and do new things, keep pushing the boundaries, so it is not surprising to me that his life interests quickly pulled him toward new vistas.”
Kremer called Felker “a rainmaker, someone who stirred the pot, someone who could see things coming.” Kremer told Felker making his idea happen would take a lot of money, and that the City Council might be a good place to start. Perhaps because Felker was an outsider to local politics, he went to what would seem to others an unlikely source: then-First Ward Council Member Walt Dziedzic. Dziedzic was a former cop, and one of the more conservative members of the city council, but he was also a smart politician, who could count the number of new residents in his ward. Dziedzic raised thousands of dollars for the first Art-A-Whirl® and became an ardent supporter.
Photographer and Icebox Gallery owner Howard Christopherson wrote, “Dave came on the scene as Northeast Minneapolis started to become home to more artists’ studios. At first his idea to start a studio tour and get funding from the city of Minneapolis seemed far-fetched, almost laughable for some of us who had been scratching out our artistic ways in Northeast for years. In the years that followed the first Art-A-Whirl® Northeast word spread and it started to boom as the place to be if you were a working artist. Dave Felker had kind eyes, an infectious smile, and a youthful spirit that remained innocent and untainted by the difficulties associated with being a fine artist in America. He had an idea and his timing was right on. We have much to thank him for.”
Lois Felker wrote, “David was widely known as an incredibly kind and sweet man. He was my husband, then ex-husband, and his kids knew him as a Dad, but each of us considered Dave to always and steadfastly be our Best Friend. One of his main missions in life was about bringing people together, forever emboldened by endless possibilities, opportunities and human potential. Nothing was impossible, no matter who you were. In recent years, he recommitted himself to appreciating nature. He had a profound love for trees, animals, and birds and he would walk five miles a day, hugging trees, walking dogs, collecting rocks and feathers….and friends. David is hugely missed by so many people around the globe, not just because of his life commitments, achievements and work as an artist, but by the deep love and friendship he afforded to anyone and everyone he met. One the last things he said to me was, ‘I just wanted to make a difference.’ Dave made a difference wherever he landed, in the arts, and in our hearts.”
Besides Lois, he is survived by his three children Natasha, Sean, and Matthieu, his brother Terry, sister-in-law Dee, their children Jeff and Joanne and her son Dylan.