Ken Fager’s Mini WI project stemmed from pandemic boredom and grew into an interactive local art display. 3D printed models of the State Capitol are hidden around the city — often in little libraries or public common areas— for people to find as keepsakes. We chatted with Ken about Madison’s creative scene and how this project came to be.
Q: It’s amazing how you mesh art + technology through your use of 3D modeling. What sparked your interest in 3D printing?
A: Like many people stuck inside during the pandemic, I took a deep dive into some of my hobbies. I had just completed programming an entire horse racing video game for the Apple II computer and was looking for a new challenge. I wanted to modify a 1998 GameBoy Camera to accept modern Canon lenses and asked a friend to 3D print a lens adapter I had found online. From there, I watched a few YouTube videos on how to use Blender to make 3D objects to print so ultimately I could build my own. To learn Blender, I decided to start by creating something local — the capitol building. While I was ultimately successful in building my own camera parts, it was the overall positive reaction to the Mini WI that sparked something special. People stuck inside looking for novel entertainment outside of the house immediately gravitated towards trying to find the models in Little Free Libraries. It took on a life of its own and continues to this day.
Q: You got the ‘Mini WI’ name from the Madison subreddit, I’m a frequent lurker of the sub myself. Do you often find inspiration from fellow Madisonians? How does the city reflect in your general artistic process?
A: I don’t come from an artistic background at all. For years I wasn’t sure how to find or fit in with creatives on a regular basis. Since I moved to Madison, I have been extraordinarily fortunate to run into the people I admire. Their confidence and audacity to create have been very reassuring. How is that reflected in my artistic process then? It’s a positive reinforcement loop, and I’m trying to extend that curiosity, creativity, and audacity to anyone else willing to take a chance. It’s because of others that I have found great personal fulfillment, and that should be perpetuated.
Q: From political protests and local events to abandoned factories, Chernobyl, and even Gary, Indiana, your photography endeavors have taken you all over the world. Is there any specific person or location that stands out as being especially memorable to you?
A: I intentionally try to go to places that do not appear on normal people’s travel plans. There’s great potential in photography when you consciously take the road less traveled. You do have to have a pretty high tolerance for the weird and unexpected when you do this. I’ve been stopped by the police, tear-gassed, chased by overzealous security, startled by wild animals, fallen through unstable floors, set off security systems, and received low doses of radiation, but the Clown Motel takes the cake for being the only place to *truly* unsettle me.
My friend Jessica drove me to Tonapah, Nevada to the Clown Motel while I was on a Route 66 tour. Every inch of the hotel lobby is filled with vintage clown antiques. Now I don’t hate clowns, but the fact that I never took a single photo there is quite telling. The motel is adjacent to a graveyard filled with the earliest settlers in the area didn’t help. 10/10 great exploration, never want to go there ever again.
Whenever you stray the local people are always glad to interact with someone who is genuinely curious about their existence in a particular space. It is easy for internet observers to take cheap shots at Gary, East St. Louis, Detroit, Pripyat, the more dangerous neighborhoods of Berlin, or any place, but I have always, always, always found the local people to be welcoming.
Note: Below is a shot from Ken’s Chernobyl trip. Check out his Flickr profile for more.
Q: Your Mini WI project has taken many different forms, what has been your favorite iteration of your mini creations, and what was the inspiration?
A: This may seem odd, but I actually don’t have a favorite model. This is probably because I have printed thousands of them in total at this point. I’ve created some purposefully undocumented custom variations for friends and family which have sentimental value. If I did have to choose a favorite I would say the Capitol Building, but only because it has inspired stunningly accurate reproductions by others in the Madison community. Every now and then I’ll get a message from someone who took up 3D printing and they’re creating their own version of the capitol. One reproduction made by Rob Smeaton is not only superior to my own print quality, but also either says “Ken Faker” or “not Ken Fager” on the bottom; it’s very flattering. The fact that other people are creating their own versions doesn’t bother me at all. The capitol is ours, not mine.
Q: This project is a great way to bring some awareness to the creative side of Madison. Who are some of your favorite local artists and photographers?
Kenton Fowler | This guy is living his best life wandering around Madison and capturing beauty every day. I aspire to have a fraction of his talent.
Kristin Shafel | It’s almost criminal how creative she is. Anyone who plays an instrument is definitely talented, but pack photography and great illustrations on top of that? I’m calling the police.
Chris Collins | I was a fan of his work when I first moved to Madison. I finally had a chance to meet him on the street and it dawned on me why he’s such a good photographer. He has an incredibly disarming manner of interacting with people, which takes his street photography to another level.
Emily Mills | She’s half of the punk band Damsel Trash. Their live performances are the best thing Madison has ever given me.