Artist Joel Edward Sisson rarely works small. Whether he’s building giant Adirondack chairs, helping a friend install a giant piece of art, or making a towering sculpture of a boy and his dog, he likes to go big.
“I’m a fan of these big, kinda fun, funky things—anything that makes you feel like a kid again and brings you that sense of wonder,” he says.
His latest series, dubbed “Barrel Boy and Friends,” features gentle giants made from upcycled 50-gallon drums. The largest piece is around 18 feet tall, with joints that allow for movement in the head and arms, and LED lights that illuminate them at night. He makes these structures by himself from his home in Zimmerman, Minnesota, and then has a friend spot him when the time comes to set things upright.
Sisson came up with the idea after seeing a neighbor make tin can robots.
“There’s teenage dudes who think they’re smarter than shit and are unimpressed,” he says, laughing. “Other artists have chimed in and said they like it. Some people have said it reminds them of that [propane sculpture] Peggy Hill did on King of the Hill. I love that. I want my pieces to feel pedestrian—like anyone can do it.”
While Barrel Boy is new, you might already be familiar with Sisson’s giant Adirondack chairs. In the '90s, he and his friend Chris Hand would hire at-risk teens to help build these giant seats, which were then gifted to neighbors or sold to businesses and clients. Over 30 years later, these pieces can still be spotted all around the Twin Cities.
Sisson hopes Barrel Boy has a similar evolution of engaging teens and getting them involved in large-scale creation.
“I’ve been thinking of how to work with youth in the city again, and I thought it would be cool to make a barrel project out of those two olympians,” he says, referencing the 1968 Olympic medal ceremony when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a Black Power salute. “I could put a QR code on it that would take you to their current sites and literary projects. It would also be great to make a Colin Kirkpatrick barrel.”
But for now, Barrel Boy is on a different journey; Sisson will be bringing a 12-foot piece to town this weekend, where it will hang out at the Northrup King Building during Art-A-Whirl.
“If you only make it to one building for Art-A-Whirl, that’s a great one,” he says.