Sparks of Creativity

Obsidian Gallery celebrates two decades of bridging the gap between fine arts and fine crafts

Elouise Rusk does not care to discuss the long-running battle between fine crafts and fine arts.

"That argument has been over for a long time," says Rusk, ensconced in her office at Obsidian Gallery, the fine-crafts gallery she's operated in St. Philip's Plaza for exactly 20 years. "If the artist's vision and passion are there, it's art. Period."

Time was when the art world looked down its collective nose at the fine crafts, defined as handmade works in clay, metal, fiber, glass and wood. Art hierarchies put paintings in oil on canvas and sculpture in marble or metal at the top of the heap. The other works, coming out of their functional roots in pottery, clothing and the like, didn't count.

But crafts gained ground in the 20th century, with a little help from the Bauhaus, which called for thoughtfully designed objects in the home, and from the Art Deco movement. Schools like Cranbrook trained up-and-coming crafts artists, and by the 1970s, crafts were resurging.

"Artists came forth with new work that transcended the basic functional forms of things like pots," Rusk says. "They became extremely experimental, and stretched the definition of craft."

Rusk is in a position to know. She opened her fine-crafts gallery in 1985, on Dec. 7, to be exact, and she's had a front-row seat on the evolution of crafts ever since. Her 20th-anniversary exhibition of 22 artists features at least some she's shown since the beginning.

Clay artist Wesley Anderegg is a kind of poster child for the changes in craft. Two decades ago, he "was doing beautiful raku fired bowls," Rusk says. Nowadays, his work is figurative and narrative.

His "Fisherman," a colored ceramic work in the current show, is just that: a fisherman, with an enormous head and disconcertingly realistic green eyes, seated in a tiny pink rowboat. Two sharks armed with razor-sharp teeth leap out of a shiny green, round base that represents the sea. The sharks have the same eyes as their pursuer.

One would be hard pressed to call this arresting figure a "craft." It's simply a sculpture that happens to be made of clay.

"The best of my artists are people I can represent year after year," Rusk notes. "They change enough that customers remain interested."

Rusk herself comes out of a craft tradition. She was a weaver in the '70s and early '80s, turning out her own designs on a loom, "funky clothes that were very nice, over-garments like jackets and capes."

A native of New Mexico, she studied English and home ec in college, and after arriving in Tucson in 1959, she got a master's in textiles at the UA. She opened a gallery "sort of accidentally." In the mid '80s, she and two fellow weavers were looking for a studio. What they found was a small retail space in the brand-new St. Philip's Plaza at River Road and Campbell Avenue. "It was too small for a studio, so the concept changed."

From the start, Obsidian--named for the black stone, and outfitted with display cases in black--showed "all craft media. We got a lot of cooperation from local artists who wanted to be in a gallery. Having been in the craft community, I knew lots of people. We started out with local and Arizona artists, but we quickly branched out. You have to."

In those days, St. Philip's did not have the restaurants and hotel that now help generate new customers for Obsidian. But the relative isolation was an advantage of sorts, Rusk says. "It gave me the opportunity to learn to make mistakes."

Rusk, who's been sole proprietor since 1989, moved the gallery across the plaza to a larger space three years ago. She helps stock it with new works by traveling regularly around the country, attending craft shows, particularly the annual American Crafts Council shows in Baltimore and San Francisco. She's passionate about her gallery regulars, people like Tucson clay artist David Aguirre, glass artist Melissa Haid and metal artist Kristin Beeler, who studied in the now-defunct metals program at the UA. Many of them have become her friends.

"These are all professionals," she says. "They've studied their craft, and they know how to take it as far as it can go."

Aguirre, another artist who exhibited in the very first Obsidian show, is displaying a fired ceramic wall piece that's half angel, half devil. Rendered in a range of grays from charcoal to pearl, the 2-foot high "Simpatche" still bears the sensuous marks of the artist's fingerprints.

Haid's vertical glass works dangle in front of the gallery's windows, their little colored beads and glass squares glinting in the light. Beeler displays her high-end jewelry brooches like full-fledged sculptures. They're lined up in frames on a wall, like so many miniature paintings. Edged in metal, the circular pieces wrap around drawings incised into mother-of-pearl.

"I like to see that spark of creativity," Rusk says.

No matter the ups and downs of the art market, "Adornment is always something people will do," she says, and handmade jewelry is her best-selling art. She herself is not immune to its charms, as she demonstrates when she looks longingly at the sleek copper-and-silver jewelry by Talya Baharal.

"I will always have her work in the gallery," she says. "It's superb."

Some of the work she shows does make its way to Rusk's home. But economic (and architectural) considerations prevent her from buying everything. "Luckily, I have a very small house."

Her goal has always been to educate the public that crafts are unique works of art that are hand-made, and she's proud to have "developed a clientele who appreciate all media." But along the way, the gallery has educated her, too.

"What I studied gave me a lot of knowledge, but it's in the store that I became cognizant of all craft media."

Rusk says she's pleased to see new young graduates of schools like Cranbrook and the Rhode Island School of Design embark on craft careers and continue a tradition she's dedicated her life to. But between running and stocking the gallery, and staging exhibitions every six weeks, she hasn't touched a loom in 20 years.

"There's not enough time for me to be an artist and lift a shuttle. My life has been dedicated to this business since 1985."