Wonderful Affinity

Obsidian Gallery's new owners seek to both support artists and open the public's eyes

Monica Prillaman bought Obsidian Gallery almost by accident.

She had long thought about opening a family business, but she had never gotten beyond the pondering stage. Then one day last fall, "I was looking at the want ads, trying to help my younger son find a job," she remembers. An ad for the business caught her eye.

"I said, 'Look at that! An art gallery for sale.' It turned out to be Obsidian," says its new owner. "It was a meant-to-be kind of thing."

An acclaimed venue for fine crafts, Obsidian was owned and operated by the respected Elouise Rusk for 22 years. Rusk did much to bolster the reputation of fine crafts, functional and otherwise. Representing artists from Tucson and around the country, she staged exquisite exhibitions of works handcrafted out of clay, wood, glass, cloth and metal. Inventive jewelry was a sub-specialty that won her legions of fans. But as of last year, Rusk was ready to retire.

Prillaman, a longtime certified public accountant, had never before been in the gallery when she saw Rusk's ad. When she and her two grown sons went to check it out, the annual Day of the Dead exhibition happened to be on display. A wildly creative mix of art skeletons and skulls in every medium filled the sleek space in St. Philip's Plaza.

"We were speechless," Prillaman says. "We loved everything in it. We loved the art, the lighting, the space. When we walked out, we said, 'What a wonderful place.'"

A deal was struck, and by November, the Prillamans were the new owners.

"Elouise stayed with us two months in the store to help," Prillaman says, staging two shows that were already planned. She also accompanied Prillaman and her son James Prillaman to the annual American Craft Council show in Baltimore, and introduced the pair to artists.

"Elouise and James hit it off," Monica says. "Their aesthetic is similar. They zeroed in on the same crafts. They have a wonderful affinity."

Monica plans to manage the gallery's business end, while James, 26, will handle the art.

"James has the eye," she says. "And he's young, and I'm old. Our interests are for different age groups. We're interested in bringing in a younger following."

A 2005 art-history graduate of the UA, James is an artist himself who primarily does photorealist drawings, he says; he's considering going back to school for an MFA in studio art. Until the gallery opportunity came along, he'd been taking some graduate classes in art history.

He plans to keep Obsidian first and foremost a craft gallery, while also bolstering its fine-arts offerings.

"I'd like to do fine art and paintings, if for no other reason than to draw people in who like art," he says. "I want to have a regular stable of fine artists. But craft would continue to be the mainstay. To my knowledge, Obsidian is the only contemporary craft gallery in Tucson."

Obsidian will continue to represent its current artists and jewelry designers/makers, Monica notes, while inviting in new artists. The current show is a good example of the mix of old and new the Prillamans plan. The two featured artists are ceramicists: Thomas Kerrigan, a gallery mainstay, and newcomer Cynthia Rae Levine.

Tucson artist Kerrigan's terra cotta Desert Erotics are imbued with the wit that has long prevailed in the gallery. The clay cacti cavort and copulate across the walls, their spiny protuberances and cavities fitting into each other like puzzle pieces--or like you know what. "Desert Embrace II" is in earthy clay tones; "Desert Flora B-IV" has a charcoal skin as densely textured as a fish's scales, with shots of shiny yellow and mustard breaking into the black.

James discovered new artist Levine at the show in Baltimore. Next to Kerrigan's expressive works, her "Divided Vessels" look coolly cerebral. They're elegant swathes of smooth colored clay, oddly bifurcated. Strange dividers slice through bowls; slits open up at the bottom of pots. Their pleasing silhouettes are abstracted out of the familiar functional shapes of vases and bowls, in a limited palette of brown, mustard, white and warm gray.

The Prillamans are also following the Rusk format of devoting the back section of the gallery to formally curated shows, and the front part to a selection of gallery artists. Joanna Gollberg, another newcomer, has her jewelry there. When James Prillaman saw her work in Baltimore--industrial-looking pieces in dark oxidized silver--he knew he wanted to show it. Gollberg, who has taught workshops in Tucson, knew of Obsidian and was happy to sign up.

Tucson painter Beata Wehr is also in the upfront mix, showing some half-dozen of her small abstractions, including the lusciously layered small "Landscape I" and "Landscape II."

Wehr has shown around town for some time, but turned up at a gallery opening last winter and won the Prillamans over. She'll continue to show her handmade books at Conrad Wilde Gallery on Fourth Avenue, but will now exhibit her paintings primarily at Obsidian, James explains. "She's very talented."

The owners are considering pairing Wehr with another of their discoveries, Jiyoung Chung, a Korean artist living in Rhode Island, for a show next season. Chung has updated the ancient Korean paper art of joomchi into pungently colored abstractions.

Monica Prillaman is full of praise for Rusk's stewardship, though Monica and her son have slightly different points of view.

"Elouise is an artist herself, and her pride was to support artists," Monica says. "I'd like to do that, too, but I would like as well to open up the eyes of regular people. I'm coming from the common person's point of view."

For her part, Rusk believes the gallery is in good hands. Writing in an e-mail, she declares, "I'm sure the new owner will continue to show excellent work there."

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