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East County Friday, Feb. 22, 2019 6 months ago

The Art Among Us

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There are artists among us — maybe you knew that. Or, perhaps, you haven’t taken time to consider them, to view their work, or to buy one of their pieces. 
by: Eric Snider Contributor

Sprinkling original artwork into your home — whether purely decorative or functional — supports small local businesses and does not have to break the bank. It could be something as simple as a wire basket or a wooden salad bowl — made with creativity, care and love. One of a kind. 

A good place to start your neighborhood arts quest is at two exhibitions presented by the 18-year-old Creative Arts Association of Lakewood Ranch, one of which is coming up March 16. 

Meanwhile, get to know four committed artists who live in our midst. Collectively, they produce an eclectic range of artwork — many of which, by the way, you'll find affordable.

Jerry Wolfe

The Metalist Jerry Wolfe

The blacksmith — that gruff sweaty guy hammering away at horseshoes in a barn — has been consigned to history’s scrap heap, but the trade itself lives on, as a craft and as an art. Jerry Wolfe is proof. He’s a modern-day blacksmith who also answers to metal sculptor.

Using creativity, high heat and muscle, Wolfe forges pieces mostly from steel, with some copper, aluminum and titanium added for flair. He makes headboards, tables, table baskets, trivets, trellises and gates. Wolfe also sculpts flowers whose delicate appearance belies their tensile strength. With the proper artistic urge, he’ll delve into purely abstract pieces and give them names like “Phantasmagoria” and “Steel Origami.”

“Sometimes I just want to create something that has no purpose, that is strictly art,” says Wolfe, “but most of what drives me in the forge is to make what people want.”

Wolfe creates some commission work. He also shows and sells his pieces at art events, including the two sales the Creative Arts Association of Lakewood Ranch, of which he’s a member, presents each year. 

Other projects are more altruistic: For several years he’s created an elaborate table for a raffle at his church, Lakewood Ranch Baptist.

Wolfe’s interest in smithing goes back to his days as an Indiana farm boy. He earned a degree in metallurgical engineering at Indiana Institute of Technology, then spent several decades working as an engineer in Alliance, Ohio. In 1988, Jerry took a blacksmith class, and over the years a hobby morphed into an artistic pursuit.

After he retired and moved to Florida in 2003, Wolfe rented a space off Whitfield Avenue, near U.S. 301, that doesn’t quite resemble the blacksmith shops of yore. Wolfe Forge, as he calls it, is dark and crammed with machinery and tools -— no air conditioning. 

“It’s hot, hard work, especially in the summertime,” says Wolfe, who’s 76. “I have to pace myself so I don’t get heatstroke.”

Wolfe sells hooks and hangers for $10 to $30, and decorative baskets for $60 to $100. On the higher end, his table sculptures run $150 to $500, and his intricate table bases will set you back $250 to $600. He isn’t in it to make money, but he does want to cover the cost of materials and shop rent. As such, he’s become more sales-focused.

“I get frustrated when I put certain items into a show that I think the public might want and they don’t sell,” he says. “I sold a lot of candleholders in Ohio, but in Florida they don’t sell.” Wolfe says that has caused him to shift his philosophy to making more regionally desirable pieces.

“I recently did my first alligator sculpture,” he says.

The Whimsical Eclectic Drew Stuart

“I’ve always loved making things,” says Drew Stuart — many times over. 

Not the loftiest of mantras about artistic motivation, but they’ve been words to live by for the 72-year-old retired elementary teacher. 

Stuart tends to shy away from referring to himself as an artist — but an artist he is, one who’s difficult to pigeonhole. If pressed, we’ll go with sculptor. He makes everything from puppets and marionettes to fish and bird lawn ornaments and a lot of cartoonish human figures and faces. They all vibrate with intense color. They’re whimsical, irreverent and sometimes downright funny. Have a weakness for pigs in a blanket? How about a cute clay sculpture of a porker wrapped in a plaid throw?

Stewart’s primary medium is clay, but over the years he’s also used papier-mâché, Styrofoam, PVC, fabric, metal, cardboard, furring strips and myriad other materials.

He grew up in Staten Island, N.Y.,  and northern New Jersey with a maternal grandfather who was a carpenter. 

“I took all the shop classes in high school, but never took an art class,” says the voluble retiree.

He started wood carving as an adult. For 25 years, he whittled Santas, each with a family theme. About five years ago, he switched to clay. 

“It’s an additive process, where carving is subtractive,” says Stuart. “It suits me better, plus I can make amazing things out of clay in a couple of hours, where it would take me 20 hours of carving.”

Stuart shows his work at the Manatee Arts Center — he was a featured artist in January — and, as a member of the Creative Arts Association of Lakewood Ranch, sells his wares at its shows. Most of his pieces run less than $100. A colorful fish or bird on a rebar stand ranges from $40 to $60. But sales are a minor concern. 

“I just want to make money enough to keep playing with the mud,” he says, referring to clay. 

For Stuart, it’s about the process, and it’s about fun. 

“A lot of people won’t make art, won’t even take an art class if they’re not already good at it,” he says. “I’m put off by that idea. Just enjoy the element of play. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.”

The Glass Master Liana Martin

She started with stained glass. 

“Not my thing,” says Liana Martin. “Too static, re-creating someone else’s pattern, and the sound of cutting glass made me cringe.” 

She moved on to lampworking, where one uses a torch to heat and shape molten glass.

“I was making beads, and I don’t wear jewelry,” she says. “I thought, ‘What am I going to do with all these beads?’”

Then she found it: glass fusing, a technique that joins pieces of glass together by melting them in a kiln. Martin has made a viable career as glass-fusing artist, which includes a busy teaching schedule. 

She still makes jewelry — lots of it — and windows, panels, gun handles, guitar facades and dazzling original pieces she mounts on metal stands. Her 18-by-40-inch “Kindergarten Geometry” is a Picassoesque dazzler, made of scraps left over in her studio. She crafted her 7-by-9-inch, “Florida Panther” (not for sale) by fusing granulated and powdered glass. 

Martin has also found a niche she says some people “find creepy” — glass encasements for cremation ashes, be it dearly departed family members or pets. We’re talking necklaces, bracelets, keychains and worry stones — not urns. 

“People get to carry the remains of their loved ones with them,” says Martin. “I find it touching.” 

The daughter of a military man, Martin spent her first six years in Germany, then the family moved to Virginia. Her maternal grandmother gave her a collection of glass figurines, which sparked the youngster’s fascination with the medium. She earned a biology degree — and minored in art — at Kennesaw State University near Atlanta and took glass-fusing classes in her spare time. Martin worked for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources stocking trout at hatcheries and doing field studies. After moving to Florida in 2000, she was unable to find regular work as a biologist, so she turned to art full time. 

For several years, she owned a business in Venice called Firebug, situated in a 2,000-square-foot space that housed 13 kilns, five torches, a gallery and retail area. She sold it four years ago and now lives in Lakewood Ranch, where her workspace includes the entire upstairs and one garage bay. 

When Martin is not making art in her home studio, she teaches classes at Suncoast Technical College, Manatee Arts Center and at a Montessori school in Venice. She also holds group instruction in private homes. For several years, she created one-of-a-kind artworks that the Fine Arts Society of Sarasota handed out as awards. She sells her creations at J&J Gallery, the Manatee Arts Center and The Cottage Art Gallery in Nokomis. Her jewelry ranges in price from $15 to $200; table art pieces go for $95 to $700; and larger works on stands run $1,800 to $2,400.

You might say Martin is a seeker, a bit of a restless soul. In addition to biology, she has studied computer science, veterinary medicine and private investigation. 

“What can I say?” says Martin, “I get bored.” 

But does she ever get bored making art?

“Never.”

The Wood Whisperer Jim O’Donnell

Woodturner Jim O’Donnell has crafted hundreds of pieces, from fancy pens (1,500 at last count) to elegant salad bowls to adventurous abstractions —meant purely for show. Although most of his projects are utilitarian, others are born of inspiration. His segmented “Claudia” vase, for instance, is an homage to German supermodel Claudia Schiffer. Yes, it is curvaceous. 

“The wood speaks to you and says what it wants to be,” says O’Donnell, admitting it sounds artsy-fartsy. “When it clicks for me is when I know what the piece is going to be. And I have this God-given gift to see a finished piece before I start it.”

The more exotic the wood — amboyna burl, cocobolo, ebony, African blackwood — the more likely it is to end up as fine art. O’Donnell may devise a schematic for complicated pieces, but he mostly just cranks up his lathe and gets to turning, gouging, carving and shaping. The process also includes gluing and adding finishes of oils, beeswax or satin lacquer. Occasionally, with more involved projects, he starts by building fiberboard jigs, or special tools, to help engineer his vision.

O’Donnell sources his wood several ways. A friend may tell him about a downed tree and he’ll show up with his chainsaw. Other pieces arrive via shipment from around the world. One time, a woman in Finland sold him a section of “spectacular” Masur Birch with the proviso he send her pictures of what he created from it. 

O’Donnell came to Florida in 1991 after earning his master’s degree in communication disorders from St. Louis University. He became a resident of Summerfield Woods in 1995. He works full time as a speech pathologist at Complex Care Hospital at Ridgelake in Sarasota and has a wife and three children. Balancing family, faith, work and art is a challenge, and he’s careful not to spend an inordinate amount of time at his lathe.

O’Donnell’s prices range from $55 to $140 for salad bowls to $3,900 for his dazzling Double Vision Shoji, for which he had to spend $250 on ebony alone. Lately, he’s focused on segmented pieces, like the multihued “Claudia” vase. 

“Segmented stuff sells,” he says pointedly. 

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