Portraits and ponderings from the writing desk of Jill Foote-Hutton.

Connectivity and Courage: From Denmark to Toquerville

It’s easy to overlook the obvious, I don’t know why, but there it is.  In building a career, relationships are key. Relationships are also easy to overlook.  We get our heads buried in the oblivion of our own minds and the windows to the people around us seem to disappear.  Sunday, January 15 in Middelfart, Denmark at the Grimmerhus Museum the indomitable Nina Hole celebrated 70 years of life.  She didn’t do it with a retrospective she did it with an invitational, "Friends & Firemates".  It was a retrospective of fire and relationships.  Nina still burns as bright as ever and there were over 100 artists basking in her glow.
Nina Hole
Ceramic circles are small and vast.  The evidence was manifested in matchbox size artworks sheltered in vitrines in a museum built from one woman’s imagination.  At the end of the exhibition space was work from the artists who gathered in 1990 to participate in a symposium and create their works of clay.  Together they generated objects, which became proof of the need to create the space to house them.  Together the works set a series of actions in motion.
Richard Notkin
Helle Hove
Imagination, Effort and Collective Energy. 

Bob Shay, 1990
These are the underpinnings of any successful venture whatever the field.  It’s important to remind ourselves of the recipe from time to time. Then we can pull ourselves out of our own minds and get together with our tribe to make magic.
Grimmerhus, Museum of International Ceramic Art, Middelfart, Denmark 
Red Lodge Clay Center exists because of a similar spirit.  David Hiltner didn’t see a strong reason to continue on the tried and true path of academia.  He asked, “What’s next for the young artists academia cranks out?”  He wanted to make a place where they would have a little more time to develop.  And while he had resources available, making the shift seem less risky perhaps; it still takes courage to jump the track. 
Zion National Park
My favorite recent story of creative courage and connectivity to family, friends and place though, lies in Toquerville, Utah on the side of the road in a little bungalow filled with an amazing family.  Russell and Lori Wrankle decided to make a change in their lives ten years ago.  They loved the landscape of Utah--so there they went.  They worked multiple odd jobs and eked out a living on wages below poverty level.  They went into their new community and began building relationships.  They repurposed their home into a gallery space and the barn out back became a studio for Russell.  The constant flow of traffic to Zion National Park provided, if not ready clientele, an abundant audience in their living room/showroom.  The yard is filled with pecans, figs and pomegranates. The air teems with potential. 
In the early portion of their adventure the main income from ceramic sales was in the form of tile work.  Many homes are adorned with Russell’s handiwork and it afforded him the opportunity to explore an ever-growing query of the human condition and journey in sculptural objects fraught with the burden.  I really like to think of Russell as a modern day Aesop as animals are his main vehicle.
 Tension. The many tensions of life are put upon his figures.  Even when they are alone they are never at rest.  They never languish in the comfort of victory.  Russell has the ability to tap into his rich personal history and imbue his creations with the conflict of life and death and sex and joy and pain.  Of course, this is the stuff we all deal with, but let’s acknowledge it takes constant honing to enable ourselves to open up the vein and let it flow freely into the work we create.  Sometimes, in conversation, Russell will protect himself with formal dialogue but it is the fact that formal dialogue falls away when a viewer is faced with the struggle he portrays.  Whether he chooses dog, rabbit, frog, goat, tortoise or shark, there is always a familiar struggle.  Sometimes there is loss.  Sometimes there is greed.  Sometimes there is lust.  Sometimes absurd humor. Always there is a bit of fight in them!
But let’s get back to courage for a moment, Russell doesn’t do all of this alone.  His lovely partner Lori is like a character out of Will Cather’s “O Pioneer”.  She is forthright if she is anything and she is not only a willing participant in their endeavor, she has the gift of sight with enough sensibility to keep things grounded.

But not too much.
As the Wrankles built their life in Toquerville, Lori gave birth to their three children  and countless others as a mid-wife.  While the living room was a gallery, the back office was a mid-wifery consulting room.  Lori too is invested and tied to the struggle of life.  She is an educator and a facilitator and a fierce protector.   Eventually her path as a mother and a creative entity led her into the classroom where she volunteered as an art teacher in an elementary school without an art program.  She performed this role, without pay, for several years because she believed it was important.  Eventually she found and applied for a grant, which now covers her salary and she has her own classroom too.  Perhaps we are all too familiar with readymade art, spoon fed to children where skies must blue and grass must be green and pre-drawn cutouts only to serve as periods of rest from actual learning rather than reinforcing the lessons of history, biology, chemistry, math, etc.  Perhaps you did not realize this was the state of much art in the public school system.  Of course there are programs lucky enough to have teachers with a vision and an administration to support them, but it is far from the norm.  Lori takes the work from her classroom and fills the halls of the school.  She engages the entire student body in projects like a the mural of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” painted at monumental scale in the multi-purpose room.  Everyday the entire school sees the magic and who knows how many people she quietly inspires with her diligence and commitment.
It is this kind of pioneering courage that fills the Wrankle household.  The creative process is a way of life for them.  In the front door to a room with rounded corners and a personal collection of art had by trade and acquisition a visitor is welcomed into a warm living space where Russell’s works sit next to objects his children have created. The children’s honest and unconscious efforts are also available in the gallery.  From the front room a visitor walks into a bright yellow kitchen where meals of love and local products are prepared for each other and a surprising array of visiting artists.  Maybe one of the nicest things is that Russell remains consistently honored when prestigious artists grace his door.  He isn’t yet overwhelmed by his own prestige and hopefully he will retain that grace as his work finds more venues.  Out of the kitchen, the visitor walks down a narrow flight of stairs and out the back door to a patio where, after dinner, a musical offering will be provided to guests by the Wrankle’s oldest child on a violin that was obtained in a trade for a tortured yellow hare held against the wall by three wooden stakes.  Even though the odds were not in his favor, the hare had not given up.   Now that the visitor is full of hospitality and surrounded by the local community, let us cross the back yard to Russell’s studio.
The façade shines with corrugated tin accented by red framing, inside the remnant barn shows a history and the future of one maker’s vision.  A hammerhead shark is twisted in a leather hard battle.  A giant hare sits upright on a ledge with newly finished toenails.  A goat brain is squeezed between the pinchers of a giant disembodied crab claw.   On the wall are pictures of these animals and drawings by the children, a map and images of finished works.  A small wood stove sits on the edge of the room where it offers warmth on cold desert nights for solo contemplation or  feeding essential fuel to engaging conversations between colleagues and friends.  It is in this safe haven, surrounded by an overwhelming landscape and a protective clan that Russell can delve into the darker parts of the human struggle, of his struggle and your struggle and mine.  Here he finds permission to fragment animals and create visual allegories that resonate. 
In the past year Russell explored the collision between creatures in the form of a rabbit with crab claws, inspired by Kafka and perhaps the impotence of the human condition.  The work lived in Red Lodge for many months.  It was one of those works that made people stop in their tracks. 
The blessing and the curse of Red Lodge Clay Center Gallery is the location.  The town is not a mecca for art (not yet anyway) but it is a major thoroughfare to Yellowstone National Park.  Tourists from across the nation, and sometimes the world, cross our threshold in great numbers during the summer months.  They may not purchase in great quantities, but they have a chance to peek into a world they would not consciously choose to visit.  We trap them! 
T-shirt shop, T-shirt shop, Pizza Place, Ski Shop, Novelty Shop, T-Shirt Shop, Ice Cream Parlor and then, BAM!

They walk into an amazing collection of contemporary ceramics.  Sometimes they back out certain they cannot afford anything or certain their children will break the most expensive thing.  More often than not though, they walk in and are amazed.  They see a wild variety of cups and bowls, vases and plates and then they see the Kafka Hare, in a satiny yellow gold lying on his back with his hindquarters transformed into orange-red crab claws.  The hare is distraught and the formal elements are expertly handled so as not to detract from the predicament.  Russell’s palette is always tight, limited to play a supporting role and give the viewer a visceral connection to the content.  Visceral it is.  I’ve witnessed it time and again with his works.  Much like their maker, and true for anyone daring to put something of themselves out into the world naked and unprotected, Russell’s creatures do not win everyone over, but they do make everyone stop.  At the end of the day winning over is not the point, but the varied responses affirm that art is a lot like tofu in that it takes on whatever properties one brings to the bowl.        

Most importantly, Russell’s works have the ability to connect with people. He invites us to risk looking inside ourselves. In order to pull of a feat of suggested instrospection, a maker has to model the behavior first.  Russell does, time and again. His work, like his life, is a model of creative courage.  His career is not completely at the opposite end of the spectrum from Nina Hole, but he is really still at the beginning of making connections and cementing relationships.  He shares his growing experience with his students and friends.  He is aggressively pro-active in his promotions, but the aggressiveness is coddled by humility and grace.  What other tales will he unearth in Toquerville? 

Personally, I am excited to see what comes. Learning more and more of Russell’s history allows me to draw my romantic conclusions and suppose his stories infuse the work. I am lured in deeper with each tiny evolution of form and figure.  Greedily, I want to push the fast forward button and amp up the courage to reveal journeys that are familiar on a global level. How raw can the tension and struggle and fight get in his renderings? But, better to wait and watch it unfold, retaining an air of mystery so I can combine my own story with his fables and legends. What will the network of his lifetime reveal?  Who can tell, but I enjoy contemplating it and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to sit in the Wrankle home and have my proverbial cup filled.  It was an even greater honor to sit in the quiet of Russell’s creative space alone and marvel at the future tales in the making.

Russell will be traveling to St. Louis, Missouri shortly for three workshops coinciding with the exhibit, "Untamed" up at Craft Alliance through February 26.  The first workshop will be at Craft Alliance (January 21-22), the other two will be hosted by St. Louis Community College at Meramec (January 23-24, contact Jim Ibur) and Forest Park (January 25-26, contact Matthew Isaacson at 314-644-9352).     If you're in the area, get out to meet Russell.  Expand your own network!  Be courageous!