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The Arts

A river of creativity

Rock River Open Studio Tour set for 18th year of eclectic art

WILLIAMSVILLE—What do you see on the Rock River Artists Open Studio Tour?

Artists, of course. And studios. But also orange day lilies growing like weeds. The Rock River. High ferns. Flower gardens. Contented cats. Mountain views. Rushing streams. Bridges. Winding dirt roads. And houses that look like they are home to Hobbits.

This is the 18th year that the artists of South Newfane and Williamsville have invited guests into their homes and studios. The free tour is set for Saturday and Sunday, July 17 and 18, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

It begins at the Old Schoolhouse in South Newfane village, where visitors see an exhibit of the artists work and pick up a map and maybe a cookie. Then theyre off on their own, driving up and down the winding dirt roads, meeting the artists, hearing their stories and learning how they work.

This year, the participating artists are printmaker Kim Hartman Colligan, potter and collagist Ellen Darrow, woodworker Dan DeWalt, Raku potter Richard Foye, blacksmith and metal sculptor Rich Gillis, sculptor Bruce Marshall, painter Leonard Ragouzeos, painter and print-maker Roger Sandes, fabric and thread artist Deidre Scherer, potter Matt Tell, photographer Christine Triebert and collagist Mary Welch.

How it began

The tour came out of an idea that Triebert and her partner, graphics designer Carol Ross, had in 1993.

Carol and I had been living here for three years and realized there was very little community activity and nothing for artists, Triebert said.

We also realized that there were a lot of artists living in this area. We thought it would be nice to get to know each other and do something together. So we started calling and got a group together. It went from being a social thing to, Lets all try to show our work and make some money. Its really valuable for many of us. We sell our work here.

The tour has legs, Triebert said.

People call during the year, she said. They were here on the tour and saw something they liked, and they say, I was thinking about that piece. They purchase it later. Or people who werent on the tour come because someone told them about it. Large pieces arent a impulse buy, so people have to think about it and call you back.

Since the tour began, the number of participating artists has waxed and waned at their peak, they had 24. Sometimes an artist moves in or out of the area, or has to teach a class over the tour weekend, or attend a wedding. So the mix is always fluid.

But over the years, the area has attracted an even larger number of artists who have grown close. They share meals, offer advice, exhibit in rotation at the Four Columns Inn during the rest of the year, and together have given something of an identity to the area.

When we first moved here, the Rock River was nothing more than a river that flowed through here, Triebert said. Now I think the artists have helped create some visibility for the area and its artists. We have really good artists here. Im proud to be a founding member.

Anti-digital photography

Triebert and Ross live in a small, light-filled home on a four-acre hollow along the Rock River; they have recently opened a womans artists retreat on their property. For the tour, Triebert, who also does commercial photography, will be showing her newest work a cool, elegant, subtle series of images from nature which she describes as anti-digital.

This is so new, its as of yesterday, Triebert said. No cameras and no chemistry."

Instead, she makes cameras out of tin cans, or takes fogged photographic paper into the bright sunlight and holds it under leaves and plants.

If you give it the fastest exposure ever, the shadow gets embedded in the paper, Triebert said. The image actually remains as long as you get it out of the light and put it in a black box.

No chemistry doesnt mean no technology.

So I said, What the hell and scanned, Triebert said. You get three passes before the the light on the scanner washes the image out. Then I adjust the tones on the computer and print it on very flat paper. So almost everything Im showing on the tour is a camera-less image. Photography has become so technical, so for my fine art work I wanted to do something different.

Mystic metal

A person couldnt be more tucked into the woods than Gillis, who lives in a forest clearing at the end of a long, rutted dirt driveway. An astrologer, numerologist, musician (he plays and sings in a Grateful Dead tribute band), blacksmith and metal sculptor, he lived in a bus while he built his house and his large metal shop from the trees he logged to clear his land.

Gillis shop is equipped with a forge and a power hammer. He does a lot of custom work - railings, gates, tables, lamps as well as sculpture.

When I work I feel my given gift is the ability to psychically connect with my customers and my clients projects, Gillis said. I hook into my intuition and apply my knowledge of astrology and numerology, tie it all together, try to make it beautiful and make them happy.

Gillis studied fine art and pottery in college but found his larger path after school ended.

I was doing wood fire ceramics and I discovered that I had a passion for fire, he said. I wanted to work with fire. So then I discovered welding. Then I apprenticed myself to an astrologer and went to fairs with him. I made things out of metal to sell there. Then I met a blacksmith at the Oregon Country Fair. I was working at a booth selling fried rice and the spatula broke. The boss said, Go next door and get us a new spatula made. So I did. I watched the guy make a new spatula. He took stainless steel blanks and hand-riveted them to a hand-forged handle. He made one in 20 minutes. I gave him a bunch of fried rice and we were good to go. But I was just mesmerized.

Black and white

One artist had his life changed by the tour. That would be Ragouzeos, who five years ago was nearing the end of a long career as a professor of studio art, design and calligraphy at a college in Pennsylvania.

My wife and I saw the house and the tour and the general store one day while we were cruising around, scouting the area out for when we retire, Ragouzeos said. We thought, We could live here. This is a good place. So we bought this house and moved.

Ragouzeos does large sometimes 8-feet by 10-feet emotionally powerful black and white India ink drawings on a special printing industry paper made by the Yupo Corporation.

I found the paper really intriguing, he said. It doesnt get wet so it doesnt buckle. It doesnt even absorb ink. The good and the bad is the same: it doesnt absorb ink. I use waterproof India ink, so I can scratch it off or use ammonia to dissolve the ink so I can erase. Im married to this medium now. It does well for me. Im not a good colorist. Im better with values: black and white Im sloppy in my life and in my work, and I like to see the activity of the work - so a lot of the work has remnants of splashing.

Ragouzeos has sold work at the Four Columns Inn, and he will have smaller work to sell on the weekend of the tour.

I always sell on the Rock River weekend, he said. I dont have a gallery any more. But Im retired and living off my retirement plan and Social Security. Sales are good. But most important, Im making work I really like.

Flowers and art

Tucked into a flower-drenched meadow by the river, Welch and Sandes have decorated their house so it looks like one of their artworks- flower-filled, dramatic, endlessly decorative, colorful and ravishingly beautiful. Sandes paints. Welch collages. Their work hangs everywhere.

Welch and Sandes are founding members of the Rock River Artists group.

Its such a mixed bag, our group, Welch said. Why are there so many artists here? Because its a nice place to live. Its not super expensive and there are varied people. Its a little bit scruffy, but it doesnt have an impoverished quality. Theres a society here.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #57 (Wednesday, July 7, 2010).

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