Pieces of old objects offer us to a step back in time. From carvings to drawer pulls, table legs to hinges, items that have been separated from their original purpose are for sale in antique malls and numerous on-line sites. With names like Deco, Modern, Eastlake, Victorian, Mission: How can we avoid the lure? Their existence suggests important past practices and display quality and craftsmanship. It is far removed from the mass production and reproduction that is created today.
There is a special craze for pieces and parts of anything old. Many of the lesser-valued objects or items that are no longer in mint condition are worth more as parts than in their original form. Take, for example, an antique sewing machine inside its wooden cabinet. For years, one could buy a vintage sewing machine for around $40. Now, if you disassemble it, you can sell it for up to $300. There is a metal base, which can be used for a table base ($40), a cast-iron pedal as wall decor ($30), three to six wooden drawers ($15 per), applied moldings and old wood ($30), and the machine itself ($50). Even the nameplate and hardware have value. I have found this to be true in many aspects of antiques. Artisans around the country are using these parts to create objects for their homes and gardens and in some cases to create objects for their homes and gardens and in some cases to create fine art.
I have been asked by Nashville Arts Magazine to share my perspective and approach to restoration and construction of furniture. Using both new and old materials, I look forward to offering my approach and philosophy on design and restoration in upcoming issues.
Recycling of materials, both old and new, has long been a part of my philosophy of art and design. It is amazing how many types of materials are available - glass, wood, steel, ceramic, fiber, etc. I remember building, as a young boy, model planes, boats, and cars from plastic and balsa-wood kits. The parts came in sheet form. As the parts were removed, I was fascinated with the negative space that remained. I believe this experience played a role in my use of laser-cut steel today.
Several years ago, I began working with cast-off pieces of steel, the remnants from a laser-cutting machine. The possibilities in that single avenue alone are endless. Pictured here are console tables that cantilever from the wall. Pieces of laser-cut steel, reclaimed from a local fabricator, are welded together in a collage. Those design elements are wrapped in a frame of new steel, welded, and ground to a consistent finish. The console tops fabricated from solid-surface counter-top material, also remnants from local fabricators. These finished tables are comprised of 80% re-purposed material and only 20% new material.
As the owner of a cabinet company, I have access to a wide array of materials. I consistently reuse and encourage the reuse of as many materials in our production as possible. I have created a series of small, wall-hung sculptures called “Shadow Chasers” that are made entirely from cast-off materials from my cabinet shop. These art objects are constructed by laminating together small pieces of plywood, fiberboard, Corian, and solid wood. The cubes that are produced are cut into thin slices. With the use of a custom jig, the slices are sanded to a consistent thickness. Those elements are then assembled into a pattern, fastened together, and mounted to a hanging bracket. The shadow comes into play by virtue of mounting the construction a distance away from the wall. The angle of the lighting determines the shadows.
While I find the incorporation of green materials a source of inspiration, I am also proud to create products that do not act as a drain on our limited natural resources. I have not made it a practice to seek out recycled materials in my work. Instead, I feel as if the material most often finds me. I feel compelled and inspired by many found objects and green materials. As an artist, I often feel that I have no choice in the matter, that is the material that is guiding me.
Pieces and Parts
By Rusty Wolfe
Oil lamps sparkle on burgundy wine
While words of old become the words of new
Poetic gestures always seem to end in the perfect rhyme
This is a verse and chorus from a song I wrote and recorded almost forty years ago. How true it is still today and how well those words have served me. I continue to be romanced by a way of life that was before my time.
Often I find damaged pieces of something old that has enough of its form left to show that is was once glorious. To many people, these resurrecting them and dreaming about what they might become in this new, contemporary world.
While shopping at a local antique mall, I found the remains of an old painter’s cabinet from a now-defunct Tullahoma newspaper. It once housed thousands of small pieces of movable type. It had only two of its original twelve drawers. The frame was severely damaged, and none of the slanted top was intact. I had always wanted a cabinet to hold my print-block collection, and I saw an opportunity to resurrect this one-hundred-year-old gem.
I followed the lines of the original frame, adding decorative panels on the sides to replace the missing wood. I topped those panels with metal print type, creating small, framed pieces of history.
I salvaged the one good drawer with a hundred small compartments inside to preserve the true spirit of the original piece of furniture and used it as the top drawer to his new cabinet. The rest of the wood was used to construct deeper, more conventional drawers. I utilized some period Eastlake bin pulls from my collection to dress up the fronts.
The new cabinet is very refined piece of contemporary furniture, although I chose to leave the primitive legs to showcase the cabinet’s original, rougher style. This one detail reveals its true worn and weathered past.
Normally, you would see the entire cabinet scrapped and only the drawer salvaged because it can be used as wall-hung collection storage.
While vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, I decided to investigate the local antique venues. In the little fishing village of Menemsha, I found a great shop that had been in the village for many years. Having lived on the island myself in the 1970s, I found a lot to talk with the owner about. She even let me venture into her backroom which was crammed full of items that hadn’t been touched in decades.
I uncovered some spectacular, ornate wood pieces and learned that they were the remnants of an 1890s organ. The dealer explained that she had been planning to restore the organ for the last twenty years but never had gotten around to it. Happily, I was able to convince her to part with the remaining pieces. From the organ parts, I have made two pieces of furniture that stay close to the original Victorian style, yet they create new, functional pieces that make sense in today’s homes. The coat rack pictured here was created from the organ’s decorative top. Everything above the horizontal shelf is original to the organ. Even though the bones are the same, many of the elements were broken or missing, so one of the finals and two of the rosettes have been fabricated from old wood to match the original. The shelf and everything below it, including the wooden brackets, are new construction. Again, I have used old wood and period hardware because the new elements are intended to retain the original aesthetic.
For the second piece, I used the side of the organ to create a standing hall shelf. The original piece of gingerbread mill-work help an oil lamp or a candle. I reconstructed it to function as a wall-hung piece by fabricating a back and a leg. In this configuration, it can work in a modern home, and it won’t interfere with the baseboard at the floor. Now it’s the perfect spot to drop your keys. All the changes have been done with similar materials and in the same style, so as not to change from the integrity of the organ’s Victorian design.
Both of these pieces of furniture have been created from elements of Victorian have been created from elements of Victorian millwork. My goal has been to extend the life of these materials and give them a new purpose. The converted coat rack and hall shelf are on display this month at the Finer Things Gallery.
The cultural landscape of the United States has changed dramatically in the sixty-plus years that I have lived in it. Modern cities now showcase a diverse range of designs and architectural styles. Today’s homes often display an eclectic mix of furniture and artwork from across many design periods.
The design movement of mixing of furniture and artwork from across many design periods. The design from across many design periods.
The design movement of mixing the old with the new has developed over the years, and I first started contributing to it in the 1970s. In 1972 purchased a condemned house in the Richland – West End neighborhood from notorious local landlord Carrie Sissom. The dilapidated, single-story house had 1,300 square feet. I more than doubled that square footage by raising the roof and adding a second and third story. I approached the project with the goal of re-purposing old pieces and parts as design elements into my new, contemporary home. I outfitted the house with twelve stained-glass windows. I decoupage the floor of my sons’ bathroom with antique sheet music, used barn wood to fabricate contemporary lighted soffits, and incorporated antique tiles into a modern fireplace. One of my favorite elements was a wall of mismatched antique drawers built into the wasted space beneath the staircase. This detail proves to be the inspiration for the piece of furniture that is featured in this month’s column.
I needed an interesting piece of furniture to house my television and stereo equipment, so I started with some simple oak slabs. I stained the oak black and accentuated it with natural mahogany for a clean, contemporary cabinet. I required both form and function from this piece, and I achieved that by treating the left and right sides of the cabinet in different ways. On the right side, I used 200-year-old English pine to make simple bank drawers for DVD storage. Wanting to mix in some antique details, on left I incorporated antique drawer fronts and other antique parts used as drawer fronts for a potpourri effect. The first four drawers are made from the corner blocks of Victorian door frames. The rectangular drawer with the cutouts came off an Eastlake music cabinet. The drawer pulls span more than a hundred years and represent a wide variety of hardware periods. The overall effect is a contemporary piece of furniture with an eclectic mix of antique pieces and parts.
I have always had a fascination with drawers. They are a place to store things as well as a place to hide things. From jewelry to clothes to documents, they provide a way to organized and secure almost anything.
I seize every opportunity to purchase a piece of furniture that is made up of drawers. Apothecaries, seed cabinets, vintage hardware storage units, toolboxes, etc. I am also quick to buy random drawers that are no longer married to their original mate. I enjoy putting these lost objects, in a state of limbo, to a new use.
Drawers exist in all shapes and sizes. Often a drawer’s handle, or pull, will help identify the drawer’s age, style, and origin. A drawer pull can be the spark that lights a fire inside you, helping you decide whether you can live without a piece or not. Pulls vary in style from primitive to Modern, Victorian to Art Deco, and can be made of wood, brass, copper, cast iron, glass, or of ceramic to name a few possibilities. I store all of my antique pulls and hardware in several vintage hardware cabinets. Each cabinet has forty drawers or more. Each drawer has at least dozen of objects inside. All told, it’s more than two thousand pieces and parts. I love the character these old cabinets bring to my studio, and every time I open the drawers of my storage cabinets, it is a real treat. The utility of the storage they provide is a necessity, but the nostalgia that the cabinets provide just makes me feel good. When I need to find something for a project, I may open every single drawer. I never get tired of the visual experience of seeing my ever-changing collection of treasures. Drawer fronts, absent their drawer box, can also be useful objects. Fronts may be carved or have pressed details. They may be made of wood and be painted or stained. Or, they can be metal, ceramic, or enamel.
Consider this article part one of a two-part project. My goal is to evoke some of the romance that I find in these treasured old parts. Part two will show a finished piece of contemporary furniture using some of the objects pictured here.
Pieces and Parts
By Rusty Wolfe
In last month’s column, I challenged myself to use the pieces and parts pictured in that article to create a new piece of furniture. Design is largely a matter of taste. I had to decide whether to create a modern piece, a period piece, or marry old and the new to find a common ground. I chose the last, a repurposed use that is far from the original intent for its parts.
When I wrote last month’s column, I had no idea what the piece of furniture for this month’s column would look like. After several ideas landed in the trashcan, I drew a piece that achieved all my design goals. The small antique pieces evoke the various periods that they were originally created in. The new case houses the period elements inside a modern component. The pieces is also repurposed, as the elements are no longer associated with their original utility.
The finished piece is a credenza. I used a wooden positive mold as a drawer pull and plumbing hardware as drawer pull. I sliced a stair spindle in two to use it as a corner treatment. There are cornice blocks used as drawer fronts as well as the front of a National cash register and carved Chinese panel. Three of the drawers are used as found. I used an ornate, carved table leg as panel as decoration. In an effort to maintain the theme of an electric mix, I used both old and new wood to create some of the drawers. The new, exotic veneers that I chose would not have been available when their companion hardware pieces were created. This helps achieve the common ground I was hoping to achieve.
My biggest challenge was in editing all the exciting choices. There were so many fantastic elements that could be created into drawer fronts. The same was true with the wide range of interesting choices for drawers pulls. As I started to put it all together, it became clear that the complex drawer fronts needed a tame pull, and vice versa. There was too much competition between the two. One has to dominate in order to pull off the design. So, the biggest difficulty was in restraining myself from using too many pieces and parts. In truth, this provided the opportunity to showcase some beautifully simple pieces of wood, both old and new.
I used a pallet-knife painted finish on the case and a simple, slab top. This tied it all together and gave the old elements a clean, new surface from which to shine. The result of this past month’s work can be seen in the new in the following photos.
The quiet simplicity of Rusty Wolfe's art masks his inventiveness, essential to bring(ing) his sculpture to fruition.
At the Elizabeth Edwards Gallery, Wolfe engineers a series of colorful wall sculptures based on cubist illusions made with multiple sculptural elements.
Wolfe's skills are many, and ultimately, they filter into his hand fabricated, lacquer-coated metal or wood forms. The artist creates a sculptural whole from the redundant individual dimensional parts, largely the cube.
With meticulous concern for each six-sided object - its sides, corners, surfaces, and edges, as well as the wall upon which it resides, as an integral component in the work - Wolfe fabricates forms such as "White Fabric Boxes." It is a horizontal design, a series of seven cubes across, and five cubes down, identical rectangular solids, evenly spaced. The white wall separates each box… which reverberates against the white wall.
Wolfe is intrigued with precision, edge, and design possibilities of geometric forms. To ensure precision, Wolfe secures each form with a bracket he has devised to ensure under most conditions, the individual pieces do not shift. He also continually experiments and has developed a unique method of casting lacquer to coat each metallic form. Based on the principle that a coat of lacquer, unlike dry paint, reheats the lacquer coat beneath it, Wolfe had coats each piece a minimum of 14 to 16 times. He then dips a cloth with a distinct color and dabs the five exposed sides of each box. Sometimes using white on black, or black on white, or a combination of pastel colors. The cloth marks echo down the layers of warm lacquer, softening the hard-edge geometry of the form, and endowing the cold metal with a colorful, warm, and spontaneous persona.
Three-dimensionality of sculptural form naturally emits shadows. When Wolfe places individual geometric forms in series, incorporating the white wall as integral element, inevitably shadows result. "Falling" is a series of four rectangular lengths of a delicious green colored metal. The upper solid is erect and perpendicular to the floor, while the other three forms, placed on the wall at increasing angles, gives the illusion of falling even while securely mounted. The angularity of the work projects an interplay of lights and darks that endows the simple wall sculpture with energy, rendering four rectangular solids far more complex than they would be individually. The whole is greater than its parts.
The artists' engineering skill is at its best when Wolfe creates the illusion of a curved form on a straight wall. By meticulously altering the angles of each cube, works such as "Crest," a series of black painted cubes, offset by one yellow cube, appears to move before our very eyes. Upon closer inspection, one sees how methodically Wolfe has crafted each cube with perspective angularity that turns a mathematical design into a beguiling experience.
Wolfe moved to Nashville as a successful musician and songwriter for singers such as Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn. Now he puts his colorful past behind and is a full-time artist - a woodworker, designer, and self-taught artist. His current work, which includes two-dimensional renderings that augment his sculptural explorations, gives dimensionality to the painterly ideas of Piet Mondrian and the Color Field school. Wolfe's art incorporates a broad range of hues and spatial configurations to achieve an increased sense of precision, edge, and design of geometric three-dimensional form.
Though first and foremost a painter, Rusty Wolfe could be called, perhaps more aptly, a modern-day Renaissance man.
Not only an artist, furniture maker, songwriter, singer and businessman, Wolfe has also become a scientist, engineer and inventor while perfecting his use of an unconventional art medium. The synthesis of his diverse skills and talents is vibrantly reflected in "Centered," Wolfe's contribution to The Tennessean 2000 Collection.
"The "Centered" piece is a form of spin painting, which has been around for many years." Wolfe points out. "What's new is the use of lacquer, learning to manipulate and master the volatile medium, which is highly sensitive to climate conditions and which dries very quickly, leaving little room for error.
Through his research, he has perfected the application of lacquer to several surfaces, including metal, fabric, glass, paper and wood. Much like a potter works with clay on a spinning wheel, Wolfe created "Centered" by applying layered lacquer on a piece of Plexiglas spun on his own custom-crafted machine.
"I work very hard to maintain control of the lacquer to create visuals that are much more refined than just paint splashed onto a board," he says.
Even with planning, preparation and experience, however, Wolfe must often make many attempts to produce the effect he wants. He estimates, for instance, that he started 60 to 70 "drafts" of "Centered" before he was satisfied with the final version.
"Centered," he describes, depicts a universal image. "You can look into the piece and feel that you are being drawn into the center of life itself. It also has explosive qualities, sending everything outward, almost like a sun. And it reflects a natural phenomenon, as a gift we see in a flower.
"Centered" offers an image of yesterday, tomorrow and now."
Wolfe has achieved his many accomplishments despite a difficulty which has plagued him since childhood.
"I'm dyslexic and can't read, so I can't obtain knowledge simply by picking up a book," he says wryly. "From a young age, I had to use my hands to learn things, and in doing so, I discovered many innovations. So, actually, I feel that my dyslexia was a gift. I feel truly humbled by it all, and I feel fortunate."
Enter Rusty Wolfe, a Nashville artist, sculptor and furniture designer who doesn't hesitate to declare that he has discovered an application that could revolutionize painting as we know it. …It's not the substance that's new - this fast-drying commercial coating frequently used in the cabinet business has been around a long time. It's how Wolfe, a pioneer of sorts, is using it.
In general, what Wolfe has "discovered" is that lacquer - when applied in various ways to such surfaces as plywood, paper, Masonite and Plexiglas - allows him to create colorful and often spontaneous images of great clarity.
"Every door I open in his medium produces results and effects both visually and physically," said the Ithaca, NY native, an inventor's son who arrived here …in 1968. "I can do things with this medium that have never been done before."
His gradual and evolving discovery of new uses for lacquer started quite by chance.
While at work one day in the late '80s in his furniture studio, Wolfe noticed that a wooden board tossed in the trash had received multiple coats of lacquer over spray. The visual effects were dramatic, even fascinating, and Wolfe…found himself inspired. He has eventually found that lacquer - which has occasionally been sued in art as a coating but apparently rarely or never as a full-blown creative tool - has unexpected qualities. For instance, combing different viscosities of variously colored lacquers allows for intricate abstract forms. He explained that he might apply a thick lacquer, then add a thinner lacquer in a separate color, allowing the latter, almost like lava, to trace currents through the former. For a single work, he might choose as many as 10 colors and five viscosities, allowing for a variety of combinations.
As for the spontaneity of the procedure, Wolfe says his "only control is to put colors in place so they can interact." The colors, in effect, take it from there. Self-expression becomes secondary. "I feel I have a responsibility here, I feel like a tool of this new medium," he said. "It's so different (from) anything I've ever seen or come in contact with."
To apply the substance, which Wolfe describes as "very volatile" with toxic fumes, the artist has had to develop his own tools and methods. For example, lacquer dries so quickly (sometimes in 60 seconds,) that Wolfe can't use a traditional brush. Instead, he sprays, pours and uses metal tools he has created just for this purpose.
Still, Wolfe doesn't align his new technique with Jackson Pollock's notorious drip-and-splash style that also leaves much to chance. Avoiding Pollock's more frenetic application, Wolfe says he lets only gravity dictate the course of the paint. He even finds an advantage to his technique over Pollock's; the lacquer dries with impossible clarity and luminosity, while the enamels and metallic paint Pollock often used, viewed closely, can dry cloudy or dulled.
Wolfe has also created three-dimensional works that feature finished lacquer surfaces attached to sculpted armatures. After discovering a way to create solid, temporarily malleable sheets of lacquer, he has even fashioned "ties."
Lois Rigins-Ezzell, director of the Tennessee State Museum, is one admirer. "Rusty Wolfe has perfected a totally new art form," she wrote in prefatory remarks to Wolfe's recently published book, Introducing Lacquer. "His work is intensely expressive and visually strong. His masterful use of color catches and seemingly bends the light."
Working 80 - 90 hours a week … Wolfe comes across as a man entranced with a vision that just continues to unfold.
Rusty Wolfe's installation of boldly colored, lacquered wood pieces easily caught my eye. The installation is divided into three sections, the first of which, titled "Out of Bounds," consists of 10 separate pieces of wood that practically hug the wall due to a special hanging method Wolfe invented. On their own, most of these pieces would have no power, but hung together, they form a maze that is fun to explore. From a distance, the pieces appear to touch each other. But upon closer inspection, they intersect without connecting. The forms create an area of negative space that makes me think of a city plan, of children's fat, block letters, Legos and cookie cut-outs. The pieces themselves read like Morse code.
I found the piece titled "Mahogany," fascinating. Full of tension, it repeats the considered playfulness of "Out of Bounds," both in the pieces themselves and in their spatial relationships. …Placed in line, each piece projects from the wall about one foot. Hung about two feet apart, they appear as if they might fall like a set of dominoes. A more careful inspection reveals that the blocks don't form an arch, but instead are placed on an almost slanted and only slightly curving line. The far left block hangs on a perfect vertical and has a triangular cut-out shape in its underbelly. To its right, another piece begins to fall away. This one is shaped like a backwards "F." Although it's cut with sharp lines, the next block reminds me of a curtain swag or animal belly, perhaps because it's starting the tension of the fall. A piece with a slanted rectangular cut-out hangs to its right. Almost underneath this block is a shape with a cut-out that reminds me of a keyhole. Because I viewed the installation a few hours before dusk, the falling light made a perfect complement tot he keyhole, which competed the idea of entering another space. Finally, the last piece, with an interior cut-out shape that looks like a bridge, hangs horizontally.
Nashville's Rusty Wolfe will be …the feature(d) artist at SOFA Chicago, the world's largest exposition of three-dimensional art. …Wolfe will travel to Chicago with his recently published book "Introducing Lacquer," a sixty-page comprehensive overview of his work.
While Everyone was Sleeping: Paintings and Sculpture by Rusty Wolfe
Nashville Scene January 2002
If you've ever wondered what prolific artists like Rusty Wolfe do while the rest of us sleep, the answer is revealed in this exhibition of his latest sculptures and paintings in lacquer.
Wolfe is one of those multi-taskers - creating four or five bodies of work at any give time and in a variety of media. His works in lacquer are demanding because lacquer paint has an explosive, reactive nature that resists the artist's attempts to control and manipulate it. After years of working with lacquer, though, Wolfe is indeed this medium's master, and his abstract paintings are beautifully refined.
An added bonus to the show is the opening of Wolfe's new private studio and gallery which patrons can visit by appointment.
In December and January, Wolfe's sculptures were featured in solo and group shows at the Elizabeth Edwards Gallery in California and Elaine Baker Gallery in Florida. Representation by a major Santa Fe art gallery is in the offing.
Wolfe is entirely self-taught, and his career as an artist … has taken some unusual turns over the course of three decades. …Wolfe admits he discovered lacquer's potential as an artistic medium by accident 10 years ago. Wolfe began to develop lacquer-coated sculptures and to experiment with paintings using the volatile substance. "I started with a series of tree paintings and eventually developed 12 different series that I continue to work on every year," he says. Among Wolfe's other series are his lacquered necktie sculptures and his Spin series of circular abstract designs on Plexiglas. Works from the Spin series are included in the current show, as are examples from his Window series on masonite and his precisely engineered, grid-oriented wall sculptures of wood and lacquer.
The paintings and sculptures represent the yin and yang of Wolfe's creativity. If the paintings are spontaneous and organic, the sculptures are logical and geometric. Both require precision planning and execution. "It's almost like the work of a glassblower," he says. "I have everything very well marked out and I follow my notes carefully. So even though it looks spontaneous, this isn't something I just get lucky with."
The process behind the works in his Spin series is especially complex. Not only do the circular motifs evoke a sense of spinning, the method of achieving them involves actual rotation as well. "Each one has as many as 25 different colors and 25 different viscosities of lacquer," says Wolfe. "And I actually put the Plexiglas on a wheel and spin it." Gravity and centrifugal force - painstakingly manipulated by the artist with specially designed tools - create the intricate striated patterns.
The works in his Window series require a different approach. "These are done very much like screen printing," says Wolfe. "All the colors are applied at the same time - the reds, yellows, blues are all wet. Then the work is sprayed with a coat of black and two coats of white. I take a knife and pull it across the painting." The action scrapes away the layers of lacquer and reveals designs of surprising clarity and dimension.
While Wolfe admits he finds painting most rewarding artistically, it is his sculptures that are grabbing national attention. These are generally comprised of multiple cubes coated with 16 layers of lacquer arranged in precise grids. Within that overall concept, Wolfe finds room for endless variation. In "Mold, Negative and Positive," for example, he arranges 162 gleaming white cubes in a 6 x 13 x 13 foot grid on the wall. Concave and convex surfaces on certain cubes break the rigidity of the grid and add a sense of motion to the all-white work. Similarly, the surface of the 50 silver cubes of "Open Book" curve upward near the center of the grid to approximate the shape of the title.
Wolfe's accomplishments as an artist and entrepreneur seem all the more impressive when one learns that Wolfe was diagnosed with severe dyslexia as a child. "…To me it's been a gift, because art is really one problem-solving event after another."
A few years ago, Rusty Wolfe looked out the window during a flight. The landscape below him appeared infinite. It stretched without boundaries in arching grids of color. It’s vision and passenger with a window seat has observed. But for Rusty Wolfe, this bird’s eye view translated into a series of map-like works of art. Gazing at one of Wolfe’s composition, the viewer gets a glimpse into a world that is curiously different from everyday reality. Discs of color hover, float, and bounce in space. Channels of sparkling pigment flow rapidly across glossy surfaces. It’s as if the artist is giving is access to a view somehow above and beyond our own. Talking to Wolfe, it becomes obvious that is exactly what is happening.
Wolfe, the son of a famous inventor, inherited his father’s genius, but a learning disability made school difficult. Science, literature, or math did not offer an easy or direct path for him. “I saw the world through a different set of eyes because I couldn’t learn world through a different set of eyes because I learned about the world through my hands.” Wolfe who claims he was raised like a fool or be one,” poured his energy into creative life. He adds, “A lot of my work has an originality that is a byproduct of dyslexia.”
A natural problem solver, Wolfe has overcome difficulties in his personal life and his art to make lasting innovations. “I try to take the worst aspect of whatever I’m working with and make it into the best.” He flourished as a songwriter, with tunes recorded by Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn. Wolfe moved from music to design, where his innovative approach to space made him a rising star in the industry. As a young man, he built the sharks in the epic film Jaws.
To understand Wolfe’s art, one must know his materials. Lacquer is both his medium and his muse. He says, “I went into lacquer because it’s is a commercial medium that’s used very little. It’s a commercial medium that’s used very little. It’s commercial coating with an acetone base.” To his knowledge, Wolfe is only artist working with lacquer as a medium, and no one else in the world applies it in his style. Because of its inherent thin , lacquer is difficult to manage. Wolfe actually invented the tools and processes that he uses to manipulate it on his surface. He feels that invention is in his blood. His father created the first wind turbine, and Wolfe has built machines that swirls of lacquer and designed new mechanisms that use gravity and centrifugal force to control his medium. It is his scientific understanding of lacquer that defines his work.
The artist uses the viscosity of lacquer to produce landscapes of form that ebb and flow with vibrant color. He explains, “If you had a pool of honey and you poured it on a table and then you were to take the same amount of water, it would immediately run to the edge of the table.” Lacquer behaves in a similar way. Wolfe’s “induced” painting are created by placing Plexiglas on a table. By adding lacquers that have been thinned with acetone to thicker areas of the medium, the artist replicates the effect of putting water and honey on a flat surface. The thinner lacquer flows to the edge of the table, cutting tributaries through the thick areas of color. Wolfe tilts the table in different directions to control the flow. “Gravity is a funny thing,” Wolfe relates. The result is a vast, moving web of pure and bright hues. The works look almost like photographs because of their clarity and brilliance.
Wolfe’s circular compositions, inspired by his mid flight revelations, vibrate with pure colors and geometric harmony. “Many people will look at this series and say it reminds them of maps,” Wolfe claims. If so, these works look like road maps to the heavens. There is something cosmic, celestial about these creations. They evoke thoughts of physics, with molecular quality that captures speed and gravity. Wolfe describes them as “a progression of circles.” In one he sees a “landscape with flowers coming up,” in another “the ripples in a pond.” These geometric works seem to reference the physical world in form and behavior. Wolfe says, “It’s movement.” circles are staying near the bottom. It’s a crescendo, like boiling water.
In his cosmic, abstract circles and his rivulets of pigments, the artist, like his father, has harnessed motion and speed. His inventions in technique and design have no horizon. Wolfe moves from one big dream to the next. His latest venture will transform his sculptures, now small enough to sit homes, into large-scale outdoor works. “I have a no-fear approach to life. I can’t catch up to my thoughts,” the artist smiles.
The original Finer Things Gallery was completely lost to Nashville’s historic flood of May 2010 - along with the vehicles, homes, studio, workshop, and sculpture garden. Rusty Wolfe and Kim Brooks were left, uninsured, to face a loss of millions of dollars with only their beloved dogs at their side. Now, with four of the toughest years they have ever known behind them, they will finally reopen Finer Things to the public on October 17. As you enter the space, you will witness their not-so-minor miracle- and you are guaranteed to admire, long to touch, and want to own any number of the exquisite works of art on display.
“Seventy-five percent of what we have in the gallery has my hand on it.” Rusty explained. “It’s a painting I’ve done, or a piece of sculpture, or a piece of furniture I’ve created-that means I’ve either redesigned it [or] taken it apart, refinished it, and fixed what was wrong with it. Twenty-five percent of the works in the gallery are things left over from our previous Finer Things.”
Once the art in the last group is sold, he and Kim will replenish their inventory with Rusty’s own creations, including his one of-a-kind pieces of studio furniture. In these works he joins wood, metal, paint, glass, or marble with repurposed architectural cornices, period hardware, carved moldings, printer’s blocks, cast-iron ornaments, and other surprises.
One massive shelf unit combines the top of an antique organ with decorative wooden elements and vintage coat hooks, which make it a perfect choice for the entrance of a home, office, or restaurant. A carved walnut box is beautifully restored and outfitted with velvet-lined trays, transformed into a conversation starter as well as an ideal home for a collection of watches, jewelry, or classic fountain pens. Oversized, it is large enough for a couple to share.
“We go everywhere in search of things,” Wolfe said. They recently purchased “fourteen truckloads of everything from furniture to paperwork” from the estate of an antique dealer. A selection of lighting sources includes futuristic floor lamps as well as vintage tabletop silhouettes that seem to reflect every decade since their last bulbs were invented. “We have tried very hard to find extremely rare and interesting pieces rather than have just another roomful of antiques.”
Not everything echoes or celebrates the past through- a sleek, contemporary dresser mode of light ash hardwood features Rusty’s abstract paintings on the front of its chrome-rimmed drawers. There are modern end tables made of steel and glass as well as a rectangular, honey-colored, cherry-wood dining table elegant enough to command respect in any environment. Rusty has gone out of his way to make sure every object is ready to install. Looking for an antique saddle to function as a centerpiece in your office conference room? You will find it here already mounted on an elegant base. If stained-glass windows and curved or angular architectural forms draw your attention, they are all either securely framed or fitted with strong wooden brackets to make showing them off an effortless task.
Are intrigued by cast-iron arrows harvested from antiques weathervanes? One pair is already arranged on a maple-wood rack as if displayed in a fine museum. That isn’t strange at all, because Rusty Wolfe has been prepping gallery spaces at the First Center since the building reopened as a Music City showcase for art and design of all genres.
For those of you who never have enough storage, Rusty has an unquenched love for antique trunks. “The more wear, patina, and character the better,” he believes. You will find a variety of shapes, sizes, and details throughout this collection. All are historic pieces ready to house your grandmother’s quilt, warm winter sweaters, or even a child’s favorite toys. If these handsome trunks could only talk, imagine the tales they might tell!
Finer Things also includes a ”boutique space” that should prove to be a great resources for that should prove to be a great resource for gift-giving any time of the year. Shelves and showcases offer handcrafted jewelry, masks,, sculptures, Depression glass candle holders, vintage evening bags, striking vases , antique toys, and “just things I’ve picked up in my travels, “Rusty added. You might want to start your holiday shopping here before the most exceptional pieces have been sold. Gentlemen, take a not - you’ll easily find a unique present for your special lady in this setting.
The gallery is stunning, but the most important thing Rusty and Kim want to share is their infinite gratitude to the artistic community. Following the flood, fifty or sixty talented Nashville residents came forward to assist them in cleaning up the devastation, to donate their own artworks for sale with proceeds earmarked to help provide Finer Things with a future, and they had countless anonymous benefactors. From across the country, another forty or so also reached out.
One very thoughtful soul established a Sherwin Williams credit account worth thousands of dollars so they could buy paint. Others picked up numerous meal tabs for the couple at local restaurants whose proprietors refused to reveal the source of those kindness. Compassion arose from every possible direction, and the couple want those individuals to know they were “truly humbled” by every generous act that helped them get back on their creative feet.
“How many people get to see that kind of outpouring of love and support in their lifetime? he asked, fighting back tears. “Maybe at your funeral, but then you’re not there to see it. We did - and ‘thank you’ doesn’t even come close to how we feel.”
When you walk through the revived door at Finer Things Gallery, Rusty and Kim will welcome you warmly, but please be prepared. You just might wind up a little teary-eyed, too.
For more information about Rusty Wolfe, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org
Marinette, Wisconsin Studio: 1220 Garfield Ave. Marinette, WI 54143