Dialog coordinated by Rebecca Cross

Stephen Yusko, Sanctuary: Here to There, 2017, Forged, machined and fabricated steel, glass, wood, silver leaf, 8 ½” x 3 ½” x 7 ¾”.

Dana Interviews Stephen

SY:  I made these boxes after the election and this was my political take, so this is red for the Republican Party and spells “empty” (MT) in Morse code; the blue one spells “resist.”

DO:  Do you have a special link to Morse code?

SY:  Initially, I would drill and file square and rectangular windows into the body of the boxes, as design elements like in Asian cricket boxes. But I thought it would be cool if these little windows could contain a message. So I thought of Morse code, but instead of dots and dashes, I could use squares and rectangles.

DO:  Then you could say whatever you want. That’s brilliant.

SY:  Yeah, like this one is called Sanctuary. This side would spell “home” in Morse code and this side would spell “away.” They work to me visually, and make sort of a high-water mark, like on a ship. I think that’s really a beautiful metaphor—home. I don’t know if Samuel Morse thought about this, but home is 4321. H O M E is four dots, three dashes, two dashes and one dot.

DO:  Oooh…

SY:  It’s this beautiful metaphor for your home life: five dots and five dashes, but they’re not symmetrical and it’s perfect. Home/work life is never symmetrical but has to be balanced. They are also studies in texture and pattern. This particular pattern started out as threaded pipe.

DO:  Where do you get this raw material from?

SY:  Well, sometimes scrap yards. Or Ohio Pipe and Valve. So I’d cut it in half like this, flatten it out, and then I made a little chisel—

DO:  I love that you guys make tools. And I love the efficiency in this. There’s something sort of Taoist about it: I’m going to control it as well as I can, but let’s work with what we’ve got here and appreciate what we have. I mean, these ridges, you’re using them so nicely with this. And because your hand is in it, your work is so unique. This is why it looks like you, because you do that changing. It’s really beautiful.

SY:  Thank you. Anybody who forges talks about the plasticity of the material and that’s one of the beautiful things about steel. When you heat it up to 2,200 degrees or thereabouts, it’s just like working with clay. Except, you can’t touch it, of course. But the fun part is how does that stuff move around. You can draw a taper on it, you can flatten it out, or you can upset it, which is thickening it up.

DO:  Your work seems really inspired by this area, not only in the structures but in the materials that you find.

SY:  Coming back to Cleveland, and growing up around here, driving by the steel mills, the bridges, the structures—I love all that. I did a series of tables based on the I-90 bridge construction and on the Main Avenue Bridge; components from these structures influenced how my pieces were constructed. The inspiration for this sculpture’s legs was bridge trestles and sawhorses. When I was growing up, my dad and every dad in the neighborhood had sawhorses in the garage and those things would come out and that’s where the work got done. When I made this piece, called The View from Here, I was thinking about what “home” means to people. I think it’s particularly relevant now with all that’s going on in our country, in Syria, other countries and with the migrant caravans.

This to me is like a six-and-a-half-foot-long piece of jewelry. I once heard a metal artist say, “I’m forever a jeweler who does not make jewelry.” That certainly applies to the way I approach these pieces—a combination of forging, machining and fabricating. And problem-creating. I once heard Chuck Close give a gallery talk, and he talked about how problem-solving is overrated. What’s really important for an artist is to go to your studio and create problems that only you can solve. I love that idea. But it’s really hard as an artist, when you start thinking about, “Man, I just spent six weeks making this piece in twelve-hour days. How can I get paid for this?” But I try not to think about that. I mean, that’s the beauty of being an artist, I suppose.

DO:  How do you get those measurements so perfect? You must cut the glass to fit the metal, right?

SY:  You would think so.

DO:  Oh, are you kidding me?

SY:  I cut the glass and then I make the steel fit in.

DO:  How do you that? That’s insane.

SY:  You use very precise measuring. This is a caliper and these are micrometers. And so these elements are measured to thousandths of an inch. In order to fit like they do, they have to be.

DO:  That’s amazing. Impressive… Oh, so I was going to ask you: I’m assuming you’re talking about the bones of things inspiring you, and I was wondering—is that because you’re building things from the ground up?

SY:  Watching them build the I-90 bridge, for example, was fantastic. A lot of the shapes during the construction process were fascinating. The forging process is similar in that if you go through a ten-step forging process, step two might be this really, really gorgeous shape. I’ve got to remember that, because I might want to use that for something else. But right now I’m making this.

DO:  Oh, I see.

SY:  But sometimes you don’t really know exactly what’s going to happen. And for me, that’s the beauty of making.

Dana Oldfather, Borrowed Field, 48” X 60”

Stephen interviews Dana

DO:  Sometimes, I work backwards. I think about what color I want it to end with and I build the underlayer up accordingly. Since the work is getting more figurative, I do basic sketches now.

SY:  Do you title them before you paint them?

DO:  I’ll come up with ideas; sometimes they stick, sometimes not. When they were more non-objective, they were about struggle, or contrasting things’ sizes or forms. Now, I can take those elements and say something new with them. Pillars is abstracted from my husband and my son wrestling. You know, my kid climbs on my husband all the time, and my husband’s a really good sport about it. I’m liking those brick pillars out there on my porch. But here, they kind of turned into the trees. This one is No One Can Hear Us: people gettin’ frisky in a cabin, where I’m meshing inside with outside. In this universe I’m inventing, I can push things back and bring things forward in incongruent ways.

SY:  How does representation change the process?

DO:  I’m developing a new formal language with acrylic. The abstract stuff really only carries over into these oil portions, which are the figurative parts that go on last. Before, there was more spray paint in there, but now, I’m using it as an effervescence. I’m working with many more layers than I ever have before. I wanted them to really be juicy, and to have a lot to look at as you get your face in there. One of my challenges, though, is that I get so obsessed with how it is up front that now, when we need paintings to look good digitally, there’s this design element that needs to hold up.

SY:  Absolutely. Do you find that you’re going across the house to look at them?

DO:  No. I photograph them on my phone. Because you can get away from them more. And I’ll turn them upside down. The change in scale makes things pop out for you.

SY:  Nice.

DO:  I’m getting this kind of freeway landscape from the way things look outside the car window. And here we’ve got those big swaths of green space, and then, I’m condensing some of the power lines. These are the elevated train tracks, with the Cuyahoga Valley park down there. I run in that park, and it’s fun when the train comes. These are all about balancing work, family and relationships. Definitely the fact that I fail often, is in there. You know, the struggle of trying to do good and be good.

SY:  I love that. It looks like there are lighter moments, too. I saw this one: First Grapefruit. Struggling with this or that relationship, or my first grapefruit!

DO:  This one’s called Couch Ledge: kind of how the house is a mess and there are toys everywhere, but if I got off the couch, it would be the equivalent of jumping off a cliff, because the idea of cleaning it…. I thought, “No. I’ll sit here on the edge of this couch.” It’s about struggle, but it’s also about joy—it’s not all one or the other. First Grapefruit is about how ridiculous and weird it is to teach somebody to eat a grapefruit for the first time, because it’s a lot more challenging than you would think. But it was wondrous and fun, too.

SY:  This work certainly appears to be graffiti-inspired.

DO:  I always loved graffiti. My parents were divorced when I was young, and, we would travel back and forth between my mom’s house and my dad’s house, and we would see a lot of graffiti downtown. The mark-making and the hand in it—I just loved it. I thought it was beautiful. And, it represented freedom and it was just juicy. I always wanted to experiment with graffiti. That weird graffiti script is such an interesting gesture, and using the spray paint and the airbrush to put in these symbols added some formal noise and narrative value to the story. Here, there is a snake and some muffins and a lotta these teeth things always come out, because I’m always dealing with food.

SY:  You’re talking about graffiti having this fluidity. That’s how you move the can, right?

DO:  It’s the nature of the medium! When you get moving in those big spaces with your arms, it’s just what happens.

SY:  Well, it’s cool to see that motion being brought into these canvases. I’m sure there are technical and formal qualities that you’re using in spray painting.

DO:  There are. I don’t see too many people using the spray paint as pointillist layering. The depth is built in. It’s kind of cheating.

SY:  So, you did one giant, massive painting.

DO:  The big painting for the Butler, which was 380 inches or something, and which I made in a space above Bonfoey Gallery that they let me use for free. But more recently, I made two commissioned paintings, ten and a half by twelve feet each.

SY:  Wow.

DO:  They were for the Aria Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. My husband built me a little airtight plastic studio within his parent’s garage. I worked in there for a whole winter, making these big paintings. That was a cool gig.

SY:  I’m kind of fascinated by your brushes, Dana.

DO:  I use a big range of brushes, from eight inches to the tiny little guys—twos and zeroes and double zeroes—and I work flat with these glazes. And then they go up and that gets sprayed, and then they’ll go flat again for under the loose oil painting. I like the pooling better than drips, because, you can see here, if I make these lines and they have the ridges when I pour the paint over it, the lines pop up through the paint.

SY:  There’s a ton of craftsmanship that goes into the paintings.

DO:  Definitely. Technique and all of that. It’s a medium. But, you know, I’m learning so much all the time and I had no idea it was gonna be like that…for the rest of our lives.

SY:  I think that’s the beauty about making art for your livelihood—to go through life curious, you know? I mean, what a cool thing to be able to do.

DO:  Oh, are you kidding me? Yeah. We’re the luckiest people on Earth.