Mixed Without Match

Find a pretty something you can use at this Fort Lauderdale gallery

No doubt, Oscar Wilde would have hated Harmony Isle Gallery.

The man who so famously declared that "all art is quite useless" would find much to be appalled at in this little Fort Lauderdale gallery, which intentionally blurs the line between form and function. Harmony Isle specializes in craft art -- items that have utilitarian as well as aesthetic value. I'm not talking about the sort of glorified knickknacks readily available at so many street fairs and festivals but works that make you genuinely question whether you should put them in a display case or put them to use.

Beautifully carved, smooth slabs of wood, for example, that are ostensibly one-of-a-kind chopping blocks, made me wince at the thought of cutlery defiling their surfaces. And I couldn't imagine that some of the ceramic plates and bowls would ever be obscured by piles of pasta or salad greens.

Gary Schlappal's Tall Arch Form has gravitas
Gary Schlappal's Tall Arch Form has gravitas

On the other hand, I wouldn't hesitate to have a copper mangrove sculpture by Loyd V. Jones pressed into service in my home; it's a long, narrow, glass shelf with mangrove brackets holding it to the wall and a cluster of metal mangrove roots with leaves that conceal candleholders. Nor would I mind adding a fine chunk of Gruyère to Robin Katz's witty "Mouse Cheese Plates," which are each accented with a small black or white mouse.

Harmony Isle seems to have done quite well with its ambiguous art, most of which is by American artists. This month, in a town where fine-art galleries come and go at an alarming pace, this one celebrates its fifth anniversary. On my most recent visit, Aaron Maxwell, who owns the gallery with wife Monica, seemed both amazed and gratified to have survived so long in such an unstable environment.

When I first visited Harmony Isle more than a year and a half ago, I marveled at the volume of material the Maxwells had managed to cram into their relatively small space. I wondered how the gallery could retain such an airy, open quality. Not much has changed in that regard. There's still no sense of clutter, and once again, I found myself circling repeatedly through the place, picking up on previously unnoticed pieces with each pass.

The gallery still showcases some of the same artists it handled during my first visit. Glassblower Michael Sosin is represented by some colorful sugar and creamer sets outfitted with delicate handles. And there are still quite a few pieces by Jason Ruff and April Wagner, who have worked together with glass for nearly a decade. They create large, hanging, glass balls as well as tall, slender vases with ornate bases. Their brightly colored bowls with undulating ridges are like smaller versions of the large glassworks for which Dale Chihuly has become widely known.

But the Maxwells have also added some promising new artists to their lineup. Robin Rodgers, who grew up along the Apalachicola River in North Florida, makes large, imposing ceramic urns decorated with subtropical fauna. One has a ring of parrot and toucan heads around its upper reaches and is capped by a lid in the shape of a parrot head. Another uses flamingos in the same way. Rodgers contrasts the birds' bright colors with sections of matte dotted with small holes.

The South Africa-born Evette Weyers fashions porcelain into small mermaids in stylized poses, their creamy white human portions meshing with blue fishtails. For her "Women of Wisdom" and "Funky Fairies" series, coppersmith Deborah Flowers makes dreamy, wall-mounted figures with wiry hair and arms. Their mouths open to form big round o's.

A long, vertical power strip has been mounted on one section of wall to display the work of Joline El-Hai: whimsical nightlights she refers to as "luminettes." The simple subject matter includes a dog wearing a beret and playing an upright bass, a mermaid, a bumblebee, a cat, a dog bone.

According to the information posted next to the work -- the Maxwells provide such information on many pieces -- the lights start out as drawings in pastel, colored pencil, or watercolor crayon. The drawings are then photographed and transformed into color transparencies. The transparencies, in turn, are set in copper frames that have had a patina applied to them.

Among the most gorgeous glassworks are the large, round pieces by Peter Gudrunas, a Canadian who incorporates such things as powdered quartz, limestone, and sodium into glass before firing it. One piece resembles a cross between a plate and a bowl, with a deep indentation in the center and swirls of green spiraling out into the rich, blue glass. Another blood-red piece features similar swirls, and a luminous green plate has a casual crosshatch pattern embedded in it.

Two artists so thoroughly confuse form and function that their pieces are almost like small installations. New Englander Christopher Minot takes mirrors and pegboards with encased seashells or stones and places them in handcrafted wooden frames that are then given a milky finish. A note indicates that Minot takes his pegboards from salvaged antique doors.

Mark Orr also works with mirrors and recycled architectural elements to produce what he calls "scavenger art." One piece features a large, dramatically framed mirror with nine found objects hanging from its base, including a tiny padlock, a key, a clip-on earring, a watch face, and a domino. Another mirror has similar accents affixed to the wooden frame, including a car game piece from Monopoly, a Scrabble tile, and a small green die. Both pieces are topped with hand-carved birds.

Scattered throughout the gallery -- on the walls, propped on the floor -- are more traditional fine-art works by Orlando-based artist Maria Reyes Jones, whose career got boosts when she won first place at the Coconut Grove Arts Festival in 1998 and was commissioned to do the poster for the 2002 festival. Reyes works in acrylics, usually on paper, so some of her pieces have an almost metallic sheen.

Although she also paints animals, landscapes, and other subject matter, Reyes is probably best-known for her simple images of various kinds of palm trees, and all but one of the pieces at Harmony Isle are such "palm portraits." (The exception is a picture of a fat Anjou pear.) Reyes gets surprising mileage out of the quintessential South Florida tree by using subtle variations. Sometimes, she just varies the color of the background, from deep sky blues to sunset golds. Other times, she pictures the palms blowing in the wind. Some paintings are of solo palms, others of groupings.

The most dramatic departure from Harmony Isle's emphasis on craft art is a mixed-media piece by Gary Schlappal, with the generic title Tall Arch Form. It's a somewhat surreal combination of wood and ceramic; an iron-shaped wedge of blue ceramic is nestled in a hollow, rectangular space in the center of a large, oblong wooden box. The box has crude markings in black and brown over grayish blue; a small area that juts out to the right is painted white and covered with pale blue dots. The blue and white are a soothing contrast to the harshness of the rest of the box, and the blue picks up on the darker blue of the ceramic inset.

Schlappal's piece coexists a bit uneasily with the rest of Harmony Isle's inventory, but it also provides some gravity that's a welcome counterpoint to the gallery's lighter fare. Both Aaron and Monica Maxwell have mentioned to me that they occasionally host receptions highlighting the work of a single artist. I move that Schlappal be added to the list of nominees for a future reception.

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