She's Crafty

After three visits to Harmony Isle Gallery in Fort Lauderdale, I still found myself circling through the gallery again and again, picking up on items that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere when my back was turned. Was that piece really there a moment ago? Surely I would have seen it.

Or maybe not. Harmony Isle packs an amazing number of arts and crafts into its relatively tiny space. There's something to capture your attention wherever you look, and yet the gallery doesn't feel cluttered. On the contrary: Considering the volume of its inventory, it feels positively open and airy.

Now, I hesitate even to commit the phrase "arts and crafts" to paper. All too often the term connotes the kind of tacky stuff you find at so many outdoor street fairs: decorative toilet tissue holders, broad-brimmed hats gussied up as wall hangings, samplers embroidered with homespun sayings.

But there's no getting around it: Harmony Isle specializes in crafts. But these crafts -- most of them, anyway -- also qualify as art. Gallery owner Monica Maxwell is sensitive to the dilemma. While she acknowledges that the three-and-a-half-year-old gallery owes its existence to "a passion for fine crafts" and "an appreciation for handmade items," she's also aware of the dismissive attitude many people take toward such crafts. "People have different perceptions of what craft art is," she ventures.

We pause in front of a colorful selection of little blown-glass cups by Michael Sosin. To call them "mugs" would be to slight their exquisite delicacy, the intricacy of their decorative handles, and their graceful lines. I comment that, while it might make perfect sense to sip, say, tea from one of these pieces, the very idea seems inappropriate.

Maxwell agrees, even as she points out that "most of these artists encourage the use of their items," and she says a bottom-line question for many of her clients is, "Can I use it?" Some craft artists realize the awkwardness of their position, she says, and address it by turning out some items that are clearly functional, while creating other pieces that are more comfortably classified as art objects. A few larger (and much more expensive) pieces by Sosin in another part of the gallery have none of the ambiguity of his little cups.

A quote from Sosin alongside his work confirms this creative schizophrenia: "There is nothing quite as exciting as shaping and forming this hot material -- a material that you can never actually touch; and yet there is such a tender and intimate relationship with the medium." He's talking about the craftsmanship involved in working with blown glass, but he's also using the language of an artist.

Indeed Harmony Isle's neither-fish-nor-fowl quality may, in part, account for the gallery's success, which has contributed to the renaissance of the Gateway shopping district at the busy confluence of Federal Highway and Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. "There are not a lot of venues that offer craft arts," Maxwell says, referring not only to the immediate neighborhood but also to the Broward County art scene in general. (Maxwell's track record is all the more impressive when one considers that her background isn't retail or art but automotive marketing.)

The least interesting items in stock at Harmony Isle are typically the most straightforwardly utilitarian ones. Several cases of jewelry, for example, don't seem to fit in, and Lara Moore's various tables are not much more than an odd exercise in recycling wood and paper. An exception is a small glass-topped table by Loyd V. Jones, with its mangrove-inspired leaves and prop roots made from copper and brass. It is both practical and aesthetically pleasing.

But quirkier works abound nonetheless. Christine Kaiser, using scraps left over from her dad's woodworking operation, makes whimsical little music boxes adorned with strange creatures. Dean Lucker and Ann Wood have transformed what looks to be a small pinball machine into a "mechanical sculpture," framed, under glass, accented with images of some butterflies, bare trees, and a willowy woman holding a candle.

One window display case features works in glass by April Wagner and Jason Ruff. Their large hanging glass balls suggest renegade Christmas tree ornaments, while several small, freeform bowl-like pieces, in colors ranging from a creamy pink with a pale green rim to a brilliant orange set off by a blue rim, have undulating ridges reminiscent of the big glass sculptures by the renowned Dale Chihuly.

The large metal sculptures of William F. Golburn Jr. that dot the gallery have an appealingly exotic quality. Maybe it's their weathered look -- they're made of iron that has been allowed to rust. Or maybe it's the way they seem so out of place indoors -- a big sunflower sculpture clearly would be more at home in a garden, as would a nearly six-foot-tall piece that includes a sort of giant seedpod ringed by wavy petals.

A few pieces would be right at home in a more traditional fine-art context. A gorgeous round, flat piece by William Kidd, identified as "low-fired earthenware clay with multiple glaze applications," is more or less an abstract sculpture with dramatic swirls of purple and green. And the Lithuanian Dovile Pareikaite's silk wall hanging of half a dozen elongated, catlike creatures is essentially a museum-quality painting. ("We've had very little success with wall art," says Maxwell, who hopes to remedy that with an upcoming reception focusing on more traditional media.)

Harmony Isle rarely carries more than a handful of works by an individual artist, which allows it to showcase as many as 50 to 75 artists at any given time, Maxwell says. A smart move. One of the gallery's few mistakes is devoting too much space to Kurt Ruby, a third-generation coppersmith from Michigan whose turtles, fish, and sea stars have a numbing sameness.

Another smart move is Maxwell's decision to provide written information about each artist and his or her techniques, medium, and style, something even major museums and galleries often neglect to do. It also proved to be good business: Maxwell reports that her clients have come to insist that a copy of this written information be included with their purchases.

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Michael Mills