For the past two years, Stephen Yusko has been avidly watching construction of the new Innerbelt Bridge across the Cuyahoga River in downtown Cleveland, not far from his metalworking studio.
“There’s been a lot of stuff happening, cranes all over the sky,” Yusko says, an excited-kid note in his voice. “I’m looking at these amazing structures, seeing how it’s all coming together – the structure pre-concrete, these rebar curves coming out, and then it all gets covered with concrete. From an artistic and aesthetic standpoint, I just find it so fascinating and beautiful.”
Industrial landscapes have inspired the 48-year-old artist all his working life. He’s interested in built things, their materials and underlying bones, all their individual parts and how those fit and function together. He brings this comprehensive vision to his own work, primarily elegant metal vessels and furniture that is meant, he says, to “embody clean lines and purpose.”
At a glance, a Yusko piece is strikingly simple and refined; look closer, and there’s a lot going on, depths of thoughtful design and exacting craftsmanship. Much of his work is about architecture. Cuyahoga Series Table: Bridge (2012) pays homage to the structure of its namesake, with graceful tapered steel legs that rise up on one end to form an arch and towers. Federal Box (2013) is loosely based on a skyscraper on the Cleveland skyline. Other vessels suggest the tiled roofs and upturned eaves of traditional Japanese houses.
Within each piece is some surprising, artful use of an industrial material Yusko has scrounged from a scrapyard, flea market, or farm sale, then reworked and combined with his own original forged elements. A forklift part becomes a sophisticated tabletop; a hunk of square steel tubing is transformed into a sculptural container. What interests him is not using a found object for its own sake, as a novelty. Rather, it’s seeing beauty in a found object and bringing that out in a fresh, imaginative way.
“I’m trying to invest found material with a craftsman’s aesthetic,” he says. “I love the idea of taking things apart and putting them back together in a different context. Like cutting a piece of threaded pipe, opening it up, and then forming it in the other direction, so that the horizontal threads wrap around vertically. Or taking a cool fitting and reforging it into something else. Or reforging a perforated steel plate into another shape, so that its pattern changes.”
He uses a broad range of hot and cold metalworking techniques to build his pieces, from blacksmithing to machining to fabricating. To color and texture his surfaces, he’ll paint, pound, puncture, or wire-brush the metal, even drag it across gravel or pavement, depending on the effect he wants. In every aspect, he strives for “a jewelry-like attention to detail, whether it’s a table or the wedding rings I built for myself and my wife.”
So precisely put together are his constructions that a professor once dubbed their integrity the “Yusko fit.” For Yusko, it comes down to a way of looking at the world. Always curious, he takes photographs of interesting details and compositions he sees in the world around him, collecting images in a sketchbook of forms, shapes, and ideas. He composes his shots with great care, “thinking about the whole frame, what’s on the outside edge of that photograph. It’s like thinking about a work in its entirety, considering all the angles and views: How does it look from behind and underneath and on the sides?”
He credits his ability to see things in both an analytical and a poetic light to his parents, hardworking Ohioans who, throughout his childhood, “always had houses that they were tearing apart and fixing up,” he recalls. “My dad is very mechanical, can build and fix anything. My mom never had any training in art, but she appreciates everything. She’ll be like, ‘Hey, look at that beautiful sky.’ He’ll be the one saying, ‘That’s beautiful – now let’s get going.’ I really got the best of both worlds.”
In terms of formal training, Yusko had what he now considers something of a dream metalsmithing education. He entered the University of Akron as an engineering major, realized midway that his grasp of physics was intuitive and hands-on (“I always liked the systems of things, not so much figuring out the math”), and switched to sculpture, with a minor in metalsmithing (and art history). As a young teaching assistant at Penland School of Crafts, he worked with some of the country’s finest jewelers and metal artists, and fell in love with blacksmithing. That led him to the Metal Museum in Memphis, where he spent several years as artist-in-residence at its smithy before leaving to earn his MFA in metalsmithing at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. By 1999 he was living in St. Louis and starting to hit his stride as an artist, while holding down a day job making mounts for shows at the Saint Louis Art Museum. He left SLAM in 2006 and spent a year working full time in his St. Louis studio.
In 2007, he came back to Ohio to become artist-in-residence at the historic Rose Iron Works, where he designs and builds limited-edition tables, candleholders, and other products, in addition to maintaining his own studio. The years since have been busy and fruitful, personally and professionally. He met Ruthie Coffey, a former ballet dancer originally from Ireland, and married her in 2011 in Deer Isle, Maine (“my favorite place to be”), in a ceremony performed by Stuart Kestenbaum, director of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. That same year, Cleveland’s Community Partnership for Art and Culture awarded him a $20,000 Creative Workforce Fellowship, which he used to fully equip his shop. When he’s not making art or renovating the “beautiful little Victorian” house he and Ruthie recently bought, he serves on Haystack’s board, does conference programming for the Society of North American Goldsmiths, and is a frequent guest teacher at Penland and other schools. (“It’s important for me to give back,” he says, noting that “while you’re giving back, you’re recharging.”)
He’s excited about the latest direction in his work, incorporating vessels into the furniture as drawers or other components. Manipulating metal “is an athletic event for your brain as well,” Yusko reflects. “You really have to think about it. It’s not just pulling out a piece of iron and beating on it. It’s about athleticism and balance and control – how you need to move and work with the material, but then how you work within yourself as well.” Baseball, especially, illustrates for him the mind-body connection so essential to hitting that creative sweet spot.
“I use baseball in a lot of my analogies for life,” he says. “When all of it’s clicking, there’s nothing more magical than making something really cool in your studio. Just like I’m sure there’s nothing cooler than being up to bat – you know, ninth inning, one guy on, you’re down by a run, and you crank this walk-off home run. What a buzz that’s got to be! You can get that buzz in the studio, when you get in that zone. In that moment, there’s no ending. You’re just there, and it’s over when it’s over.”
Stephen Yusko will have a solo show at the William Busta Gallery in Cleveland June 6 – July 26. Joyce Lovelace is American Craft’s contributing editor.