Taking elements of the home into new dimensions

By Amanda Henry
Wisconsin State Journal

Somewhere between the worlds of art and craft, and light years from the planet on which Martha Stewart is stenciling her driveway with gnat blood, Bird Ross and Tom Loeser are taking elements of the home into new dimensions.

Their own abode near Lake Monona, which the couple shares with their three children, is adorned with multiple examples of Ross'work in textiles ranging from wearable art to teapots made with mittens, paper and doorknobs - and Loeser's carved and colored wooden furniture.

Their whimsical creations fit comfortably in a domestic setting, but both artists have a presence in their respective fields that extends beyond Madison to include national and international exhibits and publications.

In fact, their joint exhibit this weekend at The Project Room, 2053 Winnebago St., is both the first time the husband-and-wife team has shown together, and a rare opportunity to see a body of work by either artist in the town they've called home for the past decade.

For the "TTTTTTT Too Ours" show (hint: the name is a reference to the three-day exhibit's duration, in hours), Ross will display her teapots, handbags and baskets - all of which lurk behind a surface of such clever intricacy that the show's playful name looks obvious by comparison.

Ross has been fascinated with fabric for years, and first came to creative prominence for a series of jackets. Employing techniques that would later lend themselves to scarves, hats and, most recently, handbags, Ross stitched together layers of fabric, yards of thread and the occasional panel of netting to create one-of-a-kind apparel that defies the notion of patterns.

"It's taking something that exists, and manipulating it in a way that makes it more about my expression, " explains Ross. "That whole sort of transformation process is really interesting to me.

Although the base materials are similar, Ross sees little relation between her work and more traditional folk arts such as quilting.

"I couldn't quilt to save my life, unless it was about not matching things," says Ross. "It's more about a faster transformation, rather than one teeny little thing at a time."

Ross also enjoys making oddshaped baskets and other vessels out of fabric, though such traitsformations are less unexpected than her use of maps to make the airy, outlandish containers that are part of this weekend's show.

"They're functional, but I don't know how in the world anybody would use them," Ross says with a laugh. Whether because her constructions can be functional, or because they draw on materials not often elevated to gallery status, Ross finds that her work is at times regarded as a lesser form. This hierarchy of materials and placement is frustrating for Ross, who pours as much creative energy into her work as Pollock splattered onto canvases.

Then again, the tension between mundane and extraordinary is part of what motivates her.

"I really like playing with things that aren't necessarily precious, but hopefully making their value seem greater through the process they've been taken through," she explains. "Rather than starting with a blank piece of paper, I start with a piece that already has something on it."

Ross' basement studio is as littered with rich patterns and mysterious objects (reflecting the found-art bent of her teapot work) as a Byzantine bazaar, but a few blocks away, her husband's workshop is a spare, square space in which any toolwielding guy might feel at ease.

Loeser is currently on sabbatical from his teaching position at UW-Madison, where he heads the woodworking program, and has used some that time to prepare for the Project Room exhibit, pieces of which will travel on to Chicago and New York.

In contrast to the mercurial process of Ross' work, making a chest of drawers or wall cabinet requires slow, meticulous craftmanship, even before Loeser begins adding his signature carved and painted stripes or "piecrust" edges.

"It's a good year for me if I make 12 major pieces," Loeser explains.

Yet in spite of the simple, elegant outlines of Loeser's fumiture - much of it inspired by Shaker design, he says - it is the nontraditional color and omamentation that catch the eye.

The varying vertical and horizontal zebra stripes of Loeser's Pair of Drawers" suggest a diamond when placed next to each other, but each piece also has a complicated internal logic.

The drawers range in size from the absurdly narrow space Loeser calls the "chopstick drawer to one so chunky the spiral knob requires two hands.

The chests of drawers beg a closer look, and touch, but they are less puzzle-like than the wall cabinets Loeser made in the early '90s. By moving the St. i ped sur ace panel, a series of odd sized drawers are revealed. Sometimes as few as one drawer is accessible at a time.

"It's that whole notion of playing with how you access the internal spaces," says Loeser. I use a lot of sort of traditional, regular furniture forms and then I try to play with them, and sort of undercut people's expectations, so that when they're using them, they have to at least think about them."

This is especially true of his triple-faced clocks, in which the hour, minute and second hands have been set apart in their own spheres. For the spatially challenged, it makes the simple act of telling time an adventure.

That sense of play, and layering a mundane object with both visual and cognitive interest (Why does it look like that? How does it work?) is reminiscent of Ross' approach to making art out of everyday items.

The two artists also share an allegiance to the tactile. Games aside, Loeser's furniture retains all the supple pleasure of the mahogany he favors. To the eye, the hand-carved stripes have a pleasing irregularity; under the fingers they are marvels of milky smoothness.

Loeser admits that a house full of his work would be overwhelming - imagine wallpapering your living room with Picassos. It would diminish Ross and Loeser's concerted efforts to bring the ordinary to life by making ordinary objects a visual and conceptual revelation - like a clock with three faces or a teapot made of beads.

- from the Wisconsin State Journal, October 28, 2000.
  Copyright 2000 Wisconsin State Journal