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Rhythm & Hues

Author: Judy Wade
Issue: December, 2007, Page 86
Photo by Brendan Moore

Artist Thomas Markusen sits in his Phoenix-area home surrounded by several examples of his metalwork, including 13 Wall Reliefs, copper oxide,
12" x 12" (back wall), and Floor Lamp, copper and brass, 62" tall x 24" wide.

THE WORK OF THOMAS MARKUSEN DEFINES METAL-SMITHING IN A WHOLE NEW WAY

Once you’ve seen the work of Thomas Markusen, you’ll recognize it anywhere. In his hands, copper acquires a fluid quality that fuses with forms, shapes and patinas. The results are pieces that are collected by individuals, galleries and museums.

His work runs the artistic gamut, from a line of holloware that includes candlesticks, bowls, platters and vases, to giant one-of-a-kind wall plates and small pieces of furniture. How Markusen got to this point is a story that spans decades.

“I did ornamental architectural blacksmithing for about 10 years in the 1970s, and I began to find the colors of the metals somewhat restricting. It was either black, gold or silver. So I did some jewelry in copper, bronze and brass, and around 1976, I decided to apply blacksmithing techniques to working in copper,” he recalls. Knowing that copper is a reactive metal, Markusen realized he could make it almost any color he wished.

Markusen’s creations first appeared in Arizona in the early 1980s, and now they are showcased at LeKAE and Pinnacle galleries, both in Scottsdale. LeKAE Gallery co-owner David Sherer says he “acquired” Markusen when he purchased the gallery 10 years ago. “The uniqueness of his work attracted us. It isn’t static,” he observes. “He relies on different finishes and shapes, then softens his work with hammering and shaping.



Top: Folded Rim Wall Plate, copper oxide and gold leaf, 36" in diameter

Bottom: Folded Angular Dish Candleholders, copper oxide, 7" tall x 6" deep x 12" long; 10" tall x 7" deep x 10" long; 13" tall x 9" deep x 14" long (front to back)
For example, a copper bowl balanced on a cast-bronze stand is pierced with cutwork that enables light to filter through. The technique adds to the unexpected airy appearance of the piece. A wall sculpture employing copper screen and wire seems to change color as the viewer moves; and a design that looks like a partially crushed drainpipe has unusual folds in the center of the metal. Formed from a single piece of nickel-plated copper, it is one of several “drainpipe” vases finished in various colors.

Joanne Hildt, who owns Pinnacle Gallery along with husband Peter, was drawn to Markusen’s art by the quality of craftsmanship and the uniqueness of the designs. “His candleholders are very, very good sellers. There are no candleholders out there that are as substantial-looking and as interesting and on the scale of his,” she says.

Perhaps Markusen’s most famous piece was part of the White House Collection of American Crafts; assembled in 1993, it featured some 70 pieces by craftsmen from around the country. The exhibit went to the Smithsonian Institution, then traveled the United States for five years.
 
Collections of this sort usually end up in the library of the president who was in office at the time. “So my candleholders are there [in the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Arkansas],” according to Markusen. “They actually were used in different places around the White House during the three-month White House exhibition, and at one time were on the mantelpiece of the State Dining Room, next to Abraham Lincoln’s portrait,” he says.

Markusen’s work can be found in private collections as well. Scottsdale resident Colleen Gold purchased her first objects about 25 years ago and has continued to acquire more. She says they complement her Contemporary Southwest decor perfectly. “I love copper, and I really like Contemporary art,” she comments. One of her favorite Markusen pieces is a floor lamp. She also has candleholders, planters and small cocktail tables that were custom-made. Several wall pieces and a grouping of masks round out the collection.

Markusen and his wife, Mary, divide their year between Arizona and Rochester, N.Y. After a 30-year career teachingmetalwork and sculpture at the State University of New York at Brockport, he retired in 1998—the year the couple purchased a home in Arizona.                                                               



Top: Vase, copper oxide, 22" tall

Bottom: 5 Wall Bowls, pewter oxide, 12", 16", 20", 24" and 30" in diameter (from small to large)
Does Arizona’s reputation as The Copper State have anything to do with the couple’s choice of residence? Markusen reflects: “I think maybe so. The big thing was the color of copper, and the color of Arizona with its sun and lighting . . . the same things that other artists have found about Arizona. The lighting is so amazing, constantly changing, and colors are so strong and dynamic that I think [a move to Arizona] always was in the back of my mind.”

Markusen says he and his wife were “blown away” by the natural beauty of Arizona’s Tonto Hills area, between Cave Creek and Carefree. They found an early-1960s home designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. “We weren’t going to buy a fixer-upper, but this was a no-brainer,” Markusen laughs. Wright was on Markusen’s radar because the artist at one time trained as a gold- and silversmith at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, near Spring Green, where five Wright-designed structures are part of Taliesin.

Yet Wright’s influences on his work are subtle. “I do draw on the philosophy, the attitude and Wright’s theory of design and music . . . the quarter note, eighth note, the half note. That kind of rhythm, I think, underlies a lot of my work.”

One of the overarching tenets of Mark-usen’s art is to “create a beautifully handcrafted item that can be enjoyed by more than a select few.” This principle came into play early on in the artist’s career. “At Brockport, I felt my students weren’t getting the opportunity to learn how to survive as artists. They were talented people who knew little about business,” he recalls.

So in 1976, when he started making copper candleholders that were small sculptures but also functional, he set up a studio where he could employ students. The idea was to help them blend discipline with artistic talent to become entrepreneurs. “Art was becoming a business just like anything else. If you wanted to be self-employed, you had to know how to observe and understand the market, how to make things in a price range that people could afford, as well as see the value in a piece,” he says.



Clip Bowl—Crested Saguaro, copper oxide and brass clips, 12" tall x 15" wide
Some of the objects at LeKAE Gallery, for example, are things designed by Markusen that students and artisans from his studio may have made, with Markusen doing the finishes. This ties in with his belief that art should be accessible to all members of the public. If each piece were created entirely by Markusen, the price range would be beyond the reach of many.
 
A second group of work includes Mark-usen’s limited-edition pieces, usually done in series of 12 to 20. He also does custom items. The collection he will develop and create this winter in Arizona is called the Markusen Metal Signature Collection. “Works will be custom, including some cast pieces and some furniture. That’s a kind of transition for me,” he notes. The series will feature several metals, including copper, aluminum and brass.

Whatever he chooses to call it, there seems to be little doubt that eager Markusen fans will welcome this next phase of the artist’s creativity.

An exhibit of Markusen’s work opens at LeKAE Gallery on Jan. 24 and continues for at least 30 days.
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