One result of the popularity of Arts Alive!-type events is that every business in town wants to get in on the picture (if you'll pardon the pun). I'm certainly an advocate for art in the county, but I question the value of this. Not every business is a good venue for art and the people who work in these places are not exactly trained at art exhibition. If you go into the Outdoor Store on the Plaza, for instance, you'll need a pair of binoculars to view the artwork that soars over the merchandise, somewhere near the ceiling. The good news is you can probably find a good pair there, but it's not really the greatest place for an artist to show their work. The argument might be that they don't have the wall space any lower, and perhaps the answer to that is that they should stick to selling outdoor gear.
It was in this frame of mind that I approached the fact that Almquist Lumber has created a regular art exhibit (although they have recognized the impossibility of participating in Arts! Arcata). Now I have a long, albeit indirect, relationship with Almquist. My husband is a woodworker and he used to be employed there. Now he just spends all of our money there. I've always loved browsing through their aisles of wood, but I was skeptical when they moved from Blue Lake to Boyd Road in the Giuntoli area and started exhibiting art in a corner of the store. Once I saw what they were up to, I was pleasantly surprised.
First of all, they have a dedicated space for it, which indicates a level of sincerity that I find lacking in some other venues. They are genuinely interested in showing off the work. Also, the art they exhibit is directed to their clientele, who are a more aesthetically sensitive crowd than you might at first guess. Many of the exhibiting artists are employees or regular customers of Almquist.
"The idea was to think about people we see all the time who are artists in the community," Don Ehnebuske, Almquist's general manager and the designated exhibit coordinator, explains to me. "We wanted to help our customers show some of their incredible work and help them succeed."
Many of the artists are woodworkers, but not all of the art is wood art. They have had painters in the past and are currently showing the work of Jason Lovitt, an HSU student and a sculptor. Jason is majoring in Industrial Technology and minoring in Studio Art, so his campus life is spent walking the fine line between functional and fine art. I think that's apropos for exhibiting at a lumberyard.
One of the pieces he's showing at Almquist employs a technique he's tried before. (He has a piece on the HSU campus in a similar vein.) A worker sits at a shaving horse using a drawknife. These are two tools that are not in use so much anymore, and that's part of the point. The worker's form is unusual in that it consists of a disembodied pair of hands that float over the work and a pair of pants and boots seated on the shaving horse. "The idea behind the fragmented body parts and the antique feeling," Jason explains, "is to bring back these forgotten work tools that got us to where we are today." It also has a personal connection, because the drawknife is Jason's favorite tool. "It's kind of an ode to the object, I guess you could say."
Also showing this month is Sandy Dardenelle, an intarsia artist. If you're a knitter that may bring to mind argyle socks, but intarsia is also a woodworking technique that employs small pieces of wood of varying colors and textures, fitted together to make a pattern. This is Sandy's first exhibit and it's been a great experience for her. "I needed some validation, and I've been getting that," she says. Sandy starts her process by haunting the aisles of Almquist. "I might look for something that reminds me of a river or of a cloud, whatever I'm looking for," she says. "Or sometimes I just see wood that has so much color and texture in it that I buy it and find a use for it later. That's the fun part, putting the wood together to make the picture I'm thinking of." Asked if she ever has trouble throwing small bits of wood in the fireplace, she admits, with a laugh, that she has an attic full of wood scraps.
Aside from the gallery that exhibits a rotating show, there are permanent works at Almquist. Steven Rice's company, Arcata Millworks, displays gorgeous doors using highly figured and colored woods. These are for sale (as is most of the artwork) but they try to keep some on hand at all times. Phil Burgess does rock work and wood sculptures, and his work is featured on the patio. A black orb water fountain burbles at the end of a rock path, studded with stone mushrooms. A six-foot-high mare and her foal, made of bits of wood, stand near the front door.
Many of Almquist's employees are crafters and artists themselves, as is James Smith (left). James is a graduate of HSU's art department and makes metal sculptures in his South G Street workshop when he's not cutting wood for folks at Almquist. His metal representation of the Almquist logo stands outside the front door. The main piece was torch cut out of steel and the frame is made of recycled materials. I particularly love this piece because of James' ability to make steel look as light and airy as lace.
I still maintain that a retail business should consider carefully the decision to display art. It just doesn't work in some places. The business should have a dedicated space and a compelling reason to exhibit artwork (not just to participate in the monthly party). It works at Almquist because of their enthusiasm for the work and the unusual kinds of art they display. It works because they are doing it for the artists.