Art With Purpose

Art can be usable as well as beautiful.

By Morgan Dinsdale

Art Scene

Lotus was blown by Laurie Thal with etching by Dan Altwies. Courtesy Laurie Thal

IT’S A HOT June day, and the sun is beating down on Laurie Thal’s studio off Teton Village Road. A glassblower whose work has been shown at the Smithsonian and gifted by the U.S. government to foreign dignitaries, Thal often has more than one hundred pounds of liquid glass heated to extreme temperatures in her colorful studio. She has invited me to watch her work before she closes up for summer. It’s incredible to watch her create, but the heat is getting the better of me. I’m beginning to understand why she chooses not to blow glass in the summertime.

Noticing the beads of sweat starting to appear on my forehead, Thal invites me into the shade of her home. Reaching toward one of the many shelves lined with stemware—all made by her, of course—she passes me a recently finished water glass that is clear with a blue swirl winding through it. The pattern reminds me of a cool breeze.

Thal’s art is present in every corner of her home—from stained-glass panels bouncing colorful rays around her front entry, to vases with freshly picked flowers, and a fruit bowl holding apples and pears in the center of the kitchen table. All of her work, like this water glass, is beautiful, but elevating it further is the purpose and practicality behind every piece.

A collector would never wear these Northern Arapaho beaded moccasins available at Fighting Bear Antiques, but when they were made, circa 1890, they were meant to be worn. Photograph Price Chambers

A collector would never wear these Northern Arapaho beaded moccasins available at Fighting Bear Antiques, but when they were made, circa 1890, they were meant to be worn. Photograph Price Chambers

FUNCTIONAL ART CAN be found throughout Jackson Hole. The remarkably inclusive genre encompasses everything from furniture to lighting, jewelry, and clothing—anything that fuses the beautiful with the practical. Does the art inspire the function or the function the art? It is a question I find myself continually asking on my quest to uncover some of the valley’s best functional artisans and art.

For Thal it’s a mixture of passion and practicality for any given piece. “I start in my own home,” she says of finding inspiration for new pieces. “I envision ways to incorporate something new into what already is and then I let the creative process flow organically. I envision it like a dance as I move. I have these programmed steps, but I don’t count them out, I just flow with the glass.”

Having mastered the art of glass blowing over the past twenty-six years, Thal’s delicate bowls, vases, glasses, and larger architectural pieces are exquisite. Her work has been exhibited and collected locally and internationally. In 2009, President Obama presented her Peacock vase, a collaboration with glass etcher Lia Kass, to then-prime minister of India Manmohan Singh. Captivating and unique, Thal’s work could happily be displayed as part of a collection on a shelf, but instead finds itself used in everyday life. “I like to make things that are gorgeous and one of a kind, but not everybody can afford to buy things that are merely pretty, so it’s nice to make things that people can use, too,” she says while spinning out another piece. “I like it when people drink out of my glasses every day.”

SPECIALIZING IN RUSTIC furniture, Terry and Claudia Winchell’s Fighting Bear Antiques has an impressive collection of historical functional art, including American Indian and Navajo beadwork, rugs, and textiles, and furnishings by Thomas Molesworth, the man credited with popularizing the genre of “cowboy furniture” in the early 1900s. The pieces on display are both stunning and practical, conjuring up images of the West’s American Indian and cowboy roots. In the gallery’s hand-beaded moccasins, leather cattle ropes, and horsewhips, you can see the use they’ve endured.

Teton Art Gallery has pendants made from Old No. 8 Spiderweb Turquoise and also silver necklaces with an outline of the Tetons. Photograph by Price Chambers

Teton Art Gallery has pendants made from Old No. 8 Spiderweb Turquoise and also silver necklaces with an outline of the Tetons. Photograph by Price Chambers

Placing a well-used, and beautiful, leather saddle back down on its display, the turquoise ring on my finger inspires the next step in my search for functional art. Here in Jackson Hole, there are a number of jewelry shops to choose from. At Teton Art Gallery in Gaslight Alley, owners and artists Karla and Gerard Kindt have made and sold one-of-a-kind rings, necklaces, and bracelets for the past twenty years. They take complete control over the creative process, from cutting the stones to designing each piece and the actual metalsmithing. “I’ve never heard him say ‘no,’ ” Karla says about Gerard while wrapping a set of Wyoming opal earrings. “Being in total control of the creative process means he can make almost anything you can dream up,” she says.

From elk ivory rings to fordite earrings and turquoise leather cuffs, Teton Art Gallery seemingly includes every stone and material known to man. They are especially known for their wide range of Teton-inspired bracelets and pendants that you’ll see locals wearing all over town. I count three mountain bangles as I cross the Town Square on my way to Hide Out Leathers, a block and a half away.

Walking into Hide Out, the scent of leather is overwhelming. Row upon row of custom leather jackets, vests, boots, belts, and bags pack the intimate boutique. Some designs are classic cowboy. Others are over the top with Western flair. Owner Jamie Lavenstein assists a man with jackets. “If you love that one, we can have it made in a 56 tall, no problem,” she says. “But if you like this style, we have that size in the back.” Lavenstein is one of many reasons Hide Out Leathers is among the oldest stores on the Town Square. Another reason? Each piece it carries is of the highest quality, handcrafted, and unique: supple hand-stitched venison purses, fire truck red leather shawls, and hand-painted moccasins.

Fighting Bear Antiques co-owner Claudia Winchell throws a Native American blanket over a circa-1930 John Wortz elk antler settee. Photograph by Price Chambers

Fighting Bear Antiques co-owner Claudia Winchell throws a Native American blanket over a circa-1930 John Wortz elk antler settee. Photograph by Price Chambers

KYLE ANDERSON, OWNER of Game Trail Gatherings, uses natural elements, primarily antlers, to create home furnishings and accents. Originally from Georgia, Anderson has lived and worked in Jackson Hole for more than half his life. His passions for hunting and being outside are present in all of his work. “I quit trying to defeat things and let them work for me,” he says of working with antlers. “They provide the perfect medium to convey my appreciation for the natural world around me.” Alongside antlers, Anderson uses driftwood, stones, and bones in his work, which includes lamps, tables, chairs, and wine-bottle holders.

WHILE THE ABOVE boutiques, galleries, and studios are open year-round, and often highlight local artists, a four-day conference in September draws functional artists from around the world to the valley. The Western Design Conference, Sept. 10-13 this year, includes Western home furnishings, accents, fashion, and jewelry. An exhibit and sale, all participating artists must make it through a rigorous jury selection process. Typically, about one hundred artists make the cut. While the conference’s name is the Western Design Conference, owner Allison Merritt takes an expansive view of Western, deciding to define it as everything from over-the-top knobbled pine furniture to simpler, natural organic forms and materials. One area where Merritt does not budge? “Everything has to be as usable as it is beautiful,” she says. “Our artists never seem to have a problem melding the two.”

| Posted in JH Living
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