Three artists at the crossroads of art and commerce

Three artists at the crossroads of art and commerce


As woodturner Betty Scarpino says (see right), “Be as creative with the market as you are with your artwork.” In this issue, we profile three local artists who have found their niche in the marketplace. These individuals invited us into their workshops to discuss the struggle to stay employed while they produce the products they’re compelled to create.

Pushing the limits:

Wood sculptor Betty Scarpino
Diana J. Ensign

Despite over 30 years of wood turning and exhibits in such prestigious museums as the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian, Betty Scarpino’s approach to art remains as earthy and practical as the medium with which she chooses to work. As she says, “When I was growing up, I didn’t even know what an artist was.”

She adds, “Once, early in my marriage, we visited a professor and his wife and someone asked her what she did for a living — I think just to include her in the conversation — and she said, in this rather haughty voice: I am an artist.” Scarpino shakes her head. “It was like she said she was from Mars. I didn’t relate to it at all. And I still have trouble relating to the title.”

Though she may not be quick to claim the title, the quality of Scarpino’s work speaks for itself, with exhibitions in galleries across the nation, a Creative Renewal Fellowship, numerous awards and international recognition. She admits, “I didn’t start off as an artist. But many people consider me one now.”

The evolution of wood turning

Scarpino explains that wood turning began with artist craftsmen in the ’70s making bowls. She says, “As these things happen, more and more people started doing this work and organizations formed: the AAW [American Association of Woodturners] and the WTC [Wood Turning Center].” She continues, “It’s similar to what happened in the glass and ceramics fields over the last 25 or 30 years, which came out of the craft field and into the art field. Photography is the same way.

“What helped me,” she adds, “was that it happened in the wood turning field at the same time I was in it.” Scarpino first became interested in wood turning by taking a night class in woodworking.

Eventually, she ended up with a degree in industrial arts with an emphasis on woodworking. As she notes, “In the ’70s, there was maybe one other woman in the field. In the late ’80s, there were more women. I was doing wood turning then, but I wasn’t a known name in the field. There are not very many women in the field even today, though we’re well-represented in exhibits.”

Art as a practical matter

Wood turning is lathe based. “Which basically means you stick a chunk of wood on a lathe and make it round,” she says. “But it’s also more than that.” Explaining why she focused on lathe work, she says, “I did lathe work because I had children, a family, and we moved a lot. It was inexpensive and I could do the work quickly.

“Around the same time, AAW formed. It’s like when everyone ends up in the grocery store at the same time. A movement started. I am very much a part of that direction, change and maturation in the field.” Traditionally, art departments have not accepted the lathe as a valid mode of expressing the self because it can only make things that are round.

Yet, Scarpino emphasizes, “If you can accept the limitation of lathe work and think of it as a challenge, then you can come up with many things people haven’t thought of with lathe turned objects.”

Blue nest egg vessels

What Scarpino came up with on her lathe were blue nest eggs. She says, “The making of nests and eggs came in a flash of inspiration. As I got to thinking about nests and eggs I thought of three things: a blue egg in a bowl; a blue bowl with eggs; and an egg-shaped bowl painted blue. I made one of these things and called it ‘Blue Egg Bowl.’” She adds, “Nest egg vessels became a metaphor in many ways.”

Scarpino says that it wasn’t until after the work was finished that she began to explore what it meant. “If I was trying to seem like an Artist, infallible, I would say I had an idea and I executed it. Art is often seen as idea based. But for me, it was a flash of inspiration, a gut feeling. Then later I researched why the ideas came.” She says, “I read Ahab’s Wife and went to see the author speak when she was here. She talked about presenting an egg to a friend and said it represented new beginnings.”

Scarpino researched further, asking, What does this piece represent about me, my work and my relationship to my work? What she discovered was that her work related to the changes in her body during menopause. “I missed that cycle. It grounded me and made me feel alive, and with that, you miss the eggs, shedding the eggs every 28 days. So, it dealt with fertility, new beginnings. The nest means home, shelter and family. But eggs and nests together are women’s bodies, a vessel. The ones I make are solid and full of life.”

She says with a grin, “I’ll give a slide show on my work and say, ‘These are my nest eggs,’ and women know I’m menopausal and want to know more about the eggs and the men in the audience may laugh, it makes them a little nervous. But they come up and want to know, too.” She laughs. “I’ve shocked the wood turning industry!”

Paying the bills

Even though well-established in her field, Scarpino must still contend with practical matters such as health insurance and mortgage payments. Divorced and living on her own, she does not have the luxury of a second income to help boost things along when the market is slow.

But, she says, “When I maintain enthusiasm and commitment, the way to stay in the field financially is always there. It’s really important to make that happen as well as the actual wood pieces. I truly believe the universe will give you what you need if you are committed to it. You may not always know you need it. Your life may take a direction that is not expected. A lot of things in my life happened that I was not happy about, but it was just what I needed at the time for my life to take another direction.”

She advises, “Be as creative with the market as you are with your artwork. Financially, it’s a struggle. But it’s a worthwhile struggle.”

Art is in the doing

Scarpino readily admits, “I don’t know what art is. I don’t know if it matters. It’s fun to discuss, but if you start adding words and definitions, you begin limiting yourself and it doesn’t leave you open to exploring the possibilities of something not previously considered art.” She says, “What inspires me is the process of working with my hands and actually creating. Something clicks in my brain when I work with wood — the smells, the feeling. It’s an allure. I could do other things, but I wouldn’t be as happy.”

Current work Scarpino recently completed a large sculpture, a private commissioned piece for a couple’s wedding anniversary. The wife commissioned the piece as a surprise for her husband. Scarpino says, “We talked at length about the institution of marriage and the piece represents their union and what it means to her. There are two boards, separate, yet they relate to each other. It’s 8 feet tall with 4-inch-thick boards. The title of the piece is ‘River of Decisions’ because anywhere you end up in life, you will end up there because of a river of decisions you made.”
For information on upcoming shows, public and private collections, and wood turning lessons, visit her Web page at Betty Scarpino’s recent work is currently showing at the Mark Ruschman Gallery located at 948 N. Alabama.

Meeting the deadline:

Gary Rittenhouse’s big art
Jim Walker

One look around Gary Rittenhouse’s airy pole-barn workshop and you know he’s never met a project too big or too strange to try. See bronze deer and a stone elephant parked under a mountain-view backdrop; a court jester is poised to leap from the mouth of a giant clown face. An orange and black tiger with its teeth bared, a giant rat whose eyes glow red, a soaring golden eagle, Humpty Dumpty in a bow tie, a diving dolphin. Shelves of eerie human faces hanging white below a shelf stacked with hands.

On the workbench: exploding blood bags and a prop head designed for the hatchet. In the workshop office: pictures of Gary on fire and running away from a burning car next to other pictures of floats he made for presidential inaugurations next to pictures of signs he made for the entrances to subdivisions.

“I’m just blessed that the phone rings,” Rittenhouse says, sitting at the drafting table in the workshop office located a couple hundred yards behind his house near Mooresville. “I get asked to do things I’ve never done before all of the time. So I guess that’s what I like about what I do.” And he does everything from cold-cast metal work, to scene painting, to stone work (real and fiberglass), to parade floats, to stunts and explosions for TV and movies.

“Common sense and physics are the only guidelines I have to abide by,” the licensed pyrotechnic says.

Mostly, he’s happy to be creating something as a way of making a living. After finishing art school in Illinois, Rittenhouse worked for a while in a factory before taking a job with a float-building company. He went on his own in 1986 when he was the only person bold enough to take on the task of building all of the statues for Union Station in a few weeks’ time. He found a warehouse, hired assistants and worked day and night, installing the ghostly figures of past station patrons the night before the grand opening. “Nobody else wanted to do it with that late of a deadline. I gave them a guarantee that, if I didn’t get it done, they didn’t have to pay me,” Rittenhouse says. “And dang if we didn’t get it done.”

Since then, his commercial art business has continued to grow. He has worked in seven states — including hospitals, golf courses and high-end neighborhoods. Many of his more recent statues were made from making molds of the faces and hands of himself, his wife and their three children. Along the way, he ventured into doing stunts and pyrotechnics for B-movies and television shows like Rescue 911. When that program came to record an episode in Indiana, Rittenhouse was challenged to make a car sink slowly into a body of water. He designed a remote-control compression unit. The television work he did was on the Hoosier Lottery Bingo commercial, where a woman plays the B-I-N-G-O song over and over on the piano while a wrecking ball busts up the place.

Getting paid to make things and bust things up. It doesn’t get much better than that. “There are a lot of talented artists out there who have to have another job to make a living,” Rittenhouse says. “I’m fortunate to get paid for doing what I enjoy.”

Metal has its own pace:

Derek Stiver, armorer
Paul F.P. Pogue

Derek Stiver disappears for hours on end into the basement of his Noblesville home. He works with a tenacity reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote, cutting, pounding, grinding, riveting, polishing steel and titanium pieces of body armor built in the medieval style. He’s done it for 15 years as a hobby; now he sells his work through his Web site, When he’s got guests, he’s like a kid set loose in a toy store. A very expensive toy store.

He eagerly shows off the pride of his tool collection, including a plasma cutter (“It superheats a jet of air to the third state of matter, which is plasma, and can cut through anything conductive as fast as you can draw a line”) and high-end torch (“Forty-five hundred degrees! Melted a piece of titanium once!”).

Off in one corner, a 20-ton hydraulic press just sits there. He built it last year for a coining project and hasn’t used it since. He had no idea how to press coins at the time, but figured he could work it out. He did. And in the event he ever wants to make coins again, there it is.

Stiver designed his house specifically to accommodate his family and a significant amount of shop space. At the time, he wasn’t even thinking of doing it commercially; it was his high-maintenance, equipment-intensive hobby. He’s got orders from all over the U.S. and Canada and one from Germany.

Right now, he has a backlog of about three months, and gets a few new orders every week, ranging from full suits to pairs of elbows. The jobs can take him anywhere from a weekend to several weeks. “I’m more concerned about the quality of the piece than with the time it takes to get it out,” he says. “I used to take a lot of time to do the actual shaping of the pieces, but I’m getting very fast at that. The real time consumer is taking a dull grey, scratched up piece of metal, looking like it came out of the mill, into a bright, shiny finished piece. Metal has its own pace. You just have to work at its pace.”

Titanium time

He started armoring recreationally in 1988 because he was interested in medieval history, through his time as a member of the re-enactment group the Society for Creative Anachronism. In recent times, he’s had more and more interest in people buying his work, and now supplies armor to members of several different living history groups. They’re used for such varied purposes as showmanship and ceremony, or for heavy duty simulated combat with heavy rattan sticks.

Stiver works to find a balance between modern needs and accurate medieval workmanship, and to that end he uses titanium as one of his primary materials. “I think that titanium gear, while being a completely non-period material, more closely duplicated the armor of medieval period than the thicknesses we use now,” Stiver says. “Actual medieval armor is not heavy, because it was very thin. It’s not practical to use such thin metals for what we do, because it has to take a lot of repeated blunt impact. But you can duplicate the weight with titanium.”

A family project

The armoring has become a family project, with Stiver’s wife Carol and his father Bob joining in on the work. Even Derek and Carol’s kids, Robert and Trevor (8 and 5 respectively), are eager to help. “It’s been good for us as a family enterprise,” Carol says. “Mostly I just help execute. I’m working on broadening my skill base.”

“It’s great that we’ve got something we all do together,” Stiver says. “Trevor ran up to me when I got home today and said, ‘I set a rivet! I set a rivet!’ Robert will do anything you want him to, because he just wants to be down there. He comes in and sweeps from time to time. It’s tough sometimes, because a lot of what we do is too dangerous to have them around. But it’s nice to get them involved when we can.”

Stiver’s armoring work, as with all his knowledge of tools and machinery, is completely self-taught. In his day job he’s a computer technician and former urban planner. “I read a lot. Does that qualify as self-taught?” he says. “The first and most important thing is to believe I can figure it out. Nothing that I’m doing has never been done before. It’s not a matter of inventing a new process; it’s just about going out and finding out how to do it.”

Of course, with all this electricity and gases and the third state of matter floating around, with no training whatsoever, there’s the issue of, you know — “How have I done it all without blowing myself up, you mean?” Stiver says with a broad grin. “I’m a limit setter for him!” Carol exclaims. “He wants to run a 220 outlet downstairs on his own. I’m the one who says, ‘Let’s call in the electrician!’” “I’m still gonna do it,” Stiver says. “No you’re not!”

We’ll leave that argument up to them. With a backlog of several months and no end in sight to the work, Stiver still finds the same enjoyment he did in 15 years of doing it on his own. “It’s scary when people will pay you to do something you would probably do for free.”

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