Filling multiple roles in his creative life, artist, sculptor and wordsmith Ron Isaacson has most recently sculpted creatures that inhabit a world of his own making. An early adopter of the Creative Re-Use concept, Ron sculpts bird-like beings and their environments from reclaimed materials, even writing their avian backstories in Amazar Tales. After running prominent galleries and promoting other artists’ work in addition to his own, he wandered the country in an Airstream motor coach with his mini studio and motorcycle in tow. When Ron found Colorado, he found his creative home.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path?
Most children are born into the world with inquisitive minds that drive them to explore and challenge their experiences. The worlds of wonder they encounter are full of strange creatures with new sounds that buzz in the air, textures, shapes and forms to touch, colors that delight the eye as well as smells to tempt the senses. I was one of the fortunate ones, growing up in the 50’s without the distractions that face children today. My parents did not squash that natural curiosity or dampen my creative spirit.
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My grandfather on my mother’s side was a tailor who designed and stitched together wondrous coats of fur, leather and textural fabrics. And my grandmother was a poet, a writer of tales and a woman who found wonder in exploring museums. She shared what she discovered with my older sister and me. My father’s father started as a junk dealer, pulling a horse cart through the streets. Together with father they owned a plumbing supply yard on Chicago’s south side. So immigrants-turned-entrepreneurs was my family’s legacy.
I was a child who colored outside the lines, exploring environments of my own making. I spent my time building strange objects from cast offs in the junkyard rather than playing sports. There was a time in high school I was caught carving designs in my wood desk during biology class. My teacher sent me to the principal’s office. Then my mom was called into school. When we went up to the classroom to see the damage I caused, my mom said, ”I guess you’re going to be an artist when you grow up!”
How have you evolved as an artist?
Blessed or cursed with being both right and left brain oriented, I see life through a different lens than most. I see possibilities and solutions that often escape others. Throughout my career I’ve been described as a catalyst. So people see me as someone unafraid to put forth a vision or gather components to bring an idea to life.
After getting a degree as an Arts Educator, I taught art at a Jr. High school. Not content with teaching standardized curriculum, I then opened up my own art school. I taught ceramics, drawing, photography and metal working to adults. Within a year, “Artisan: A Center for Discovery in the Arts” added teachers so I could spend time in the studio. I could then create my own sculptural works and participate in art fairs throughout the Midwest.
I had been showing my sculptures at art festivals since I was fifteen, winning various awards along the way. Then at sixteen I got a job with a local department store creating captivating merchandise displays. I learned the value of integrating creativity, storytelling and marketing in a successful retail environment. While in college my part time job was the Assistant Creative Display Director for a large chain of regional department stores.
My storefront art school had good window exposure with a bus stop out front. The works of art teachers, fellow artists and students adorned the walls and shelves. Because I knew how to attract audiences to look through a store window, I decided to create a gallery-like environment. I wanted to pull people in and generate sales. Months passed and soon my lease was coming up for renewal, so I had some choices to make. Was I an art teacher or a working artist? Should I continue the art school or close it and open a gallery?
Many artists have a dream to create a small gallery to showcase their pieces and pay the rent, enabling them to have a working studio in a back room or basement After a lot of research and planning, I opened “Mindscape Gallery” in a 1,000 square foot storefront in Evanston, Illinois.
During that first year, the gallery built a following. I showcased the works of fellow artists in the front while I had my sculpture studio in the back. As the months passed, my studio time grew shorter and the gallery space grew larger. The gallery was becoming my art form. It was a living, breathing sculpture which, during its 30-year existence, grew into two 10,000 sq. ft. galleries. We had a staff of 26, representing thousands of cutting-edge artists in contemporary American studio art glass, textiles, jewelry, clay, wood, sculpture and mixed media. I nurtured artists, educated and cultivated groups of collectors and developed a corporate art division that sold to corporate collections as well as art for public spaces. My efforts generated millions of dollars in sales to help artists’ studios thrive.
From the 1970’s to the early 90’s, Mindscape was was voted as one of the top 10 Contemporary American Fine Craft Galleries in the country numerous times. As a gallery owner, I became a sought-after Arts Marketing Consultant; so I sat on the boards of some leading arts publications and organizations. I was part of an Arts & Economic Development team that included the Director of the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, The Director of Arts and Crafts division of the Department of Indian Affairs in DC as well as other leaders in the American Fine Craft Movement. For years we consulted nationally with organizations building sustainable arts communities and programing.
In the late 90’s changes in the economy, in the gallery world and in the demand for affordable, well-designed, mass-produced products and home furnishings created a shift in consumer spending away from one-of-a-kind items. As a gallery owner, thousands of artists depending on me to keep their studio doors open became a heavy burden.
As a creative entrepreneur, once again I was at a crossroads. So I looked deeply into what stirred my passion and goals as an artist. I chose to sell off or close segments of the gallery. Then I opened a small sculpture studio in my garage to do my own work.
How has your environment influenced your creativity?
In 2002 I built my dream studio. It was large 4-car garage/loft sculpture studio attached to my home in the Northern suburbs of Chicago. I designed it specifically to facilitate welding, forging and fabricating small and monumental sculptures from found objects and recycled steel. I had a fenced-in junkyard of components for future use as well as a sculpture garden to display my creations. Many happy hours were spent there while I followed my passion.
But that dream came to an end along with my relationship of 35 years. A pending divorce motivated in-depth reflection of what defined me as a human being and an artist. Who was I? What brought me joy? How did I wish others to perceive me? How would I channel my creative spirit? All major questions that demanded investigation before I could mentally move forward.
I decided to embark on a Grand Adventure, giving away and selling off my studio fixtures and supplies. I cashed in my 401K and bought an old 1983 Airstream Motor Coach. Keeping what I could carry I hit the road, discovering answers to questions that plagued my days and nights.
There was no way to carry welding equipment, anvils and mounds of scrap metal on my journey. But buried on a shelf in that garage loft was a box I hadn’t opened for 30+ years. That box would change the direction of my art.
I mentioned earlier that my grandfather had been a tailor of fine leather apparel. When I was a young boy, I visited his home in Florida and spotted dust-covered boxes under a tarp that also covered an old industrial sewing machine in the corner of his garage workshop. Inside were wrapped bundles of fur and leather. There were segments of Cheetah hide, fox, bear, deer and elk, as well as a bag of needles, blades, punches and threads. He took them out, talking to me about the spirit of the animal that remained in the leather. He believed in honoring the animal who gave its life to clothe us and keep us warm. Then he gifted me those treasures and taught me to sew on that machine. He taught me to punch, pull and stitch leathers into all sorts of marvelous things.
That box held those treasures and the remnants of other creative ventures I’ve had as an artist working with leather.
Allow me to share a little backstory with you. In the sixties during the summer of love, I lived in a closet under a big winding staircase of a stately old Victorian house in Berkley, CA. Artists selling their wares were on the streets. A few leather workers making leather headbands, chokers, bracelets and fringed bags were among them. I joined their ranks that summer and then returned to Chicago for college.
Ever the dumpster diver, I discovered a number of leather tanneries not far from the Chicago stockyards. They processed leather for shoe factories and garment manufacturers, rejecting hides with uneven dyes, brands and blemishes. I made a deal to sweep the floors at some of those tanneries at night; in exchange, I could keep the scrap leather I found on the floor. Repurposing those scraps, I created my own line of headbands, fringed leather vests and bags. I sold my creations to numerous “head shops” in Old Town Chicago. The profits from that venture helped pay my college tuition.
Back to that box… Looking at its contents sparked creative possibilities for my Grand Adventure. I could create one of a kind leather journals, landscapes and other items in my mobile studio. I recycled leather clothing I found at garage sales or resale stores. Then I sold my creations to gift shops or at fairs as I traveled across the country.
For most of a year and 4,000+ miles, I wandered the Midwest and Eastern US in my Airstream motorcoach. I pulled a trailer that held my motorcycle and art studio while pondering the questions that would change my life. I turned west planning a brief stop in the foothills above Denver to visit some cousins. Then I planned to continue on to California.
I’ve referred to myself as an artist, a sculptor, an entrepreneur and creative spirit. I’m also a writer, author and musician. In the summer of 2011, I arrived in Evergreen, Colorado, a small mountain town with an active, welcoming creative community. One rainy day I sat on a mountainside overlooking Evergreen Lake in remnants of an ancient forest while playing my harmonica. The July monsoon rains gathered and quickly moved on.
While I contemplated the next step on my Grand Adventure, my inner voice whispered … I could search on the road for another year to build a new life in a place like this. So, I found a spot to park the Airstream. I rented a tiny cave-like studio apartment in the stone walled basement of a vintage home overlooking the town. With a big stone fireplace next to a small bathroom, I had just enough space for a chair, bed and workbench for my leather studio.
My Grand Adventure included despair as well as a heightened sense of self-awareness. That finally brought focus and understanding to what was important in my life. I began to make friends within the creative community. A series of events connected me with an amazing woman, a soul mate. She had lived in the mountains since the mid 80’s, and I’m honored to share my life with her.
She welcomed me into her home, a simple structure I refer to as a tree house. It was built on the side of a mountain, surrounded by hundreds of acres of open space and primal forest. Walls of large windows on every level welcome the sun and changing seasons. Regular visits by fox, deer, elk, as well as an occasional bear, pass by the window in front of my studio workbench. The sky fills with birds of every species, hawks, eagles and seasonal flocks of hummingbirds. The freedom in this mountain retreat, with space to fabricate my leather pieces, allowed me to develop more sculptural works. My creative spirit thrives, while giving birth to an ongoing series of Amazar Avians.
Why sculpture? How does that medium best express what you want to communicate through your art?
As a kid I wanted to learn magic. I practiced making objects appear and disappear, but I wasn’t very good at it.
I was one of those kids who loved to build things and actively participated in forming something from a pile of random components. Seeing something evolve from concept to completion became a thrilling process for me. The interplay of light and shadow, positive and negative space, the flow of forms, contrasts of textures that surround us in nature and the built environment still fascinate me.
In high school I took 4 years of drafting, thinking I could have a career as an architect. I took sculpture classes at the Art Institute of Chicago as well as pottery classes at local community centers. I’ve carved and chiseled wood, stone and marble and a multitude of odd materials. I’ve thrown pots and worked clay as well as blown, pulled, shaped and manipulated hot and cold glass. I have cut, stitched, dyed, stretched and stuffed a wide range of textiles and fabrics. And I’ve welded, fused, cut and assembled every type of metal. Hours at a blacksmith forge attuned my heartbeat to the rhythms of my hammer bending and shaping hot steel. I’ve created intricate jewelry and fabricated monumental outdoor sculptures.
I’ve discovered I prefer an additive rather than subtractive sculptural process. It allows me to remove and add new elements while I develop a concept and bring an idea to life. I get lost in the process of creation while a sculpture unfolds on my workbench as if by magic.
Are there recurring themes in your work? What is it about a subject that inspires you to continue exploring it?
I consider myself an EcoArtist, one who practices the concept of Creative Re-Use.
As an arts activist and catalyst for change, I join other creative thinkers who see beyond now, imagining the possibilities. I look to inspire others to rethink current ways of living and work towards sustainability and renewal. Society must embrace a circular economy. Extending the life of manufactured goods while avoiding products and packaging that end up in landfills is vital.
My Amazar Avians embody those concepts and inspire making and telling tales that offer hope about a different way of living. Created from deconstructed, recycled vintage leathers, this series of Eco-sculptures received acclaim from local, national and international arts communities. It has given me the opportunity to reach the public through exhibitions/installations, seminars, stories and workshops that promote Creative ReUse.
How did your Amazar Avians come to be and how do you decide what to make next?
Before I set out on my Grand Adventure, my last sculptural endeavor involved a series of large outdoor floral gardens fabricated, welded and fused from a variety of metal found objects. Making the transition to working with recycled leather was a significant change. Not constrained by typical definitions of leather art, I named my studio “Unbound Leathers”. As a sculptor creating unique journals, I layered contrasting textures, organic shapes and landscapes on leather sleeves. These became removable jackets that fit around standard size sketchbooks and lined journals. Eventually my creations became increasingly more three-dimensional as I began fabricating and fashioning floral images on the journal covers.
I’ve created flowers from various materials over the years, fabricating, bending and shaping floral components. Taking scissors to leather allowed more delicate, intricate, free flowing and curvilinear cuts; I could fashion exotic petals, sepals, peduncles, leaves and stems in contrasting textures and colors. I created hundreds of floral components at a time, working till my hands cramped from using my scissors.
Then one day I looked down at my workbench and noticed a few petals had a very feathery look and feel.
I’ve collected feathers since I was a boy. Finding a feather on the ground was like a special gift from a magical creature. Those rare moments of spotting a feather twisting and turning as it floated down from the sky was wondrous. I’ve long admired the creative use of feathers in tribal art and in ancient rituals. Days of experimentation in creating feathers lead to a new body of work. The image of a single feather floating free or waiting to be found held special meaning for me; it dovetailed well with my own journey of discovery. A lone feather would adorn a series of “Letting Go” Journals, floating from above on a series of leather landscapes.
As a sculptor, I’ve fashioned many creatures and critters. To populate my leather landscapes, I created an array of patchwork leather butterflies and dragonflies, but not birds. So, I began to research the anatomy of birds and how other sculptors portrayed them. I concluded that I had no interest in recreating anatomically correct birds; instead, I wished to create a new winged species that embodied the essence of bird’s movement, grace, power and beauty.
Like many artists who utilize salvaged and recycled materials to create their sculptures, I constantly search for hard-to-find components. I stockpile them so they’re available when needed to bring forth a desired element of form and expression. I needed components to fashion my Avians’ body parts, so I began a never-ending quest for beaks, legs and eyes.
It was summer and flocks of hummingbirds surrounded our mountain home. At a neighborhood garage sale, I discovered a fistful of assorted knitting needles; their tapered forms called out to me as perfect for a flock of Long Beak Hummers. A red glass chill pepper necklace found at an estate sale became curved beaks for a family of owls. At another estate sale a box of calligraphy nibs and old metal drafting pens became beaks for a flock that I would later call Amazar Avian Wing Writers. My imagination soared.
Other components became easier to find. Fondue and barbeque forks make great bird legs. The tines can bend into claws that grab fabricated tree branches or stabilize Avians in a variety of positions. Recycled salvaged wood bowls, thread bobbins, wine corks, bits of wire, handles of odd tools and other finds began to occupy bins around my studio, waiting to be plucked for use as armatures for body parts, wings and heads.
I sorted my trove of leathers by color or texture and how the leather would be cut, curled or fashioned into different sizes and shapes of feathers. Making journals was no longer a priority. Birds soared through my imagination. Small Avians a few inches long flew above my workbench. Large ones exceeding two feet tall with wingspans a yard wide found perch throughout our house.
I’ve often been referred to simply as an artist dumpster diver who transformed junk into artwork. To support my efforts, I generally created work with an eye toward sales. In my twenties I did create a series of metal sculptures titled “Why Me?” They included small bronze figures with an arm raised high in a fist or seated with head in hands contemplating what was happening in my life. I marched and rallied for causes I believed in, created banners for peace and championed the rights of others. But my life as a social activist rarely crossed over into the imagery of the sculptures I created.
Comfortable in my mountain home, I began to examine my goals as an artist and the legacy of my work. In my sixties the concepts of sustainability, recycling and renewal were active topics for discussion. The pending crisis of Global Warming loomed large. Concurrently, the art world had grown more accepting of the type of sculptures I was making. Terms like Eco Art and Creative Re-Use redefined and added acceptance of found object art in the public eye.
As my Avians gained attention, I began to actively promote the concept of Creative Re-Use. I co-curated and participated in gallery exhibitions featuring other artists using recycled materials. In addition, I began conducting talks and leading seminars on the topic. As my message gained a following, I realized I could merge my passions as an activist, artist, writer and storyteller.
Can you tell us more about Amazar Tales?
Fans and collectors of my Amazar Avian sculptures, Forever Gardens and leather landscapes encouraged me to share my stories, poems and profiles of exceptional Avians from Amazar. So, I created Amazar Tales, a developing series of illustrated stories, books and video blogs.
Tales of adventure involving anthropomorphic animals fascinate me. These are animals capable of communicating emotions, wants and desires and animals helping and befriending humanity. I read them for my own enjoyment and created stories to tell my daughter as she grew up. They helped shape how she related to others and the world around her. Developing Amazar Tales was my opportunity to create a series of stories with a message I wanted to share with a wider audience
I pondered the idea and outlined the concept with a few close friends. Then I stepped away from my studio workbench for a few weeks and sat at my computer. Then I created a complex storyboard for the realm of Amazar. It told of flocks of unique, exceptional Amazar Avians with special attributes. They would become central characters on an important mission. I decided that each of my new Amazar Avian sculptures would play a part in a series of Amazar Tales, stories crafted to bring attention to the waste and destruction facing our planet; stories of people feeling lost and alone and stories that offered hope for better tomorrows.
I believe in the powers of natural healing, of elemental energies that flow through the multiverse. Each of us has the ability to manifest our destiny. My home with Cherie, a holistic practitioner and healer, is filled with crystals, singing bowls and earth’s natural wonders. With that mindset, I embarked on a quest to create a series of Amazar Avians with unique powers and attributes.
In a miner’s tent at a Denver gem & minerals show, I found long crystal points discovered in a Brazil cavern. They could become Amazar Avian beaks that held or projected healing vibrations. And I found sacred crystals and rare stones discovered by miners that could populate my Forever Gardens. Then a tray of antique shark’s teeth caught my eye. I immediately envisioned them on the face of cunning sharp beaked winged warriors,
We traveled the world exploring other cultures. In a small antique/second hand shop on a side street in a rural village in the mountains outside Bogotá, Colombia, a string of turquoise blue tapered stones hung on a wall. They begged to give voice to stately Blue Beak Avians. Then on a journey to a remote village in Northern Thailand, I followed a lifelong passion to explore and collect textiles of ancient cultures. A roadside table held a tray with teeth and tusks of wild boar that had been destroying crops. I immediately pictured them as beaks of powerful Amazar Avian creations offering aid to protect our planet.
I assigned different attributes or powers to each type of beak, such as wisdom, hope, healing, compassion, etc. That further defined the creations they adorned. As I began each new creation, the beak would determine the role new characters would play in the developing saga of Amazar Tales.
There are now dozens of different Amazar Avian species and a flock of amazing Amazar Avians with special powers that populate my Amazar Tales. You can read more about them at www.amazaravians.world.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
As a sculptor, I’m a hunter-gatherer on a never-ending quest searching for components for new creations.
When beginning a new piece, I’ll scan my stash of leathers and found objects with a vague idea of what I wish to bring to life. Spontaneity guides my hand while I pluck components from their bins and hiding places.
Each Amazar Avian has many layers. Most are unseen in the final form. During the hatching (the creation of an armature), segments of found objects are manipulated into forms that suggest the size, shape and scale of the sculpture. As I add feathers, contrasts in texture, color, the interaction of positive/negative space, the tilt of the Avian’s head, the positioning and length of wings and tails demand frequent revision.
The head and eyes are generally the last components I complete. Size, shape and color of stones for eyes, their positioning and how they attract and catch the gaze of the audience are important. The flare of feathers at the crown, the flurry of feathers that suggest ears and the drape of feathers around the neck inspire serious thought as I develop a dialogue between the Avians and people who discover them.
Visit my website to take a peek behind the scenes and see images showing the evolution, the birthing of an Amazar Avian.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
Living on the side of a mountain, the lower level/basement of our home is my studio. In the entry to our upper level main living space many of my leather Forever Garden Landscapes adorn the walls. Large windows in front of my chest-high workbench face southeast, overlooking the forest below. Groups of my leather flowers awaiting placement in my Forever Gardens hang upside down around window frames as if they were real flowers drying.
Clusters of floor to ceiling wire-shelving from garage sales line most of the walls. They hold trays and bins of leather sorted by color and texture. Another group of shelves display finished sculptures.
In the center of my studio, a 4’ x 4’ booth made from other shelving components, lined with recycled black fabric and framed by spotlight,s stands ready to photograph each creation’s evolution.
Visitors are welcome to experience my studio by appointment.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? Have you taken something designed for another use and repurposed it for your studio?
My studio holds hundreds of bins with worn, deconstructed leather from vintage garments and faded, damaged leathers from discarded couches.
Ages ago I cut goat skin chamois to make leather costumes for a Renaissance festival by hot gluing the seams. Those costumes are still intact.
Fast forward 50 years. Now an industrial high heat glue gun (the type used for gluing car parts together), along with heavy duty titanium nonstick scissors, are my main tools for cutting, forming and fusing components for my sculptures.
Other indispensable tools and materials include Exacto knives and razor blades, heavy-duty sewing needles, assorted threads, hole punches and bundles of recycled wires. Wood burning tools as well as pyrography pens with different tips heat, curl, shape and embellish designs on the leather.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I periodically journal about creative concepts or reflect on recent completed works. Sometimes I’ll lay awake in the night pondering a design solution or the next step for a sculpture. I’ll often write or sketch those thoughts on a pad near my bedside to trigger my memory in the morning,
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I think we are born with an inquisitive nature that drives us to explore the unknown. It stimulates creativity, innovation and imagination. Unfortunately, those inherent skills are discouraged as societies encourage conformity and standardization.
In addition, I believe that cultivating an appreciative audience that honors the creative spirit is just as important as motivating creativity in others.
As a gallery owner and curator, I’ve led seminars on ”How an Artist Looks at the World“ to help others appreciate art. Encouraging people to let go of preconceived notions of art as well as allowing their imaginations to soar builds a greater understanding of the artistic process.
In recent years as an Eco-Art activist, I’ve given presentations on the concept of “Creative Re-Use”. Art centers and museum now feature public art that uses recycled materials. They even offer workshops that challenge people to create from materials that would otherwise end up in landfills.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
One of my goals is to create a series of temporary interactive gallery installations that showcase flocks of Amazar Avians perched in and soaring above elaborate Forever Gardens. Those installations, accompanying workshops and seminars, will be platforms for examining preconceived notions on sustainability and recycling. This will expand discussions on those topics within the creative community.
My website www.amazaravians.world introduces the process of hatching exceptional Avians and transforming discarded byproducts of a consumer-driven society into thousands of components that will populate the installations.
Visits to my website provide opportunities to witness the process as Amazar Tales unfold, gifting readers and Amazar Avian Ambassadors with mystic tales of wonder that offer hope for better tomorrows. For more information contact me at [email protected]
Interview posted January 2022
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