Erin O’Brien is a writer in Broadview Heights, Ohio.
On October 8, 2021, Stephen Yusko’s solo show, The Way Things Go, opened in the Sculpture Center in Cleveland’s University Circle neighborhood. The curated collection included a tiny chapel, one that would fit perfectly in a miniature town situated around a chugging model train. A closer inspection of its exterior, however, reveals a surface that’s tortured and scarred, almost as if the souls inside are screaming to escape. The exhibition text reveals that Collateral Cathedral, Your Huddled Masses is indeed both physically and ideologically complex; it’s constructed in part from “forge-welded firearms.”
As the naive image of an idyllic town and toy train fades, it is replaced perhaps by those nine parishioners who will never again worship in Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, South Carolina, or the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary, or Columbine High, or Pulse nightclub, or…. The painful list goes on and on. “The cathedral could stand for any institution,” explained Yusko, “a school, church, a government building.”1
Parts from more than two dozen decommissioned firearms went into creating Collateral Cathedral, extending the metaphor in the most unexpected ways. Yusko forged the central structure using steel from the weapons. A revolver’s ejector mechanism serves as the church’s rose window, which is adorned with a dot of 18-karat gold. The wheel elevating the platform that offers the structure to the world is formed from the barrels of two revolvers. Lastly, Morse code spells out the sculpture’s title along the center of the platform: “your huddled masses,” an excerpt from Emma Lazarus’s poem The New Colossus, which is engraved on a plaque inside the Statue of Liberty.
Such is Stephen Yusko’s current work, in which devastating themes float amid notes of whimsy, and forged steel elements are rendered ever so vulnerable.
The concepts were further illustrated in the artist’s contributions to Rust, a group exhibition held earlier this year at Heights Arts in Cleveland Heights. Elevate features a structure reminiscent of a Monopoly game’s hotel piece, modest save for the blue and silver leaf stripes on the exterior (one of the artist’s go-to finishes and one that recalls the exterior of the Cleveland Museum of Art).2 A vertical propeller stems from its roof, much like a whirligig on a kid’s helicopter hat. But if it spins with enough force, will the little house be carried off? Another tiny house sits atop a pliant seven-foot pole in Drift (also part of the Sculpture Center show). Visitors were invited to touch the thin rod, and when they did, the 1½-inch-square steel house responded by tracing a wide and wobbling arc in the gallery air.3 The playful interaction evoked smiles, but for the imaginary people inside, the experience would have been decidedly different.
Deceptively simple, the surfaces of the heavy rocking bases of Drift and its companion piece, Drift: 4-Way (exhibited at Heights Arts), recall an undulating ocean far from shore. The language of the sculptures extends to the tiniest details. Yusko embellished the fittings where the rods meet the bases with concentric circles to evoke a droplet hitting the water’s surface.4
Are these toylike objects or representations of our collective vulnerability as we violently sway above a vast ocean of uncertainty? The answer, of course, is the viewer’s choice, although the artist might lobby for both.
“I always like the work to look playful,”5 said Yusko. “It is really important to me that these pieces don’t hit you over the head with their content.” During a gallery talk at the Sculpture Center exhibition, Yusko’s longtime mentor Don Harvey addressed Drift, particularly the tiny fitting at the bottom of the sculpture, as an example of a phenomenon he’s dubbed the “Yusko fit.”6
“Most of us would have drilled a hole in the block and stuck the darn thing in there,” said Harvey, “but that’s not what happened here. That’s an example of the Yusko fit.” The concept applies more directly to the artist’s myriad vessels, which include boxes, oil cans, teapots, etc., with lids that, per Yusko, have “a nice, kind of a vacuum fit.”7
Yusko crafted one such vessel ahead of the 2017 presidential inauguration that includes a cryptic message. The minuscule squares and rectangles perforating the walls of the intricate box spell out the name of the work, Resist, in Morse code, a frequent element in the metalsmith’s work.8
Other secrets abound in Yusko’s sculptures, which appear to float on walls courtesy of carefully hidden and recessed mounts. His mount-making skill is a result of his time at the Saint Louis Art Museum (1999–2006), where he worked primarily as a mount maker for the organization’s medieval armor collection. His little houses are secured in their topsy-turvy states with unseen rare earth magnets and stainless-steel pins. The tiny forged blue home in Rift (exhibited at both the Sculpture Center and Heights Arts), for instance, hangs suspended from the bottom of a steam-bent white oak element (from stock Yusko crafted during a 2017 Windgate artist-in-residency at San Diego State University). Pluck it from its magnetic clasp and you’ll find a stamped steel signature plate, complete with the artist’s initials and the year of creation, 2021. When displayed as intended, however, the plate faces the wall, completely hidden. The quest for front-facing perfection extends to function as well. Each of the legs on his gracious accent tables is outfitted with a concealed and threaded leveling mechanism.
“Whatever I make, I approach it as a jeweler,” said Yusko during a 2018 studio demo.9 He then offered examples of his intricate textured steel patterns, which he achieves from forging materials such as threaded pipe, woven wire, and perforated steel. “I want every surface to be considered. I want every aspect of this stuff to be worked over the way a piece of jewelry would.” While he’s only dabbled in jewelry10 (mostly at the beginning of his career, including a stint assisting Mary Ann Scherr in 1989 for a two-week class at the Penland School of Craft), he describes his adherence to a jeweler’s practices with a quote from artist Yvonne Escalante, who asserted during the 2018 SNAG conference in Portland, Oregon, “’I am forever a jeweler who does not make jewelry.’”11
“I’ve felt that way most of my career,” said Yusko. “But she put those feelings into poetry.”
If a Yusko piece looks like it moves, it does. Simple examples include the propeller atop Elevate, which is kinetic; and the wheel fashioned from revolver barrels beneath Collateral Cathedral, Your Huddled Masses, which has a working axle. The functional component of Transit, however, is significantly more complex. The sculpture, nearly five feet long and more than three feet high, immediately recalls a seesaw with a miniature house suspended upside down on one end and a collection of Yusko’s row houses on the other. The two elements sit balanced on a curved steel plank on either side of an off-center pivot mechanism. The row houses are nine in number (a recurring digit in the artist’s work, which he points out equals the number of players on a baseball team and justices on the Supreme Court), and present as a unit—a sort of three-dimensional comb composed of steel house-shaped teeth.12The roof ridges vary ever so slightly, but the precise alignment of the four-pane windows produces a perfect sight line through all nine layers, exemplifying his jeweler’s precision, however quietly.
Yusko earned his BFA in sculpture from the University of Akron in 1990 (where he met Don Harvey) and his MFA in metalsmithing from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, in 1999. His biography teems with awards, exhibitions, invitationals, and teaching stints at points across the United States and international locales including Wexford, Ireland, and Halifax, Nova Scotia.13 From 1991 to 1996, Yusko was an intern/apprentice and then artist-in-residence at the Metal Museum in Memphis, where his tasks included the production of Etruscan armor components.
“One of the things I made were greaves—leg coverings. If you really start looking at your legs, it’s a lot of compound curves. To take a flat sheet of bronze and make it fit this mannequin’s leg, it was really hard. It was really cool too,” recalled Yusko in 2021.14 “Working in this bronze for two months, we sweated green. Our tee shirts were all green. Everything was green.”
Other highlights from Yusko’s extensive résumé include the invitational traveling exhibition FORGE, shown at Ruthin Craft Centre, Denbighshire, Wales (2017), and at the Metal Museum in Memphis (2018), which also held one of his numerous solo exhibitions (Tributaries: Stephen Yusko, 2016). Among other programs, he was a Windgate artist-in-residence at Purchase College in Purchase, New York, (2014) and an artist-in-residence at the prestigious Rose Iron Works in Cleveland from 2007 to 2015. From 2008 to 2017, Yusko served on the board of trustees for the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, where he has frequently taught and exhibited.15 He also chose the surrounding locale of Deer Isle, Maine, to propose to now-wife Ruth Coffey.16
“I love being on Deer Isle. It’s sort of my second family up there,” said Yusko last fall.17 The couple subsequently married there in 2011. They currently reside in a century home in Lakewood, a first ring suburb of Cleveland. Yusko’s 1,400-square-foot studio is in a historic industrial district adjacent to Cleveland’s Asiatown neighborhood.
In 2021, a singular opportunity bloomed for Yusko. The Cleveland Metroparks contracted him and fellow artist Stephen Manka to design and build public art for a highly anticipated pedestrian bridge. Adjacent to the Cuyahoga River, the Wendy’s Way bridge opened in June 2021 and accommodates a path that was previously all but unnavigable on foot or bike. It connects a lush lakefront park teeming with birds and wildlife to untold points south.18 Yusko and Manka, who together had also fabricated a set of three graceful lakefront bench swings for the Metroparks in 2017, produced four sculptural pylons for the 500-foot bridge, with two pairs flanking either end of the span.19
Each pylon stands more than thirteen feet high. They’re constructed from stainless-steel panels that are solid at the base and give way to the team’s delicate laser-cut designs; one pair evokes a flock of birds in flight while the other transforms into a patch of flowers and clover.20Yusko forged two smaller accent sculptures that are displayed in recessed boxes on two of the towers—a bird in flight inspired by a peregrine falcon and a flower informed by a poppy pod.21
The project represents a unique confluence of Yusko’s passions: Cleveland’s infrastructure (the bridge is situated amid some of the city’s most intricate and historic industrial structures), cycling (Yusko, an avid cyclist, took a month off studio work in August 2018 and logged some 1,000 miles on a host of rides around Ohio, Michigan, and even as far as North Carolina)22, birdwatching (spend any time with the metalsmith and he’ll inevitably point out a kestrel or Cooper’s hawk—he might even belt out a bird call), and of course his craft of metalwork.23
Jim Wallace, former director of the Metal Museum and another of Yusko’s mentors, offers an insightful reflection on the artist. “It’s important to realize that Steve and I and almost all the people that were working at the museum and the studios there came to the field because of a love of material. We like building things with our hands…. And a lot of what we have to say with a particular piece is expressed in the workmanship and design.”24
Wallace continued: “For people who are serious in the field, they make that transition from craft to art. A particular piece or object can speak on its own. It’s more than a gate. It’s more than a table. It’s more than a piece of jewelry.
“Steve’s that way. He can do beautiful jewelry, a pair of gates… He can do it all; that’s because he’s not going to settle for anything less than the very best he can do, no matter what. He’s remarkable that way.”
Wendy’s Way bridge is situated on the city’s gritty Whiskey Island, home to Cleveland Bulk Terminal, where iconic lake freighters deliver loads of taconite pellets. Mountains of them wait there on water’s edge for delivery to the mills upriver, where they’ll be transformed into steel.
As Yusko and I walked along Whiskey Island last fall by the new pedestrian bridge, he spied some stray pellets. He stopped and picked up a few of the marble-sized stones, then offered them to me. “Look at these,” he said. “They’re beautiful.”25
1.Stephen Yusko, telephone interview with author, March 21, 2022.↩
3.Stephen Yusko (@StephenYusko Studio), Facebook, October 15, 2021, https://www.facebook.com/487029011349475/videos/401558684776310.↩
4. Stephen Yusko, interview with author at The Sculpture Center, Cleveland, OH, October 15, 2021.↩
5. See note 1.↩
6. Don Harvey and Stephen Yusko, “Artist Talk in the Galleries: A conversation with Stephen Yusko and Don Harvey,” artist talk, The Sculpture Center, Cleveland, OH, November 13, 2021.↩
7. Stephen Yusko, “ThinkCraft Symposium,” artist talk, Cleveland Institute of Art, September 21, 2018, Cleveland, OH, video, 48:05, https://vimeo.com/298992878.↩
8. Stephen Yusko Studio, Facebook, November 9, 2018, https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=2091973494188344&id=487029011349475.↩
9. Stephen Yusko, “ThinkCraft Symposium,” artist demonstration, Cleveland Institute of Art, September 21, 2018, Cleveland, OH, video, 54:38, https://vimeo.com/298978141.↩
10. See note 1.↩
11. Stephen Yusko, correspondence with author, March 22, 2022.↩
12. See note 4.↩
13. Three of Stephen Yukso’s resumes were sourced for biographical information. Resumes were produced in 2016, 2019, and 2022, the last of which was accessed February 9, 2022, http://stephenyusko.com/wordpress/about-2/resume.↩
14. See note 6.↩
15. See note 13.↩
16. See note 6.↩
18. Sam Allard, “Wendy Park Bridge, Connecting Near West Side to Whiskey Island, Is Now Open,” Scene, June 24, 2021, https://www.clevescene.com/scene-and-heard/archives/2021/06/24/wendy-park-bridge-connecting-near-west-side-to-whiskey-island-is-now-open-36151549.↩
19. See note 13.↩
20. Stephen Yusko and Stephen Manka, interview with author, Manka Studio, Cleveland, OH, June 21, 2021.↩
21. Stephen Yusko, Facebook, August 10, 2021, https://www.facebook.com/stephen.yusko.796/posts/1920853611422813. Stephen Yusko Studio, Facebook, July 16, 2021, https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=4359871584065179&id=487029011349475.”>↩
22. Stephen Yusko, telephone interview with author, January 15, 2022.↩
23. Stephen Yusko, interview with author at Wendy Park, Cleveland, OH, November 10, 2021.↩
24. Jim Wallace, telephone interview with author, December 20, 2021.↩
25. See note 23.↩