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SUMMER / FALL 2019      © 2021 812 Magazine

Made in Southern Indiana

Meet 5 traditional artisans who have turned practical trades into art forms.

Woodworker Randall O'Donnell shows off his handmade furniture in his Nashville workshop.

In a world where the word "artisan" has become a descriptor for anything from breakfast sandwiches to stainless steel sinks, it's easy to forget artisans once formed the backbone of civilization. Farmers depended on tools from the local blacksmith. Housewives stocked their kitchens with stoneware from the local potter and covered their floors with rugs from the local weaver. Furniture was handmade.

Today, dotted through Southern Indiana are innumerable artists. But only a few can be called artisans in the traditional sense. Artisan crafts, once made out of necessity, have morphed into contemporary art forms. Today, intricate door hinges, hand-painted pots and customized rag rugs stand as decorative rather than necessary.

But even today, you can still see those practical roots, says Jon Kay, director of Traditional Arts Indiana.

Most utilitarian things have elements of aesthetics, Kay says. "Whatever they're making, it has to look right, feel right, fit right. Artisans make an aesthetic choice, but what they're making must still do its job. The things artisans produce go beyond necessity."

With the help of Kay, 812 discovered some of the region's most authentic artisans, the kind you can't find with a simple Google search. So dive in, explore, and discover their stories -- and their art -- for yourself.

Randall O'Donnell, Woodworker

Location: Nashville

Contact: 812-988-1380, csodonne@juno.com

Why Southern Indiana: "There's good wood here. And my family. That's hard to move away from. My grandson has football practice next week. I can't miss that."

Like what you see? Visit Randall online at www.randallodonnell.com

Price: $$$

If you're looking for Randall O'Donnell, you'll have to know where you're going. His workshop is a mile or so off State Road 46. His gravel driveway gives no indication that there's a house at the end of it. No mailbox, no address, nothing.

He likes it out here, says it helps him focus on his work. And when, like O'Donnell, your work involves pre-industrial age tools and colonial furniture, living among the Indiana forests might be just what you need.

O'Donnell says his traditional woodworking tactics add character and personality to his pieces. "With modern tools, everyone who picks it up get the same shape," he says. "You see personality when you use a hand plane. If it's someone with a strong hand and a good eye, you see that, whereas it's dead and lifeless with a machine."

O'Donnell can make you a set of kitchen cabinets or a hardwood floor. But his favorite pieces to work on are more intricate. A restored, polished cherry table from the 1700s. A deep brown bureau with a shining, almost golden, swirled wood grain pattern. Chairs with carved talon-like feet.

In today's world of concrete and plastic and drywall, O'Donnell says real, handcrafted wood is a novelty, but that's what attracts him to it.

"Can you imagine a time when everything -- a spoon, a button, a table -- everything had little edges? Details that someone had to look at and go, 'No, that's not quite right?' Imagine the life that comes to everything in a world like that. There's a soulfulness in the finished product."

As someone who loves the soul of wood, O'Donnell lives in the right place. Here he's among some of the country's best walnut and white oak trees. His favorite, though, is the black walnut.

"When it comes to U.S. prime hardwood, there's nowhere like Indiana," O'Donnell says.

Walking around his workshop, O'Donnell can barely take two steps without finding something to talk about. First it's photos of a piece of colonial furniture in the Met. Next it's a particularly beautiful plank of Amazonian mahogany. And as he talks, it's hard to imagine him anywhere else.

"If I could sing I'd rather be a rock star," he says. "If I was taller I'd be in the NBA. But this is just what I was meant to be."

Want to learn for yourself? O'Donnell offers a rigorous, 1-2-year-long apprenticeship program for those who are serious about furniture making. Looking for something a little less time consuming? The Marc Adams School of Woodworking in Franklin offers weekend workshops throughout the year. Visit http://marcadams.com/weekend or call 317-535-4013 for more information.

John Mills, Potter

Location: Brown County Pottery, 58 West Franklin St., Nashville

Contact: 812-988-1388

Why Southern Indiana: "I love the weather in the spring and the fall here," John says. "I love the greenery, the culture. People treat each other well. They're pretty decent people."

Like what you see? Call or go into the store for more info.

Price range: $

John Mills is not one to settle.

In college, he studied everything from physics and math to philosophy and literature. Then he went back to study photography and get his Master of Fine Arts from Indiana University. Somewhere along the way, he discovered clay.

So he opened a pottery full-time in Nashville. Twenty years later, he and his wife Beth moved out west, living in small towns and selling pots at art fairs. When they were done, they came back to Brown County.

And, for the past two years, John has been battling brain cancer. Even if that means he can no longer throw clay to make pots, it doesn't stop him from working.

Which is why, inside an old summer kitchen on the corner of Franklin Street and Honeysuckle Lane, John Mills leans against a table, separating newspaper pages and wrapping customers' purchases in them.

As his hands work, he steadies himself against the table and talks about how he got there. It's a story of physics and photography, of choosing a profession and following a passion.

Together, they form the history of someone who has spent his life practicing a traditional trade but living in a modern society. Philosophy, he says, taught him to accept the simplicity of his lifestyle rather than strive for higher pay or recognition.

Mills picked up pottery as a second concentration while studying photography in the 1960s.

"I liked the idea of how tactile it was, whereas photography was not," he says, "and how the form develops right before your eyes."

Mills' pots reflect the reverence he has for the tactile qualities of clay. They're straightforward forms. Nothing too fancy, just a rounded base flowing into a thinner neck. He doesn't like to smooth out the spiral pattern his fingers make as he molds the pot. The spiral, he says, causes his homemade glazes to flow thicker and thinner, varying its appearance.

"I prefer to have the aesthetic elements arise from the forming process rather than to be applied as an afterthought," he says.

Last summer, after undergoing brain surgery, Mills developed an infection, which landed him in the hospital for three months. His wife, Beth, now stocks the store with ceramic creations, emulating her husband's style.

But even as it becomes harder to find one of his pots in his own store, Mills is still there, day after day, happy just to be with his clay.

"He's a fighter," Beth says. "My little miracle baby."

Want to learn for yourself? The Southern Indiana Center for the Arts offers a pottery class at the Don Hill Crafts and Pottery Barn. Visit http://www.soinart.com/classes.html or call (812) 522-2278 for more information

Barb Gallagher, Weaver

Location: The Weaver's Loft, 24647 Zimmer Road, Guilford

Contact: 800-449-6115, Barb@weaversloft.com

Why Southern Indiana: "The natural beauty, the remoteness. I don't get out a lot, but living here, sometimes all it takes is stepping outside for a bit."

Like what you see? Visit www.weaversloft.com or call Barb for a custom order

Price: $$

Not far from I-74, Barb Gallagher's loft sits at the end of Zimmer Road. About halfway through you might think you've lost your way. Then, nailed to a tree, a single small white arrow points you in the right direction. "Loft" is all it says.

When you walk inside The Weaver's Loft, look at the floor. It's Gallagher's own personal showcase.

Her signature rag rugs are a prime example of functional art. Made from scraps of material that would otherwise be useless, the rugs are a collage of colors and materials. From mats of old blue jeans to custom-made woolen carpets, many of Gallagher's made-to-order pieces have a utilitarian aesthetic.

"Weaving lets me be creative and practical," she says. "I get to create these wonderful patterns and these things that are useful -- rugs, towels, scarves."

Forty years ago, Gallagher walked by a weaving store in Los Angeles and went in, curious. After that, she was hooked. Gallagher enrolled in Edgecliff College in Cincinnati, Ohio, and earned a degree in weaving and rug making. Soon after she got married, had kids and began weaving in a loft next to her new home.

Although Gallagher's show room is relatively new, her original workspace, a literal loft, still sits right next door. Inside the long, narrow structure are bags of blue jeans, piles of fabrics and several wooden looms. Some are partially assembled. Some are more than five feet wide. Others, which she uses for classes, fold up and lean against the wall.

Many of her fabrics are donated, like the bags of worn-out jeans from the local church. Others are hand picked by customers. Gallagher also allows her customers to specify the exact size of their rug. That customization, she says, is what sets her apart from many other weavers.

Most fiber artists, she says, can be divided into categories: color people, pattern people, fiber people and texture people. She is a pattern person.

One of her favorite pieces is a blue and cream rug with a zigzag pattern down the middle. "It can be mountains, it can be the coastline, it can be a lot of things," she says.

In addition to woven pieces, Gallagher also sells a range of hand-dyed yarns. Many have names inspired by the natural elements that surround her rural home. One, called Meadows, was based on a field behind her house. Another, Twilight, came from a photo taken at dusk from Gallagher's back window.

"Being out here, in the beauty of Southern Indiana, is a mental thing," she says. "It helps feed my soul."

Want to learn for yourself? Gallagher offers a variety of classes and can tailor them to your needs. The Greater Cincinnati Weavers Guild, which Gallagher is a part of, offers classes and workshops, and at Yarns Unlimited in Bloomington. Visit http://www.weaversguildcincinnati.org/programsworkshops.php or http://www.yarnsunlimited.com/classes.html for more information.

Ray Sease, Blacksmith

Location: Seymour

Contact: (812) 522-7722

Why Southern Indiana: "I was born in Salem and never got too far. I'm the type of person that when I put down roots, that's it. I'll be here till I die."

Like what you see? Call Ray or visit the Indiana Blacksmithing Association at www.indianablacksmithing.org

Price: $$

Ray Sease's workshop is a small, intimate space. Once he starts working, heating, bending and hammering metal, there's hardly room for other people.

But that's OK.

"This is something you do on your own and for yourself," Sease says. "I don't know how to explain it, it's just a feeling, but I'm proud of it."

There was a time when Sease took on a more traditional blacksmith role and made handcrafted tools, camping utensils and S-hooks. Lately, though, he sticks to more decorative things. Pot racks so large they required extra supports to be built into the house's foundation, chili peppers that look real enough to eat and even an urn for his ashes when he dies.

And although blacksmithing is a traditional craft, Sease says he isn't bound by traditional techniques.

"The finished product is what matters," he says. "So I use a power hammer."

To Sease, preserving the art of the blacksmith by bringing it to younger generations is just as important as his finished products. That preservation is a large part of what he does as a former officer and current member of the Indiana Blacksmithing Association.

Several times a year, Sease will pack up his pink-tipped tools (in honor of breast cancer patients like his niece) and demonstrate what a blacksmith does. He'll show wide-eyed second graders how easy it is to bend hot metal and artistically inclined eighth graders how to create graceful curves out of hard metal.

"It's preserving history," he says. "Maybe it's not necessary, but it is. If it don't have a keyboard on it, kids today can't use it."

Sease pulls out a $9 cell phone from the pocket of his suspenders. By cell phone standards, it's disposable. But then again, as soon as the next big thing comes along, our smartphones will be, too.

Metal, on the other hand is not.

"Metal is permanent. It will last," he says. "I used to come home, wore out, and go out to my workshop. When I'm there, everything just melts away."

Want to learn for yourself?: Sease leads various blacksmithing demonstrations in the Jennings County area throughout the year. If you can't catch him, contact your local satellite group of the Indiana Blacksmithing Association. Visit http://www.indianablacksmithing.org/satellite.html for more information.

Anthony Nava, Native American Art

Location: New Albany

Contact: 812-725-8554, snava@southernindianaarts.info

Why Southern Indiana: "Indiana has a very rich native history. And I get all of my materials from around here -- arrowheads from Harrison County, sweet grass from the woods across the street. Being a native person, we're more in touch with the things around us."

Like what you see? Visit www.southernindianaarts.info/Navafamily.aspx

Price: $$

Tucked just inside the perimeter of a small fenced-in backyard, Anthony Nava's work space looks more like a carpenter's studio than a Native American workshop. It's not until Nava begins pulling out rawhides and drum frames, that the connection becomes clear.

Ask Nava what he does and he'll answer with a laundry list of artifacts you'd find in a museum: wooden flutes, rawhide drums, beaded leather moccasins, dream catchers. His niche though, he says, is beadwork and traditional instruments.

Like many other modern artisans, Nava straddles the line between traditional art and contemporary culture. A carpenter by profession, Nava knows he can churn out more flutes when he uses a router and an electric saw, but those, he says, just don't sound as good as the handmade ones.

It's that appreciation of handmade details that made Native Americans the original utilitarian decorators, he says. This functional art, as he calls it, is what attracted him to the field in the first place.

"Native people can't leave anything alone. It's gotta be ornate or decorated in some way," he says. "It can't just be a belt, it has to be a beaded belt. It can't just be a spoon, it has to be a carved spoon.."

As he sits at a table made of recycled wood from a shipping pallet, surrounded by his own art, Nava talks about the fast-paced, disposable culture we live in. He talks about the economy and local initiatives, about history and about art.

"We have to have everything so fast and instant that people don't understand what being a traditional artist is," he says. "But I think people are just realizing, hey, things are a lot better when they are handmade. Everybody is tired of big corporations and large people with great power. They are finding that small people can have great power, too, whether it's through their art or their craft."

Want to learn for yourself?: Nava frequently does demonstrations of his Native American art. Contact him for more information. The American Indian Center of Indiana in Indianapolis also frequently hosts workshops and events throughout the state. Visit http://www.americanindiancenter.org/default.php or call (800) 745-5872 for more information.