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On Shake Rag Alley, Wisconsin: Interview with Judith Sutcliffe (2)

Hammered jewelry made by a student in Judy's class

In part 1 of this interview with Judith Sutcliffe, we talked about how she got involved with Shake Rag Alley in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. The interview continues below with a discussion of Judith's own artistic biography.

We’ve spoken a lot about Mineral Point. Now I’d like to find out about your own artistic history.

Judith: Before I absconded to Santa Barbara in 1978, I had a pottery in my small Iowa home town, Audubon, and I experimented with a lot of things. I'm kinda entrepreneurial. Someone gave me a necklace made of beads and hammered copper wire, and I just started doing wire jewelry on the side. I also sculpted dolls, culminating in doing all the Iowa First Lady Dolls still in their big glass case in the Des Moines capitol building. But once I was in California, I concentrated on tile murals for homes, business, and signage. It was a full time business for 17 years. On the side I designed computer fonts, starting in 1985. My Electric Typographer fonts are still sold by FontShop, Monotype, and Daniel Will-Harris. I also scrounged a couple of small presses and taught myself letterpress printing. And I designed a few books for Capra Press and wrote, designed, and published a book about my mother's family experience with tuberculosis. It's called Grandma Cherry's Spoon. When I moved back to the midwest in 1996 I wrote, illustrated, and published a collection of short poems called Iowa Lyric. And this year I designed and published a book of lyrical essays I wrote, called A Collection of Old Men. And I'm working on another book of poetry and a book about our old house in Galena.

Philip: When did you start making jewelry?

Judith: I didn't think about making jewelry again until I was teaching at Shake Rag Alley. There are several board members who enjoy teaching, and they’re all very versatile. Sharon Stauffer, for instance, was an accountant during her working life, but she happens to be a very good artist in portraiture and in collage and mixed media, classes that she now enjoys teaching. I have been teaching concrete sculpture and mosaic work, often team teaching with Heidi Dyas-McBeth, a young Platteville artist. Looking around for something else to teach, I remembered the wire jewelry work I'd done in the past. I ordered copper and brass wire, ball peen hammers, and so forth, and started teaching a basic, fun, beginners’ class in hammering wire into a wide assortment of jewelry. Along the way I came up with a neck ring design and started selling them in our gallery, along with a typecase full of one-of-a-kind hammered wire and bead dangles to string onto the neck rings. I got a very nice check from our gallery after last year's Fall Art Tour! (I was demonstrating both tile painting and jewelry hammering in my studio during that weekend as one of the artists on the tour.)

Philip: How do you balance the time between being an artist, running a gallery, and being involved in the day-to-day running of SRA?

Judith: Well, my partner, Sandy, runs Longbranch Gallery in cahoots with artist Ben Brummerhop. I help, but they're the ones in charge. Sandy is board president of Shake Rag Alley and I'm also on the board. She's involved in marketing, promotion, fund raising, and she hosts the Woodlanders Gathering and Stage & Screen, an exciting week with professional theater and film teachers. She gave up sleeping long ago!

Besides teaching cement sculpture and jewelry at Shake Rag, I work on the curriculum committee, coming up with teachers and classes, writing for the catalog/web. And I help set up the blacksmithing program. I'm on the grounds and buildings committee, also. A lot of roofs have been repaired since the school started. There's still a lot of maintenance and repair we'd like to do on buildings, but funds are hard to come by. Most everyone on our working board at Shake Rag is heavily involved in many aspects of keeping that place alive and cooking. As I said before, we have an excellent full-time and part-time staff. And Al Felly, who put Shake Rag Alley on the map in the 1970s, still lives across the street in the summertime, still a fountain of information.

Dragon, from Judy's cement mosaic sculpture class

What do you see happening at Shake Rag Alley in the next five years?

Judith: Survival through these difficult economic times is first, and we'll just keep hanging in there. It's a challenge to promote and market our workshops, lodging, and Alley Stage on very tight budgets, but getting the word out is the main thing we try to do. We know we have good workshops that people really enjoy, and we know that people love the valley itself. It's got its own special magic with the lovely little spring, tall shade trees, lots of gardens, rustic brick paths, old buildings with character, and with our summer theater hidden away in the old quarry. It's an oasis of creative fun just around the corner from downtown Mineral Point. We'd like to keep strengthening the class offerings we have. For example, we'd like to see Dean Bakopoulos' vision of Shake Rag as a major Midwest non-academic writing center gradually take form. And our jewelry making, metalsmithing, and blacksmithing program is coalescing nicely. Our cement sculpture and mosaic classes are unique. And mixed media is coming along strong as well. Alley Stage is making a fine place for itself in regional theater, while developing quite an ensemble of area actors, directors, designers, and playwrights. It just all gets better. And we'll only be six years old come October.

You can order "Grandma's Cherry Spoon" from Amazon. Click the following link for more information about the Shake Rag Alley Center for Arts and Crafts, including upcoming classes.

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  1. A wonderfully informative piece about a very special place and some remarkable people with an important vision. Thanks to you both.


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