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A maker's mark

Maker's mark
Photography by Aaron Mayes
Photography by Aaron Mayes

Through sculpting, hammering, sewing and shaping, these artists and artisans share a fascinating relationship with their handiwork

Man Hue Duong, Ceramic artist

For working with a substance so resolutely physical, Man Hue Duong certainly does a lot of thinking about what she does with clay.

“People might be surprised to learn that the biggest stage of my process is thinking — marinating, the exploration of ideas, playing around,” says Duong, a ceramic artist and visuals arts teacher in Palo Verde High School’s International Baccalaureate program. “The actual making is fairly short in comparison to how long I think about it.” Indeed, a morning coffee-shop conversation with Duong about her ceramic art morphs into a conversation about yoga (which she teaches), about meditation, about breath and presence, about the cycle of life and death.

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But it isn’t just aimless philosophizing. All that thinking fuels
the visceral, paradoxical oomph of her conceptual ceramic pieces: soft, delicate-looking pillows with split seams revealing a glimpse of — what is that? — organs, guts, perhaps eyeballs? She had been creating ceramic pillows for years before she decided to explore what it might look like if she split one open. “The pillow form is symbolic of that weird in-between place, like sleep, where the conscious and unconscious meet. So you have this pristine exterior, but then one day I said, ‘I’m going to split into this.’”

Duong’s got all kinds of dualities going on in her work and life. In counterpoise to her more high-concept art, she also makes and sells functional and beautiful ikebana vases. But even those, in their way, manifest a kind of spiritual practice. “Yoga is so much about this connection between the body and the breath. I feel that with clay, it’s the same thing. When you’re on the (pottery) wheel, there’s the physicality, but there’s also this balance, this rhythm that has to unify in order for you to create something.” The intensity of her devotion has been slow-burning for years; she’s been making ceramic art since she was a teenager. “When I was 15, I just fell in love with the material,” she says. “The hands-on quality, the malleability of clay, is just so beautiful.”

Her next body of ceramic art will explore the idea of ripeness and maturity. “I’ve been marinating on this idea of ripe — of something at its very peak. But then the word also suggests ‘R.I.P.,’ rest in peace, because some part of you must die in the process. So, there’s this peak of perfection, and this dying off.” What will these pieces look like? Duong doesn’t know yet — but this thoughtful coffeehouse conversation isn’t just about the work, it’s part of the work. Andrew Kiraly

Joel Spencer and Nova May, Installation artists

It’s a maker’s wonderland back here! Follow Joel Spencer and Nova May from the front room of their Harmon Avenue studio — a room exuding zesty pop charm, with its wall-mounted ceramic popsicles and a circular red couch suitable for the Peppermill — back into their shop. To where they do what they do, which is hand-build everything from theater and movie sets and window displays to fine art and commercial backdrops, whatever someone needs created, all twining into a multifaceted practice. Joel: “Anything wacky, we’ll take on.” Look around. Tools! PVC pipe! Old props they might reuse! More tools! Welding equipment! Probably some junk liberated from a Dumpster! Did we mention tools?! (Thought experiment: Ask Nova what single tool amid this raft of hardware she can’t live without; now try to find the exact word to describe the look on her face. It should encompass shades of amusement, puzzlement, a wee bit of horror and a game attempt to consider what is, of course, a ridonculous question. “I need more than one or two,” she answers. They need them all, is the real answer. Also, there is no word to describe that look.)

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This is where, for example, the couple created Spin, an interactive installation for a children’s festival at Winchester Community Center last year. By hooking bicycles to generators and those generators to synthesizers, they allowed kids to pedal up some music, exploring connections between energy, movement and sound. (Joel and Nova are both into alternative energy.) This was complemented by a 30-foot sculpture in which they cut, painted and affixed to each other a bunch of bicycles so they seemed to emerge from the floor and float along a gallery wall. The festival lasted one day, but Winchester decided to keep their work up for two weeks.

Theirs is a total process, from the front-end — “Renderings, design,” Nova ticks off — to gruntwork (for Spin, Joel had to retrieve 29 bikes from Metro’s impound lot) to, Joel continues, “welding, painting, carpentry, sewing. And Dumpster diving!” She corrects him: “Repurposing!” They do that a lot. Nova: “We’re building an art deco set for a photo shoot, and we’ve salvaged some gold crown molding that’s perfect for it. It just worked out.”

Vegas is a good place to ply their multiple trades. “There’s always a restaurant, there’s always someone who just came into some money and wants to do their house in some odd fashion,” Joel says. Next time you visit Sake Rok, a sushi joint in The Park, note the décor. That graffiti? Joel’s. Remember the heart-shaped “Love Locket” sculpture at Container Park? Nova’s.

Their latest collab, viewable this month in Sin City Gallery in the Arts Factory, is Sweet Nothings, a collection of ceramic candy hearts — based on the Valentine’s treats — only with vastly different verbiage that delves into, quoting from their exhibit PR, “love, mass media, sex, pop culture, and loathing” to explore the intersection of romance and pop culture. Sweet. Scott Dickensheets

Jennifer Henry, Textile artist

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If you know Jennifer Henry, chances are good that you think of her as a fashion designer of sorts; in her case, the sort that combines plastic sculpture with haute couture, making fantastic ball gowns out of cellophane, Mylar, tissue paper and other unorthodox materials. Art garments, she calls them. Mixed-media pieces designed to be worn in a certain way and setting — performance art.

Indeed, Henry considers herself an artist first and foremost, the couture for which she became known, incidental. In 2009, a photographer friend wanted to collaborate on a winter project and suggested Henry make something out of holiday wrapping paper. Henry settled on a tutu of amber cellophane and balconette top. The piece turned out so well that, before long, she’d done a couple similar outfits for friends going to fancy parties.

“I’d been making and doing art, and living and working as an artist in this city for a number of years,” Henry says. “So, I was used to making a (dress) project and being like, ‘Oh, that was fun.’”

But before she knew it, those crafty little one-offs had turned into a full-time occupation. She found herself doing them for fundraisers, Etsy sales, magazine photo shoots, New York Fashion Week, the LACMA Costume Council speaker series. In 2014, she was the artist-in-residence at P3 Studio in The Cosmopolitan. Her concepts evolved from wearable art pieces to complex themed gallery installations, from the Cube in Las Vegas to Form & Concept in Santa Fe. This month, she’ll be in two shows, A paper plastic dress at Geffen Contemporary at MOCA in Los Angeles, and Nesting at Las Vegas City Hall.

Recently, Henry enrolled in the master of fine arts program at UNLV. She’s grown to the point where she’s ready to do what academics excel at: deconstruct the work, examine every aspect of it and figure out what it’s really all about.

“Is it habit? Or expectation?” she asks. “Or is it just something that I’ve been doing, and now I’m doing something else?”

She’ll continue to search for answers to those heady questions. Meanwhile, she indulged this reporter’s more down-to-Earth curiosity. Among many materials and tools she works with, Henry says, the most important is still pencil and paper. “For me the concept starts with a sketch, almost always,” she says.

As for all that plastic: Yes, she will take apart dresses and reuse materials where possible, which means in a few cases, finished pieces don’t end up with collectors.

And her favorite fashion emergency? While working on several big projects at once, Henry left one piece, a copper gown for a Cirque du Soleil fundraising event, until the last minute. She opened the material shipment to find it wasn’t cellophane, as expected, but Mylar, which sticks to nothing. Her plan ruined, she had to find another use for the slick metallic stuff. “So, I took black party ribbon, and I tied it around it, and I was like, ‘That works.’ Then I began to stack them in pearlettes... What was wonderful and compelling about it was that it moved like a dream, and it was big and fluffy and gorgeous.” Heidi Kyser

Make Studios: Architects, builders, furniture-makers

Call up the Instagram account for Make Studios. Now, scroll down. Farther ... farther ... just a little more ... there. Picture of a table. Not that one, the other one. (Make’s made a number of tables.) The one built from alternating lengths of undulating mesquite and some dark material, the whole thing laminated in gleaming epoxy. It’s gorgeous, right? That dark material: stained concrete. Odd choice, that. Not stuff typically used to make tables.

“We spent months experimenting with mesquite and different ways to use it,” recalls Nathan Weber, the firm’s furniture principal. The team wanted to work with local materials, and mesquite’s as close to indigenous wood as we get. There’s a drawback, though. “Mesquite only gets so big,” Weber points out. If you look closely at the photo, you’ll see the wood sections are composited from smaller pieces to reach suitable length. “We wanted to add another material to really show the dichotomy between the mesquite and something else local.” They considered steel. Maybe some kind of hard resin. “At the end of the day,” says Christian Iusso, design principal, “we decided, let’s try concrete.”

Ponder the creative leap here. After all, the table’s an inch thick. “Concrete wasn’t meant to be only an inch thick,” Nathan says. So concrete is not high on the list of usable alternatives. It’s a nutty idea, and many creators might stop there. But Make Studios simply jammed it full of rebar to give it necessary strength. “It was quite the process,” Nathan admits. “But it turned out really amazing.” If you attended Life Is Beautiful in 2015, you might’ve seen that table standing out from a wall in the “sideways room” Make Studios built in the festival’s art hotel.

Other photos on the firm’s Instagram feed show similar creative adaptations. They employed Parallam — beams made of compressed wood and glue normally used for structural, not decorative, purposes — to create a theatrical wood interior for a juice bar. A concrete bartop inlaid with wood, a direct descendent of the mesquite table. More recently, metal stools are topped by oak that used to be shipping dunnage (look it up).

There’s more to Make Studios than furniture, of course. It’s an architecture firm that also builds its projects — one holistic process. “Then,” Christian adds, “you take it to another degree of detail with the chairs and the booths and the ceilings and the bars, the light fixtures — it’s limitless.” Scott Dickensheets

Sharon Gainsburg, Sculptor

Sharon Gainsburg takes a large spray bottle to a couple dozen jagged, microwave-sized carving stones arrayed on palettes at the back of her Downtown studio. The water mist transforms dry, gray rocks into colorful hunks of opportunity.

“We call this raspberry,” she says of a stone that turns dark pinkish red. A delighted smile lights up her face. “This one’s marble. Look!”

That Gainsburg still spontaneously marvels at stone’s mysteries after 40 years of carving may explain how, at 74, she believes her best work could still be ahead. She points out her latest sculpture, an alabaster swan resting contentedly on its own puffed up feathers, and says it’s a reflection of the phase she’s in now. She’s had ups and downs since she moved here from New Jersey 12 years ago, leaving behind a successful career founded on practice in Italy near the marble quarries that furnished Michelangelo with raw material. Arriving in Las Vegas, she discovered an impoverished art community and consumers so unfamiliar with her craft that they’d ask her if she used moulds.            

“When I got here, I was very challenged by a lot of things,” she says. “And I knew I was supposed to be here. I knew that I had something to offer people.”

Anybody whose medium of choice is stone must enjoy a challenge. An extractive art, carving requires seeing a form held within the block and releasing it by removing anything that’s not it. Having produced some 400 pieces over the years, Gainsburg’s process has evolved to the point where she may begin by sketching an idea on paper or the rock, making a miniature clay model, or just jumping right in with hammer and chisel.

But beginners need a little coaching to coax the sculpture from the stone. Gainsburg teaches her students how to do it by focusing on the technical aspects: learn to make convex and concave shapes, and then find parts of the rock that naturally lend themselves to those shapes. And just keep practicing.

“By the third or fourth class, they’re doing convex here and concave there, and then they look at it and say, ‘You know, this looks like a cat that’s laying down.’ It’s amazing! They say, ‘I don’t know how I did it,’ but they did.”

As if that’s not tricky enough, the hardest of media also requires the greatest emotional and mental flexibility. Hit a seam or strike a chisel against the grain, and all your hard work might fall apart.

“Back in New Jersey, I was doing a stone, and I was really struggling with it,” Gainsburg recalls. “I thought it was just coming together … and then all of a sudden, it just split in half. I had two halves. So, I took the skinnier one, and I held it up, and I saw this torso. And it was so thin that you could see through it, which made it even more beautiful. So, I did the torso. I made it kind of whimsical. It had a nice feel. I put it in a one-woman show I was doing, and 10 minutes after the show opened, I sold it. Never happened to me before.” Heidi Kyser

Cristian Sosa, Metalworker

Here’s what you see in Cristian Sosa’s warehouse workshop: slick motorcycles and car bodies that look like sculptures, burly machines that hammer, bend and bore. You see tools and frames, the materials of industrial purpose and intent. What you don’t see, though, are the mistakes.

“For every one thing I do right, there are three or four that are trash,” says Sosa, laughing. “I don’t get upset over that anymore. It’s part of the process. It has to happen for it to work.”

That sounds obvious, but there’s something more going on. Sosa’s relationship to metal isn’t just one of subject acting on object. Sosa shapes metal, but metal has also shaped him. It’s turned him from a troublemaking high-school dropout into a patient father, a respected artist and, at 34, a veteran metalwork guru who’s taught his craft all over the world. He and his brother Roberto started Sosa MetalWorks in September 2013 as a custom car and motorcycle shop. Today, it’s also informally a tool brand (Sosa makes and sells his own power hammers) and de facto metalworking academy. If that sounds like stratospheric success for only being in business five years, it is. But his boss — the metal, the work — keeps it from going to his head.

“The minute I come up and say, ‘Look at this bike, it’s a bad-ass bike, look at me, I’m a bad-ass builder,’ then I jump on a machine to make a gas tank — and the work puts you in your place. It kicks your ass. The minute you think you’re better than the work, it puts you right in your place.” No wonder the tough-looking, tattooed Sosa is so — there’s no better word for it — sweet.

I ask him if there’s anything he avoids doing lest he damage his hands, the fundamental tools of his trade. He says, “I don’t fight anymore.” See what the work does to a person? Andrew Kiraly

Scott Dickensheets is a Las Vegas writer and editor whose trenchant observations about local culture have graced the pages of publications nationwide.
As a longtime journalist in Southern Nevada, native Las Vegan Andrew Kiraly has served as a reporter covering topics as diverse as health, sports, politics, the gaming industry and conservation. He joined Desert Companion in 2010, where he has helped steward the magazine to become a vibrant monthly publication that has won numerous honors for its journalism, photography and design, including several Maggie Awards.
Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.