Visual Arts

Changing Hand

Joanne Rapp has always been something of a "low talker"--that Seinfeldian girlfriend of Kramer's whose inaudible delivery got the politely nodding Jerry to agree inadvertently to wear a "puffy shirt" on national television. But the wares and wearables Rapp promoted in near whispers for 26 years at her Marshall Way gallery, the Hand and the Spirit (H&S), were rarely the puffy kind. They were usually sleek products from some of the more notable craftspeople working today. And their presence made the H&S one of the five or six best American galleries of craft.

Rapp sold the Scottsdale gallery last month to Bentley Dillard, who owns the neighboring Bentley Gallery and has collected and exhibited crafts for years. Rapp's departure has already become this summer's gossip at crafts camps from Aspen, Colorado, to Haystack, Maine. How the transaction--for an undisclosed amount--will affect the gallery's identity may not be known for some time. Yet its impact on Rapp is already apparent. Her voice has slipped even deeper into the metaphysical range.

"Someday I'd really like to talk to you about the gallery," she says by phone. "But it's just at a very delicate moment right now. I told [my husband] the other day that I'm in the realm of the ephemeral. The gallery is gone. It's just floating around me. It will never be the same."

This is the true magic of art. It turns shopkeepers into missionaries and mystics. Yet friends say Rapp comes by it honestly. The crafts have been less of a product for her than a cause and a well-worn path to enlightenment.

Dillard, who moved her Bentley Gallery here from Philadelphia in 1990, says she plans to carry on some of that cause. The new H&S will maintain the old one's focus on crafts. The gallery's staff will remain. Yet its appearances have already begun to change. The north half of the gallery is down to bare walls. The carpeting is gone. Waxed concrete floors are in the works. The lighting has been upgraded. The south half of the building will get the same treatment when the north half is completed.

In addition to making those changes, Dillard says she wants the H&S, which will keep its name for the time being, to become a key Valley source for good contemporary design--an area that Rapp never promoted.

"A lot of people with homes in the Valley are coming from other major cities where more has been available," she says. "And the fact is there just isn't much of that here right now."

The aim, says Glenn Lineberry, who manages the Bentley Gallery, is to enable "people to be able to come in here and almost outfit their home. A lot of people go and spend a lot of money at Neiman Marcus and Dillard's. And for the same price or less, you could have really fabulous, hand-made unique work. So, I'd like to give people the opportunity to see and order works from artists who have sort of more production-oriented lines."

Lineberry adds that while continuing to show H&S's current range of clay, wood, fiber, jewelry and clothing, the gallery will "probably move toward more high-end works."

He mentions using the wood theme as a hook to bring in sculptures by Martin Puryear, or developing historical shows around the West Coast Funk ceramists of the 1960s and potters who have worked at the Archie Bray Foundation.

It's fairly easy to date the Hand and the Spirit. The name harks back through the Hand-in-the-Pocket 1990s and '80s to the early 1970s when the counterculture viewed crafts as a cure for modernity's high-tech headaches. This romantic view basically updated the anti-industrial outlook of William Morris and other 19th-century arts and crafters, who had railed against the dehumanizing impact of machine-made objects. Yet craft's association with back-to-nature, back-to-the-hand philosophies distanced it from anything avant in the arts. The field's preoccupation with materials and outmoded ways of making things was simply too quaint for an art world bent on dematerializing works into pure concepts.

Star Miller Sacks, who was Rapp's partner from the gallery's beginning in 1972 until 1986, says the perceived split between art and craft was apparent in the early days. But it didn't matter to her. Instead of worrying whether something was art or craft, she says, "I was more concerned about whether it was any good. If it's good expression--well done, unique--then it is artistic no matter what the medium. That was really the idea behind the gallery and its name, that we were going beyond functional craft, and that the finest works of craft were legitimate expressions of their own."

"Joanne and Star really carried the torch for crafts," says Rudy Turk, who, as head of the ASU Museum from 1967 through 1991, developed its notable collection of craft works and folk art. "No one else around here was showing anything like it when they opened. In fact, there weren't many galleries anywhere else in the country that specialized in the crafts. It was one of those areas that was truly overlooked."

The painter Lew Davis' Scottsdale gallery had included crafts, such as ceramics by Gertrud and Otto Natzler, among its shows. Paolo Soleri had his bells, and Lloyd Kiva was producing his extraordinary leather work. But elsewhere in Scottsdale, the relative handful of galleries were pushing Southwestern painting and sculpture.

Rapp says that void defined the H&S's mission. She and Sacks were convinced that America's finer craftspeople deserved to have their works seen on more than burlap-covered booths at outdoor craft fairs.

The gallery opened in a room of the old adobe that housed the Riva Yares Gallery on Bishop Lane. Within the first year, Rapp and Sacks moved it to larger quarters and better crowds on Marshall Way.

Their early shows ranged broadly from quilts, glass and basketry to pottery, textiles, folk art and furniture. Their roster evolved into a Who's Who of artists who have become acknowledged leaders of their fields. Rapp says that not all of them were young. Some were well into middle age. They simply hadn't had an opportunity to show in a gallery setting. Among the artists were potters Karen Karnes, David Shaner, Edwin Scheier and Ed Eberle, glassblower Dale Chihuly, woodturners Ed and Phil Moulthrop, jewelers Clare Yares and Linda Threadgill, and textile artists Kay Sekimachi and Carol Shinn.

Turk says the gallery brought the craft world within easy reach of the Valley and the ASU Museum, which didn't have much of a travel budget. "The other advantage was that I could see all of those artists and their works in quantity."

The gallery also became a prime source of works for the museum's collection. The most notable example is probably the group of more than 90 turned wooden bowls that Phoenix attorney Edward Jacobson assembled in the 1970s and 1980s and subsequently gave to the museum.

Jacobson credits Rapp with having sold him his first bowl--by Ed Moulthrop--and introduced him to other master turners.

Rapp's strength as a dealer was that she didn't try to exhibit everything. After Sacks left the partnership, Rapp did fewer shows of folk art and basketry. She generally concentrated on contemporary artists whose works revived and reinterpreted the shibui values of refined Japanese simplicity that caught her eye in the 1960s and never let go. Aside from the new wall and floor colors, the departure of that particular vision of craft is likely to be the most significant change at the gallery.

But it will probably occur gradually. Rapp says she's agreed to serve as a curatorial consultant to the new H&S, assisting with exhibitions and art fairs, and traveling. In the coming weeks, she'll be working Japan for the gallery. When she returns, the Hand and the Spirit isn't likely to look like anything she ever owned.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow