story by Derek Doeffinger,
photos by Derek Doeffinger and Gary Whelpley
If you asked me what I thought was the most amazing place in the Finger Lakes, you might think I’d pick a natural wonder. But why consider only natural wonders? After all, the Finger Lakes vibrate with human creativity– historical and current.
Focus the discussion on human-made wonders and there’s one place that’s truly, utterly, confoundingly amazing and unique.
That place is ArtisanWorks. There’s simply nothing like it. It’s a mad, maniacal, mysterious – but above all – magical place overflowing from floor to ceiling with visual delights made by hands from all walks of life for all sorts of people. It takes up 50,000, high-ceiling square feet in a former cannon factory on the east side of Rochester.
Jam packed with art, photographs, vintage cars, Americana, dioramas, devices and memorabilia on every available surface, twisting through a delightful maze of rooms and narrow corridors, it presents a daunting array of artful objects in a visual cacophony. The all things in all places presentation style is hard to categorize. It can seem like a three-ring circus, a fanciful dream, even a scene from a Willy Wonka movie.
For most visitors, “like” is the key word. Motorcycle restorer Tom Owejan liked it so much that he became a volunteer.
“There’s going to be something for everybody here,” Owejan stated.
Artist April Laragy Stein says, “This is a magical place. A pyschedelic walk through time.”
In the first 10 minutes, visitors will be visually confronted by a pair of full size fighting lions, an exquisitely made wood pencil sharpener the size of an oven, a vintage 1922 Velio car, a rhinoceros head surrounded by gorgeous paintings, a Tiffany lamp and Oz’s Tin Man.
The Tin Man’s presence suggests a more descriptive name such as “Oz’s Wizard World of Art and Curious Objects.” Or maybe “The Cathedral of Creativity.”
Soon you’ll turn a corner and be confronted by a life-size, bikini-clad mermaid sitting seductively in a handsome upright wooden canoe in front of a mint Corvair (“unsafe at any speed”). And don’t forget to look up at the ceiling, where giant paintings float like clouds and dangling candelabra sculptures of bowling pins and tin cans form an obstacle course for the multiple soaring metal and wood airplane sculptures to dart between.
Look hard and you’ll find Elvis (or is it an impersonator?). Not in a black velvet painting but as a life-size mannequin sculpture in full dance mode clinging to the outstretched arm of a beach babe, her hair brushing the floor as she arches back in a tango dip. Not an Elvis fan? How about Marilyn Monroe? A room is dedicated to her.
The combinations of “real” art and alley art are absurd and absurdly enjoyable. It’s only a matter of time before it occurs to “management” (hint hint) to hang their Warhol next to their warthog.
Few would deny the nostalgic appeal of mint vintage cars but not everybody would find the space for 62 of them, let alone fill the surrounding walls with era-appropriate art and memorabilia.
What could top a mint Ford Model A pick up? Maybe the mint Ford Model A pickup made out of wood (which took five years to make) that’s right next to it. Or a full-size wooden Harley accurate in detail down to its wooden cooling fins and spark plug cables. Ross Rider crafted these and several other oversize pieces of everyday objects (iron, toothbrush, pencil sharpener, stapler, mouse trap, old style soda fountain, and more).
Cultural wonders and curiosities abound. Would you smile or frown at the display of colorful 19th century corsets? How about the false teeth the size of a chair? And what would you make of the Eric Clapton guitar on display? There’s even a tap room. In it a human-sized chess piece (the black knight) challenges a grizzled, old suburban cowboy to a game of chess, all bathed in the eerie colored glowing light emanating from a wall of neon beer signs.
This extraordinarily inclusive gathering of art and its seemingly haphazard display does not sit well with traditionalists. But at ArtisanWorks, you decide what is art. Or you just meander along and wonder “What the heck?” Until you look up and see the snarling hyena crouched just above your head – time to scoot along.
Judging by the onsite and online reactions of tourists and other visitors, this stuffed closet approach amuses we ordinary folk far more often than it disappoints. Just check out the Google or Tripadvisor comments: “Fantastic place to stroll,” “Once in a lifetime experience.” One visitor told me, “It’s so cool. It’s like being in the brain of a very, very creative person.” She hit the nail on the head.
Of the over 500,000 pieces on display (and a few hundred thousand more in storage), photographs and paintings abound. Much of the art has been created by people in the greater Finger Lakes, and most of it is for sale.
Few in number but high in inventiveness are the ingenious mechanical pieces. In the Main Room (lobby area) Michael Kuyt’s handmade, 10-foot tall gravity clock powers its timekeeping with a 138-pound boulder that drops 2-1/2 inches per hour.
Take the guided tour (you should) into the bowels of the building to see the 9-foot-tall, rickety looking Electric Ball Circus. Created in the 1970s by George Rhoads, it was recently restored to operation by local volunteer Tom Owejan. Release a billiard ball at the top and watch and listen as it bumps, thumps, and curls down a convoluted chute knocking into and bouncing on an assortment of steel musical chimes to produce a clanking tune.
Who is behind this organized chaos?
That would be founder Louis Perticone and co-founder Kimberly Trenholm. Perticone is clearly the visionary and primary force. He’s also the compulsive collector with a pinball eye who has rapidly expanded his collection since starting it in his late teens. Trenholm, the practical and efficient manager of almost everything, has kept the organization on track through its growth spurts. Both have been ably assisted by Event Manager Jessica Pawlukewicz. Along the way, they’ve funded thousands of artists.
When Perticone moved into his own home, he quickly filled it with his art collection. The display style? You guessed it.
“Just like ArtisanWorks – floor to ceiling art and collectibles,” he said.
He opened his home for tours. When he ran out of space, he opened a retail gallery in the mid-90s. Again he ran out of space and in 2000 took over a few very large rooms in the former cannon factory. Soon out of space again, Perticone took over more of the factory and eventually the entire building.
Until a few years ago, the space included low-rent studios for up to 20 artists.
Finding money for a nonprofit
To achieve his grand vision required a lot of money. Perticone, whose laser focus is tempered by a great sense of humor and kindness, knows how to motivate his team to succeed. The group at ArtisanWorks, a self-funding nonprofit entity (no government money), pursued revenue from four main sources: ticket admissions, corporate art leasing and sales, donations and event activities.
Today, event revenue leads the way. Eight art-filled theme rooms strongly convey the atmosphere suggested by their names: Casablanca, Bourbon Street, The Fire House and more. With full services and varying sizes, the spaces can handle anything from large weddings to comfortable corporate brain-storming sessions, or an intimate dinner.
A small team of paid staff and volunteers runs it all. Some, like artists Richard Quataert and April Laragy Stein, have been volunteering for many years. Their loyalty remains in part because of Perticone’s commitment to helping artists as well as others, especially those in need.
“Louis is a generous spirit who always makes you feel good about what you’re doing,” said fix-anything volunteer Tom Owejan.
One last try to figure it out
On New Year’s Eve Day, I take a few steps into the cavernous lobby (called the Main Room), pause and look all around. This is my fifth visit. It’s as daunting as the first. I see things I overlooked the four previous times (the Tin Man, a giraffe skull, a Tiffany lamp, a giant wood iron). As I talked with volunteer host Steven, I could hear a tinkling piano in the back of the room and a faint voice.
Eventually I wandered back and saw a soloist sitting and playing. I listened and watched but before I could speak out, Steven shouted something I couldn’t make out, and the pianist tried to shout back rasping, “I said I was born in 1931.”
Behind a baby grand, Roslynn Germano, a former touring musician and nightclub owner, still loves the tunes she played when touring. Elfin like, she’s tiny and blind, and dwarfed by this cavernous art-filled room. Microphone jabbing at her face, her short hair, a bit scraggly, but somehow proudly retaining its natural sandy color, she raises her hands and drops her head. And sings. Her voice quavers but the lyrics flow as assuredly as her playing. She’s belting out oldies, real old oldies. Aware of me standing next to the piano, she sings with a plaintive and haunting tone that ramps up when she moves onto the St. Louis Blues: “I hate to see the evening’ sun go down; it makes me think I’m on my last go ‘round.” When she finished, three teen girls across the room applauded, and I felt a little shiver.
You can add a heart-tugging dash of performance art to this crazy place.
Tip: Take a tour
The tour takes you to room full of vintage cars and later the wooden Harley. If you visit buy the family membership for $60, because it gives you four free complimentary tickets which will make great gifts. It also allows you and your family (kids under 18) to return any time for free. Open Friday to Sunday, 12-5; group tours can be arranged during the week.
ArtisanWorks • 565 Blossom Road, Rochester, NY.
585-288-7170 • artisanworks.net