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Stephen Yusko (R) in workshop

Catching Up with Cleveland Sculptor and Metalsmith Stephen Yusko

For craftsman, maker, and artist Stephen Yusko, the past 18 months have been busy with a solo exhibition, a large-scale commission, and teaching. He also has a new project on the horizon that will bring together several parts of his life. 

Yusko—a three-time Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award recipient—is based in Cleveland, and his Ohio roots run deep. He spent the first part of his childhood in Middleburg Heights, a suburb of Cleveland. Then, in sixth grade, his family moved to Ashland, where his dad bought a small heating and air conditioning business. Yusko stayed in Ashland until college, moving back to Northeast Ohio to attend the University of Akron.  

He started as an engineering major but discovered after a few years that it wasn’t right for him. “I realized calculus and I were never going to be friends,” he said. But he still wanted to build things and figured out that going into sculpture and metalsmithing would allow him to do that.  

“I was really fortunate as an undergrad to have a couple of really influential instructors in Christina DePaul in the metals program, Bob Huff in sculpture, and mainly Don Harvey—who was and still is my mentor,” he said.  

A trip to the Penland School of Craft in 1989 allowed him to work with master jeweler Mary Ann Scherr. He described it as a “who’s who in the metals world...teaching and visiting...it was just incredible.”  

A year later, in 1990, he graduated from the University of Akron with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in sculpture.  

Post-graduation, Yusko originally thought he would pursue a graduate degree in industrial design, “but the more I got involved in the fine art world and [the] craft world, I just realized that’s really what I wanted to do.”  

These defining experiences set Yusko on his career path. 

2021: A Solo Exhibition and a Bridge 

Yusko’s background in sculpture and study of metals—he earned his Master of Fine Arts in metalsmithing from Southern Illinois University in 1999—continues to be seen in his work today. He combines mixed materials, like wood and other mediums, with forged, machined, and fabricated steel. 

He describes his work as “inspired by the convergence of structure and mechanisms—the things that make the thing” and that it “explores themes of balance, distance, and concepts of home.” 

His 2021 solo exhibition, “The Way Things Go” featured at Cleveland’s Sculpture Center, showcased his work.  

“My work, particularly the stuff that was in the most recent exhibitions, [is] about the materiality— the combination of different materials,” said Yusko. “But there's content to the work, though I never want the content to beat you over the head. I want it to be more subtle. So, the work always looks kind of playful.” 

The exhibition explored contemporary life and how people interact with each other, their environment, and politics.  

Overall, Yusko was happy with how the exhibition came together. "It made for a pretty cohesive show because I was thinking about this big topic, and I made work that was my response to these topics. I think, oftentimes, I don't have the time, or [I] don't have the space, to do a deep dive into my work like that.” 

While he was preparing for the Sculpture Center exhibition, he was asked by the Cleveland Metroparks if he was interested in working on a project with them. The project was a public commission for the Wendy Park bridge—a walking bridge connecting downtown Cleveland and the lakefront. It was also a collaboration with fellow artist Stephen Manka.  

For Yusko, “that's a project you don't say ‘no’ to!” 

It wasn’t the first time the two artists collaborated with each other. “We've done a lot of smaller things together, but the big ones that we did were the swings at Edgewater Park and then the Wendy Park bridge project,” said Yusko. “Steve and I were able to collaborate in really this kind of a seamless way because we both bring something to the table that the other one does not.” 

Manka specializes in public art, his work appearing throughout Cleveland and around the United States. After accepting the commission, Yusko and Manka spent the better part of three weeks creating design concepts with Manka using his skills as a designer to draw and create 3D models. Ultimately, they delivered three designs for consideration. 

The selected design was inspired by Cleveland’s well-known Guardians of Traffic, which adorn both sides of the Hope Memorial Bridge and serve as the namesake of the city’s Major League Baseball team.  

Like the Guardians, the Wendy Park sculptures greet bridge crossers on both sides. They are adorned with laser-carved sculptural elements, such as a murmuration of birds and flowers. At night, the sculpture lights up with programmable LEDs.  

“I think as we worked together, we brought out the best in each other's work, and we ultimately made it a better piece than either one of us would've done...had we done it by ourselves,” said Yusko.  

2022: A New Collaboration on the Horizon 

This year, Yusko will have the opportunity for another collaboration, this time with his dad.  

In July, Yusko was asked to contribute a piece to a woodturning exhibition in the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship’s Messler Gallery in Rockport, Maine. At first, Yusko wasn’t sure that the invitation meant for him, “I'm not a woodturner at all...it's not what I do.” 

But his two friends, the curators, explained the exhibition’s concept was for a woodturner and non-woodturner to create a piece together. So, Yusko needed to find a woodturner. 

That’s where his dad comes in. 

“My dad, for the last several years, has been making cutting boards and segmented wood turned bowls,” said Yusko “And I thought, ‘man, I'm going to ask my dad to do this with me.’” 

Yusko is looking forward to working with his dad. “I am so excited to be in an exhibition with my dad who is not in this world at all, or he hasn't been” until recently.  

When describing his dad, Stephen Yusko Sr., Yusko says he was always very handy. Along with the HVAC company, his parents owned rental homes. “My dad was always fixing things, you know, working on things, building things,” said Yusko.  

Being surrounded by his dad’s tools as a kid and learning how to use them is what first inspired Yusko to pursue engineering. It’s also what helped him realize that he could move in a different direction when he discovered engineering wasn’t the right fit, and still build things as a sculptor.  

So, it’s very fitting that their first collaboration together will be in an exhibition called “Turning It All Around.” 

 

You can learn more about Stephen Yusko and his work on his website stephenyusko.com/wordpress/. He can also be found on Instagram and Facebook @stephenyuskostudios.  

 

If you’re interested in learning more about the Ohio Arts Council’s Individual Excellence Awards, you can review the guidelines here.  

 

Article by Andrew Paa, OAC Communications Strategist 
The featured photo is from a class Yusko recently took, the first one in about 20 years.
Photos provided by Stephen Yusko.



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