Robin & John Gumaelius

Quills & Queues: Washington couple show whimsical works at Hanson Howard

By Jeffrey GillespieFor the Tidings


Posted May. 26, 2016 at 4:15 PM

 

John and Robin Gumaelius are longtime collaborators, both in life and in art. The husband and wife team, who have lived 17 miles outside of the tiny Washington community of Cosmopolis, have been collaborating on their whimsical artworks of ceramic, steel and wood for at least a decade and a half. Many are on display at the Hanson Howard Gallery in Ashland. The sculptures, which carry forth childhood memory and might provoke, in the viewer, a certain desire to continue their childhood hopes of seeing fairies at the bottom of the garden, are metamorphic entities that delight and inspire.
A stony-faced pharaoh with a crown of birds gazes out onto a world that we can only hope to imagine through his eyes. An alabaster-colored marionette rides a tricycle to goodness-knows-where, a raven perched atop her head. A pair of ceramic court jesters are joined at the hip, and painted on their conjoined belly is a visual interpretation of their "Shared History." Elsewhere in the realm of the Gumaelius imagination, a figure in harlequin pantaloons rides a one-wheeled bicycle with a Pandora's box of treasures attached to the front end.
With this sort of imagery on full display, it's no surprise that the Gumaelius' love a good story. Living as homesteaders in their small town, they are raising four children between the ages of 6 and 14. As such, much time is spent in the nooks and crannies of the school library, where John and Robin seek out children's books, history books, art and audio books that inform their processes. They have a particularly strong interest in books about icons, reliquaries, medieval and Renaissance history. There is a current focus on African skin decoration, as well as holy relics from Germany. 
The Gumaelius' began their artistic and romantic collaboration during college, when John walked into Robin's studio and saw a large ceramic lady with a giraffe popping out of her dress, leaning up against the wall. While beautiful, it was too top-heavy to be stable. "He said, 'l can fix that for you,'" recalls Robin. John built a special wagon for the piece, and the signature "Gumaelius cart" was born. The children followed, as did a large house and studio with a woodstove, goat barn, hay loft, two dogs and various resident animals. There is a river to swim in, and a fire pit for chilly nights outdoors.
"It just doesn't get any better than this," says John. 
As far as making the actual art goes, John creates oval coils that he can build into a head in just a couple of days — the same amount of time it takes for Robin to carve the surface of just one small figure. She will often sit up in her rocking chair (a comfort that was excavated from the burn pile at the local school) working a piece in her lap while the two listen to audio books. The small porcelain pieces are built using a combination of molds, slabs, extrusions, pinching, and coiling. John and Robin often build four or five pieces and then keep them moist in Tupperware boxes and plastic bags until they are ready to carve them all.
John's larger pieces are wood-fired, so he spends more time chopping and stacking wood, strategically loading the kiln, and actually firing the kiln.
The children are also beginning to follow their parents into creative pursuits, working on various art projects on the property. Robin considers the family penchant for artistic endeavors to be something of a tribal motivation. "Art isn't this separate thing for us," she says. "It's just part of the way we are." 
The Gumaelius family, much like the art that they manifest, seems to live in a special place somewhere between the magical and the real. Spend some time with their pieces, and you too will likely be granted a glimpse into a world of sweet alchemy.
New work by John and Robin Gumaelius will be on view at Hanson Howard Gallery, 89 Oak St. in Ashland, from June 1-28, with an artists' reception from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday, June 3, during the First Friday Artwalk.
Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.