Face to face: Stephen Yusko

Tucked away on East 41th Street just across the way from Tyler Village, Stephen Yusko is toiling away at his studio wherein you'll find milling machines and band saws and the usual residents in a metalworking shop. But Yusko's tools also include anvils, a white-hot forge and the tongs and hammers that transform steel into the smith's graceful designs.

"My work is a combination of forging, machining and fabricating. It seems like more machining, but it always starts with a forged … something," says Yusko. "I enjoy that process: heating up a bar of steel and transforming it into a shape."

Yusko continues while a cat named M slinks around the shop, completely unimpressed by the craftsman's lofty musings: "It might be really simple transformation. It might be just a taper, but forging enables you to have that really gorgeous line where you're moving the mass and changing the shape of that material."

Call that a far cry from the myriad smiths at county fairs and historical reenactment events who are honorably keeping a craft alive for the sake of it. Yusko's application of the skill is completely different. To that end, his works are celebrated at points across the nation as well as the world.

His sculptures are currently on display through July at the Ruthin Craft Centre in Wales along with that of five other American smiths and 10 international artisans. Later this month, he'll be part of a group exhibition in Wexford, Ireland, at the Blue Egg Gallery. Yusko was chosen on account of the theme "house forms," a concept that has heartily influenced his work as evidenced in his 2013 Federal Boxes and the 2015 Dream House, among others. The latter was auctioned off as part of a biennial event to benefit America SCORES Cleveland. Dream House was inspired by "The Rain," a poem by Anilah L., Grade 4, Wade Park School.

While addressing The View from Here (2016), a more elaborate house form sculpture, Yusko says, "This is sort of a take on contemporary culture and society. 'Here' is sort of arbitrary. Is it here? There? Where is 'here?'" he poses as he describes the sculpture's components. "This is a very basic simple house form that's upside down. This is a little more complex house form that is peeled away from being upside down. This is the glass house  — the obscured house that's behind this textured glass. Is 'the view' from this glass house looking at these upside down houses?" says Yusko, noting that it's all connected with a forged steel that evokes both a bridge and road.

"I like that it's talking about displacement and the housing crisis and the idea of home," he says, noting that means something completely different to everyone, from a resident of the surrounding St. Clair Superior neighborhood or suburbanite, to a person in Syria. The American concept of home has also transformed from the clichéd "2.5 kids and a station wagon" five decades ago to, well, today's modern families with two dads, step kids, single moms ...

"Home is so different now. What is home to you?" he poses, summarizing how he presents the fluctuating concept to the world with his craft, which includes complex joinery and exacting angles — achievements only another smith can truly appreciate, but they deliver to the layperson just the same. "I can combine this traditional blacksmithing practice with a contemporary sculpture with some content behind it."

His venerable accolades are too many to list, but they include a coveted 2016 solo show at the Metal Museum in Memphis and a nine-year stint on the board of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. Just last month, he helped program the 2017 Society of North American Goldsmiths conference in New Orleans. Locally, Yusko was formerly an artist-in-residence at Rose Iron Works and a 2011 recipient of the Creative Workforce Fellowship among other achievements.

Life outside the studio includes sharing a century Victorian home in Lakewood with wife Ruth Coffey, who chairs the board of directors for America SCORES Cleveland. When the couple dines out on the west side, it's often at Toast in Gordon Square or Humble in Lakewood. When Yusko's grabbing a bite close to work, he opts for the drunken noodles at Map of Thailand or stuffed wings at Siam Café.

"Those things are deadly," he says, adding that the fish tacos on Friday night at Taco Tontos are "pretty killer."

Beer of choice? The Hungarian, whose grandparents lived in Buckeye on East 120th Street, likes Great Lakes' Conway's Irish Ale so much that he keeps a case on hand.

<span class="content-image-text">Swinging bench for Edgewater Park</span>Swinging bench for Edgewater ParkDangerous food and drink options notwithstanding, the Ashland, Ohio native is fresh off the heels of completing public swinging benches for the dazzling new Edgewater Park Beach House, a project he undertook along with Stephen Manka. Now he aims to continue his international expansion after the summer shows in the United Kingdom come to a close, perhaps into Japan. Until then, Yusko is happy to create and work in the 216.

"I think it's possible to have a contemporary statement that's making work that is now — in the present and very much feels like it's in the present — but it's pulling everything we've had in the past to that work, whether it's the material, whether it's the color choice, whether it's the way in which it's built. To me those things are really important," he says, "to put all that stuff together.

"We're all products of where we come from and where we've been and I'm always going to be from around here no matter where I go. I'm always going to see the world through this," he says of Cleveland's industrial landscape.

"That's just what I know. That's just what I've grown up with."

Erin O'Brien
Erin O'Brien

About the Author: Erin O'Brien

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.