September 20, 2014

Profile: Assemblage Artist Ran Adler

It took two pivotal moments to bring eventual success on a long road to breakthrough.

Daniel Cutrona

Pivotal moments rarely so literally involve a pivot in people’s lives. But for Naples assemblage artist Ran Adler, two of the defining moments in his journey happened after he made about-faces.

In the early ’80s, Adler moved halfway across the country from California to Kansas City. A young gay man, he just missed the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic that would ravage his friends back west.

“The ’70s was a period of wild, uninhibited lifestyles. I did everything everyone else was doing,” he says. “I left at just the right moment. I just got lucky.”

Disillusioned with the party scene and feeling ostracized from the local gay community, he fell into a deep, loving relationship with a woman that would last nearly a decade.

It was during a dinner party at their home that someone commented on the floral arrangements he made and suggested he go into business for himself. His work with floral design eventually led him to the natural material assemblage art he does today.

“I did a lot of gathering back then,” he says. “And that’s when I started working with horsetail, which is one of the major elements of my work.”

By the mid-’90s, Adler’s work had started to really take shape. But he put things on hold to take care of his aging parents in their final years. He moved back to St. Louis, where he’d grown up from age 7 and where he found the inspiration for some of his work.

Spirals, encased in Lucite, have become his signature pieces. They came from the memories of days spent near the intersection of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, where the current along the banks would create swirling pools. One afternoon, when he wasn’t there, a friend of his drowned in one of those pools, cementing their destructive force in his mind.

The hanging “tornadoes,” which range from 10 to 25 feet high, come from a memory of a scout camp ravaged by a storm that left a path of destruction in its wake.

“It was the first time I remember feeling the power of nature,” he says.

Being back home put things in focus for Adler. He knew it was time to make a move to some place where he could focus entirely on his art.

“I wanted to immerse myself in my work,” he says. “In doing so, it would cure a lot of demons.”

So, after his father, then mother, passed, he packed up an Airstream trailer they left him and set his sights south, to a place he had visited on vacation a year earlier—Naples.

Matthew Huddleston was one of the first people Adler met when he got here eight years ago. He hosted the first local exhibition of Adler’s assemblage pieces four months later. He used Adler’s creative vision to help him with his floral and event planning business. So he’s had a pretty good view of Adler’s ascent in the local arts community.

What he’s seen is a man who already had a vision, who was an accomplished artist and gifted floral arranger. But he just hadn’t quite found his groove as a confident, sought-after artist in the community.

“When he got here, he hadn’t dedicated his life exclusively to his art,” Huddleston says. “It’s the greatest satisfaction seeing him doing that and to see what doing that has created.”

Adler’s art has become some of the most coveted work among local collectors and interior designers. It’s hard to go a few months without seeing one of his pieces popping up in a glossy magazine spread (Gulfshore Life included).

Much of his work focuses on repetition of forms in some way, often bringing in an effect for the viewer that can be suddenly broken by changes in the way the three-dimensional objects play with light and shadow.

Made with natural materials Adler collects from Missouri, the pieces have a particular resonance in Southwest Florida because they bring the outside in.

“That’s so much the way we live here, isn’t it?” says Judith Liegeois, who sells Adler’s work at her Old Naples design store and uses it frequently in her interior design business.

It pleases Adler that interior designers love to use his work. A lot of artists might balk at the idea that the main dealer of their work is a home design store (though Adler does show at Gardner Colby Galleries in Naples and in Miami and Atlanta). The idea that their art could be equated to a lamp or a couch would send many artists into histrionics, Adler admits. Not him.

“The field is very competitive, so anytime you have people who love your work and want to buy it, whether it be patrons directly or interior designers, that’s great,” he says. “But I had a battle about this in my mind, ‘Is it art or craft?’ And it’s all craft when it comes down to it. I’ve found a lot of really wonderful artists who ventured into decorative art. Art is whatever you can do to express yourself and decorative art fits right in with that.”

He could have easily just said, “Hey, Picasso made plates.”

At this point in his career, Adler has little concern for his place in the art world. He’s not trying to be seen as hip. Even his monastic devotion to wearing only white—only his glasses, shoes and the occasional jacket spoil the look—is more of an attempt to simplify and be comfortable than it is to make some aesthetic statement.

“It’s like wearing pajamas all the time,” he says.

But his appearance—his shaved head and white goatee add to the monk-like look—combined with the repetitive nature of his work do give him an aura of someone either seeking or dispensing some sort of wisdom. In more recent pieces, Adler has taken to burning the poems of Rumi—the 13th century Sufi mystic—onto pieces of wood and bundling them into boxes. The boxes, which sell for $400 to $500, are so popular he can’t make them fast enough.

Earlier this winter, he was undertaking a bigger version of this work on commission with a large log he found washed up on the banks of the Missouri. At a table in the sunroom studio of his home, in a 55-plus mobile home park in East Naples, he plans to burn thousands of Rumi’s words onto the log, using every nook and cranny to impart their wisdom. Originally, he’d burned the log with Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. But something didn’t feel right; it took him too long to get into the process. So he sanded it away.

He runs his hands over the log’s smooth surface, absentmindedly touching the knots, which poke up out of the otherwise homogenous surface.

“Rumi has a way of putting words in your mind, and the act of burning his words on wood helps me re-familiarize myself with them,” he says. “We tend to forget what is beautiful in life. Rumi reminds us of that.”

And perhaps that’s what Adler’s work is doing for those who view it, taking otherwise uninspiring detritus and turning them into something more. With his more recent success, that’s what Adler hopes is happening.

“It’s been satisfying,” he says of his work selling. “It makes me feel that my contribution is significant. It makes me think people are getting the message.”

 

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