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Esqueleto is a trip into the bountiful

A little-visited store holds art and history

by Ariana Souzis

Esqueleto is not the name of a sunny white-washed Mexican village or some ancient Incan ruins. It can be found in our own backyard, or, more specifically, the parking lot of the Conservatory.

Esqueleto is the name of that mysterious little art gallery tucked behind the Conservatory and the Co-op Bookstore. Set in a little brick building surrounded by colorful flowers, the Esqueleto gallery, shop and studio boasts a wide array of American folk art, including jewelry, ceramics, prints, drawings, sculpture and wood carvings. If you're looking for some medium-priced crafted gifts, Esqueleto, despite its enigmatic presence, really is a great alternative to the Co-op's merchandise.

"A lot of people are often too intimidated to come in here. But they shouldn't be - it really is a friendly fun place, and we do have many affordable things," said Deborah Banyas, part of the husband-and-wife artist team who started the gallery.

Both she and her husband, T.P. Speer, passionately believe in the importance of folk art galleries, where only handmade crafts are sold. For them, a particular aura or spirit is infused in the craftwork which cannot be imitated in manufactured objects. This sense of individual and unique self-expression has fired their zeal for both creating folk art and making it accessible to the public.

The Esqueleto Gallery was originally bought in 1988 to be a studio for Banyas, who had settled in Oberlin with Speer in 1982. But after four years, in 1992, they decided they wanted to open up a gallery in the space that would represent their work and the work of their artist friends. They called it the Esqueleto Gallery; "esqueleto" means skeleton in Spanish. Banyas explains the title as a description for building up the gallery with local art.

"The skeleton is the framework of everything in life. Our bodies are built on the skeleton." So far the gallery has been fairly successful, drawing in clients from the Cleveland area, along with townspeople and parents. However, as Banyas pointed out, the students, either through ignorance or intimidation, rarely poke their heads in the door.

Now there is no excuse not to visit the gallery. Starting September 20 its Autumn Show opens, featuring a variety of folk artists. Their main exhibit revolves around the leaded glass, copper and aluminum votive lamps of Bob Calton, a friend from Minnesota.

Other works included artists such as Scott Lyon's cut paper shadow boxes; Barbara Browning and Richard Kooyman's intricately detailed carved wood clocks, snakes and pins; Gary Spinosa's smooth porcelain animal face neckpieces; Banyas' little clay headed animal people with stuffed fabric bodies; and T.P. Speers own specialty, two dimensional color prints and drawings. Or take a look around at Vaughan Smith and Jackie Culver's ceramic painted cat bowls and mugs.

All the works chosen reflect Banyas and Speer's enthusiasm for image-oriented art (mostly animals), and have a sense of humor and whimsy. As the manager, Amy Greene from Kipton says, "We really enjoy being here when someone cracks up with laughter over some piece. Or when we end up having a 15-minute or half-hour conversation with the customer."

Not only is the artwork fun to look at, the atmosphere friendly and laid back, but, as Greene points out, "You can benefit greatly for the holiday season. We have great gifts and we're glad to ship them UPS."

So the next time you're finishing a slice in Annie's, take a peek into the Esqueleto Gallery. And take more than one - it is constantly bringing in new works, so every visit is a treat.

The Esqueleto Gallery, 22 Carpenter Court (behind West College and Main Street Stores), Oberlin. Hours are Monday-Saturday 1-5. Phone: 216 775-2238.

Copyright © 1996, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 125, Number 2; September 13, 1996

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