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Man made

Four local male artists broaden traditional stereotypes of "crafts"


If the term "craft fair" brings up imagery of all things sweet, delicate, and pretty, with hair clips, jewelry, knittery, and journals, think again. While it may be true that the local-focusing craft markets have been mini-femme fests, lately there has been an increase in male artists mixed in with the gals. The following article features four Rochester-based creator dudes who have been spotted at Rochester's indie-art fairs, each the makers of fascinating work that transcends the niches from which they arose.

Check out videos of an Amputheatre game in action, cigar-box guitars being played, and view photo slideshows of more of the artwork discussed below.

A trip to the studio of sculptor and illustrator Robert Rogalski in the Hungerford Building yields non-stop wonders. You could spend hours exploring the small space's minute treasures, and discussing art, culture, politics, and social issues with the sharply critical yet warm and witty artist. Rogalski's studio is packed to the high ceiling with various projects in progress, shelves showcasing finished works, puppets of various sides and materials, rows of dental tools and toothpicks for precision detailing, neatly organized fragments of machines and bits of other interest, and a jungle of plants.

You'll find magnificent dollhouses created with astounding detail that evoke both a Hobbit's home and also the coolest tree house that you never bothered to conceive as a kid. A wide desk holds an army of tiny, expressive faces and fragments of figures, waiting to be pieced together into unique characters. Rogalski's 5" to 9" figures have character. Often depicted with a retro sci-fi flair, they include ordinary heroes like the serious little crossing guard with an armadillo motif on his hat, who looks like a knight in tarnished armor.

Rogalski describes his work as both whimsical and nostalgic, influenced by children's entertainment of the 1970's and 1980's, including Steven Spielberg films and illustrators whose styles were a turn-of-the-century throwback. Rogalski began sculpting at age 12, inspired by stop-motion animation. He studied special effects for film and industrial design the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and today makes work worthy of Jim Henson's Creature Shop.

The artist has illustrated a children's book, is writing a young-adult adventure-epic novel, does freelance illustration, teaches puppet workshops, and has been a featured artist at the Strong National Museum of Play, where his work will be featured in two more events this fall. Rogalski sells his work out of his studio on First Fridays, and plans to participate in craft fairs and conventions this year.

See the work: Suite 222, Hungerford Building, 1115 E. Main St.

Robert Rogalski sculpture | VIDEO BY MATT DETURCK

The first time I saw Gil Merritt's fantastically gruesome Chenille Macabre figurines — made of pipe cleaners, felt, fabric paint, and bits of plastic — I was impressed not only by the creative variety of beasts and humanoids, but also by the clever way he manipulates those unlikely materials into works of highly detailed monster art. He creates six to 10 figures per week, depending on their complexity. Among my favorites are a bipedal anglerfish, a terrifying marsupial rat, and a nightmarish figure with giant tarantulas for hands. There are no good guys, no heroes, Merritt says. The artist draws influence for each creature from horror films, literature, mythologies, and the news.

While many people simply lament and complain when they don't get what they want, Merritt has shrugged and decided to make his own version of it. He began making sculptures with twist ties as a kid, simulating the toys that he wanted, working up to the caliber or figures he's been creating for the past 10 years. After a video game that he was excitedly anticipating was deemed too violent and cancelled in 1998, he set out to make something in the same vein. As Merritt isn't a programmer, he decided to make a graphic board game with fighter figures with removable heads and arms, so they could essentially "rip apart."

What he developed became Amputheatre, which is now patented and has grown in popularity so that there are chapters who play that game in different cities around the nation, and even outside the country. Up to eight people can play at once, taking turns to deal damage to each others' beastly avatars as they compete for a full government pardon in one of various prison boards.

Merritt makes every part of the now-patented game, from the grid-style boards, to the figures, the weapons, character spec sheets, and the copyrighted rules of the games. But he also takes tips and suggestions from a network of fans who are avid players. The game has its roots in Dungeons & Dragons, says the artist, and it uses 8-, 10-, and 12-sided dice. Though Merritt does recommend the game with a "mature" rating, the fuzzy and funny aspect of the figures make the violence surreal, like in the "Evil Dead" movies.

The game might one day be produced en masse, but for now the artist is enjoying its cult success and the homemade aspect of what he does. Merritt works as a design consultant at The Frame Shop in Henrietta, is an announcer for the Roc City Roller Derby, and builds figures for commissions. These have varied from various beasts from Lovecraftian lore, to building a sculpture off of a drawing by a client's 10-year-old son. Merritt will be a featured artist in a (toned-down) monster show this fall at the Museum of Play. You can play Amputheatre at Millennium Games in Henrietta and Pair-A-Dice games in the Village Gate, and at a bunch of upcoming shows and conventions. Watch the website for details.

See the work:

Gil Merritt's "Amputheatre" | VIDEO BY MATT DETURCK

I was checking out a holiday craft fair two years ago at The Yards when from across the room drifted some melodious, blues-y notes from an amplified guitar. Craning my neck over the crowd, Adam Francey and Joe Allgeier became visible, sitting at a table full of handmade instruments under a giant sign that read "MAN CRAFTS." Their table was swamped, with shoppers of all ages wanting to try their hand at the folk-art cigar-box guitars that produced such stunning sounds.

Man Crafts has been in business for about four years now. The duo met at Rochester Institute of Technology, where Allgeier currently works as a technician in 3D design in the Foundations Department of the College of Imaging Arts & Sciences. He has a background in wood and ceramic sculpture, which comes through in the lovely, wood-grain-highlighting lockets and rings he creates for commissions, as well as ceramic wind chimes and whistles. Allgeier also makes carved wood signs for businesses and is working on an inlaid wooden table.

Francey studied illustration and fine art painting, and in addition to making Pennsylvania Dutch-inspired folk signs and instruments, he is a tattoo artist at White Tiger Tattoo on Ridge Road. He grew up drawing and playing instruments, and got his start making instruments when his brother — who owned a cigar shop — turned him on to, an instructional and resource site for the craft. Francey appreciated Allgeier's craftsmanship, and the two began collaborating on the design of the one-, two-, and three-string instruments they now make.

The works aren't meant to be slick, but homespun, says Francey. When a person spends time playing one, and figures out its quirks, it really becomes theirs. Each instrument is uniquely painted and embellished with bits of metal interest, and has a 24" fret-less board, which works well with the glass slides the pair creates from the necks of old wine bottles.

Also popular are the wooden spoon and bottle-cap rattles (which are sharp and meant to be used as instruments, not toys). The guys sell their works online and at craft fairs, and participated in a bluegrass festival in 2010, during which Man Crafts sold many guitars, and the duo says it would have visitors to their tent who wanted to jam well into the evening.

See the work:,

"Man Crafts" cigar-box guitar | VIDEO BY MATT DETURCK