A chunk of mesquite that refused to burn ignited Gerald Tobola’s creative fire. It became his first lamp base, setting his hands to making lamps, and later repousse’, an age-old metalworking technique. The lamp needed a shade. Although he had no metalworking experience, Gerald wanted to work in copper
“I was 45 when I made my first lampshade,” recalled Gerald, who at 58 laughs fondly at the memory of his first cow bell-shaped, overweight attempt at a shade. “Creativity is a funny thing. Age doesn’t matter. It will come out in its time.”
His artistic journey, coupled with a corporate downsizing and series of fortuitous events, prompted him, along with his wife Debbie, to found Copper Shade Tree, a fine arts and crafts gallery specializing in Texas-made artwork. It is located in Round Top’s Henkel Square Market.
“We didn’t think it would end up this way,” Debbie said. “When we opened, we expected to stay in our first little shop dusting the shelves forever. We never dreamed that we’d move into a bigger gallery, host nationally recognized shows and be forced to put artists on a waiting list for gallery space.”
The gallery, which opened in 2006 with 12 artists, now represents 110 artists. It is situated at the forefront of the American-made movement.
“When we opened Copper Shade Tree, the ‘Made in America’ movement was gaining strength as a pushback to poorly made import goods,” Gerald said. “We decided to feature Texas artisans, putting a Texas made twist on a national movement.” A majority of the artists represented by the gallery live within 150 miles of Round Top.
“One of our goals is to educate people about fine crafts—beautiful, high-quality, hand-made things that all originated for practical purposes and have been elevated to art forms,” Gerald said.
The gallery includes pottery, wood carving, treenware, fiber art, jewelry, hand-made furniture, stained glass, blown glass and, of course, hand-crafted lamps featuring copper shades as well as examples of Gerald’s repousse’ work.
“Through the years, we’ve built a reputation for offering the highest-quality fine crafts,” Gerald said. “It’s gratifying when avid art collectors, who have traveled all over the world, come into the gallery and say they’ve never seen a collection with the depth, breadth and quality of ours.”
[pullquote width=”300″ float=”left”]“It’s gratifying when avid art collectors, who have traveled all over the world, come into the gallery and say they’ve never seen a collection with the depth, breadth and quality of ours.”[/pullquote]
In addition to the standing collection, which is constantly updated as artwork is sold and artists create new pieces, the gallery hosts special exhibits. Some are multi-artist shows such as the nationally-recognized The Art in Fiber Show held annually in late January and February. Others are solo shows.
As often as possible, the gallery hosts artist demonstrations, so the public can see the work in progress. For instance, in December, the Tobolas hosted “Santa’s Knee,” a show featuring the hand-carvings of Sharon Macioce. Each Santa she creates from cypress knees has its own distinct personality. The artist brought her tools and carved in the gallery.
Debbie observed, “People had the chance to see how much time, effort, creativity and skill goes into each and every piece. When the public gets to watch our artisans work, they come to understand that fine craft encompasses so much more than they realized.”
An Artist’s Artist
The Tobolas have always recognized that a gallery can’t be a gallery without artists.
“From the beginning, we’ve made artists the Copper Shade Tree’s number one priority,” Gerald said. “If we’ve done our homework with the artists, the customers will come.”
Debbie added, “The artists not only have to trust us with their art, they have to trust us to do right by them.” Through the years, the Tobolas estimate they have represented about 400 artists.
The fact that Gerald is an artist as well as a business owner has worked in the gallery’s favor.
“Our success all goes back to the relationship that we develop with the artists,” Gerald said. “We want to inspire everyone to deliver their best.”
Because he is a fellow artist, the others are open to his suggestions for improving their work and its marketability. Plus, as an artist, he inherently understands their art is a personal means of expression, differentiating art from traditional commerce and nine-to-five jobs.
“The thing about fine craftsmen is that we enjoy sharing ideas, tools and techniques,” Gerald said. “While we love to create, we also love to learn. When two artists put their heads and their talents together, the end result is a collaboration that yields fantastic one-of-a-kind pieces.”
The Artistic Journey
Gerald became a copper artist by working with the metal. When he began, he didn’t even know where to source copper. It took him six months of research to find the materials for his first lampshade. Trial and error, books and other artists were his teachers.
In 2001, he and Debbie participated in their first fine crafts show. It was in Gruene, Texas, three weeks after 9/11. They didn’t sell a thing.
“The experience was surreal. People were just going through the motions of living then,” Gerald recalled. “The country was at rock bottom.”
Debbie continued, “We looked at each other and knew we could only go up from there.”
They continued to travel on the fine craft circuit. Customers—their requests, questions and comments—pushed Gerald forward.
In Boerne, the couple encountered a rancher bearing tin sconces with stars embossed on them. He wanted them recreated in copper to be used as light fixtures for his pool area. He convinced Gerald to take the challenge. Through the process, Gerald figured out how work in relief on the copper eventually using thin sheets of vinyl as a “compressible” work surface and a tool originally designed for stained glass work to apply even pressure.
At a show in Fredericksburg, a woman walked past the couple’s booth and commented, “Your repousse’ is beautiful.”
“I didn’t know what repousse’ was,” Gerald said. Through his research, he discovered it was a technique in which a malleable metal is ornamented or shaped by hammering from the reverse side to create a design in low relief. It was the technique used to create the Statue of Liberty.
“As I researched it, I found that some of the finest repousse’ artists in the world are Czech,” Gerald, whose heritage is Czech, said. “It was just something deep inside me that needed to push its way out.”
In 2003 a layoff from his job at the Texas Medical Center changed art from a sideline pursuit to a full-time business. Serendipitous things like a feature on HGTV and Texas Country Reporter helped spread the word, encourage commissions, and keep the family afloat.
Debbie remembered, “At the time, it was terrifying. In hindsight, though, the layoff forced us to be risk takers when weren’t.”
Gerald applied and was accepted for a year-long artist-in-residence program at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft. During 2005, he honed his craft, learned the business side of the art world, and networked with fellow artists and patrons.
“That year was an intense labor of love,” Gerald said. “At the center, you got out of the experience everything you put in, so I gave it my all.”
In the meantime, Gerald’s older brother Jim and his wife Marilyn had moved to Round Top. The Tobola family has been in Fayette County for four generations. Through his brother’s connection, Gerald and Debbie had become friends with Scotty Lynch, who was managing Henkel Square. She wanted them to open a gallery in a newly renovated Bybee Square building in early 2006.
While considering the offer, the couple was evacuated from their home in La Porte as Hurricane Rita approached. A board member from the Craft Center caught wind of their future plans. She asked if they could be open by Feb. 18, 2006, in time to host a group of her guests.
They did it.
In two and a half months, the Tobola’s sold their home of 23 years in La Porte, moved to Round Top and opened Copper Shade Tree. The rest, as they say, is history built on hard work and faith.
Debbie said, “Copper Shade Tree exists because of an unlikely series of circumstances that fell in place just when needed. God had his hands in the middle of this from the beginning.”
The Next Big Things
The Copper Shade Tree is sprouting. In the spring of 2015, the Tobolas will open “Fine Home” by Copper Shade Tree, a gallery of handmade furniture, artwork and home accessories. It, too, will be located in Henkel Square Market with the artwork arranged in vignettes, so it’s easy for customers to see the design possibilities.
In addition to running the Copper Shade Tree, the Tobolas manage the day-to-day activities for Henkel Square Market and the Henkel Hall Event Center. For more information on the gallery’s collections, visit www.coppershadetree.com .