A tree climber who branched out as artist and gallery owner

Growing up, Linda Rzoska (ZOO-ska) lived on a dead end street in the small town of Bangor, Mich. Where the street came to a stop there was a fence. On the other side of that fence was a ravine and another world, filled with trees. She hugged them, she sat with her back leaning against their trunks, she climbed into their canopies and let her feet dangle below her, at one with the craggy branches.

"I spent most of my time in that ravine to get away from my little brother." Rzoska laughs. "He kept punching me. My sisters called me Nature Girl."

Back then the little girl stood by the fence at the edge of the ravine, fingers curled through the wire, and gazed at the great old trees. "I could hear them whisper, ‘Come on, Linda, come closer …'" Rzoska shrugs and smiles. "I've been following that voice ever since."

The woman who grew from that girl is today an accomplished artist and the owner of Ninth Wave Studio, an art gallery in the historic Mary Louise Haynes House at 213 West Walnut Street, built in 1895, on the south edge of downtown Kalamazoo. Her specialty, her most frequent subject matter in her art, no matter the medium: trees.

Ninth Wave Studio also showcases many of greater Kalamazoo’s artists. During the Dec.  6 Art Hop, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., 15 local artists will be showcased: Mary Hatch, Michael Dunn, Francis Granzotto, David Jay Spyker, Felicia Bojkewich, Angela Olson, Beth Purdy, Alexa Karabin, Merry Petroski, Lorrie Abdo, and Melody Allen among them.

"We participate in four to six Art Hops per year," Rzoska says. "We will probably be doing more. Otherwise, people need to make an appointment to visit the gallery, and I’ll be delighted to show you around."

Planted among the artwork of other artists are Rzoska’s own paintings, etchings, and graphite drawings. One floor above the gallery, which is on the second floor of the Haynes House, is Rzoska’s attic studio. Sketches and etchings and paintings in all stages of process line the walls and are scattered over all the surfaces, even on the floors. Magnifying glasses and lights loom over the details. Brushes, pencils, pastels, whole and broken, line shelves. And more: pine cones, chunks of broken bark, birds' nests, shells, feathers and stones. Work goes on here, and not a little magic.

Rzoska sips tea from a ceramic mug and ponders. "I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my seventh grade art teacher. She was the first art teacher the Bangor schools hired. She was just out of college and so enthusiastic. I took every art class I could with her."

As a college art student at Western Michigan University, Rzoska told her art professor: "I want to paint trees." She was fascinated by nature, folklore, mythology and comparative religion. In later years, Rzoska continued her graduate studies in art management and began her own home-based business, Design and Illustration Associates.

"I did that until my husband wanted our house to be a home only." Rzoska smiles. The Rzoskas purchased the Haynes House on West Walnut Street in 1989, and began converting it to a place of business in 2009. Linda Rzoska, also on the faculty of Kalamazoo Valley Community College since 2000 as a founding member of their Center for New Media, where she teaches design and illustration, was on sabbatical in 2009.

"I was in the Netherlands visiting an art gallery owned by a woman who had her art studio in the attic," she recalls. She had new-found inspiration. The house was converted, the lower floor rented out, the second floor filled with art, and the attic became Rzoska's home away from home, high up, as if in a tree top.

"Gallery owners today need a second income to survive," Rzoska says. "Rental income, teaching income, that makes this possible." In a leaner economy, Rzoska sighs, art buyers go lean, too. She recalls something Winston Churchill had said during a wartime lean economy when there was talk of cutting arts programs in schools. "Then what are we fighting for, Churchill asked!"

Because of her interest in Celtic mythology, and after making many art-motivated trips to Ireland, Rzoska named her new gallery Ninth Wave Studio. "In Celtic mythology, the ninth wave symbolizes going beyond the boundaries of the mortal world, being open to new things."

New things, yes, always, but the old trees still root in Rzoska. She no longer climbs them, but her KVCC students do on their excursions overseas, when Rzoska takes them to study abroad, usually to Ireland and to the Netherlands (Rzoska has been an artist-in-residence at the Burren College in Ireland, and she has exhibited work in both countries). She teaches them to see nature, and trees, with new eyes.

"Trees witness so much; I draw them as silent witnesses," the artist says.

Much of the artwork in the Ninth Wave Studio reflects eyes on nature, too. A walk around the gallery rooms shows the fantastic gourds of Dale Menz, magical creatures that shimmer and seem to be born of dreams; the watercolors and acrylic paintings of David Jay Spyker, bringing alive a piece of driftwood on beach sands or a sky heavy with clouds; a ceramic bowl by Francis Granzotto with the colors of earth and clay and moss and sky; mixed media by Michael Dunn, in swirls of luminous light and misted air tangled with mysterious shadows that hypnotize. And there’s more. Moving from room to room, more, and Rzoska is happy to tell the stories of the artists or to leave the art lover to browse.

"If there’s anything I want people to understand about the art gallery, it is that you should come and look. Just come and look," Rzoska says. "I used to get intimidated by great art when I was young, thinking it was, you know, for those other people, who understood more than I did about art. But art is for everyone. Come visit. It’s my joy to show off these Kalamazoo artists."

To make an appointment to visit Ninth Wave Studio, call 269.271.3161 or email lrzoska@sbcglobal.net.

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and editor of the literary magazine, The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.