Writer Lara Piu
Photographer Bryan Black

[dropcap]C[/dropcap]ave Creek’s newest fine art gallery, The Blue Gem, is home to endings, beginnings and full circles.

At first glance, its story began 35 years ago when Frank Imel transformed the buildings behind The Horny Toad into a gallery called Clay and Things. Frank filled it with his work, as well as the work of local artisans and craftsmen, and ran the store for 40 years until he passed away this past April.

The story of The Blue Gem really began in 1974, when the legendary restaurant first debuted and artist Patrick O’Grady became the first waiter. More than 45 years later, the adjacent Clay and Things gallery became available due to Frank’s passing, and Patrick jumped on the opportunity to realize his long-time dream of supporting local artists.

“I was the only one of my group of artist friends that went out and got a regular job, so now I’m able to come back and be a part of the community again,” Patrick, a former boutique wine distribution manager, explains.

“It’s so exciting,” he adds. “Back in the ’70s when our group of local artists, young and old, got together to create the Cave Creek Craft Council, we were probably 80 members.” Those members eventually formed the foundation of the Sonoran Arts League, which is now 800 members strong and growing.

“It’s still a tight-knit arts community, and I want to support our community’s creative interests,” Patrick says. “I want to feature artists who create art because they simply enjoy creating art.”

Patrick will also use the space to honor the area’s artistic history.

“It will be like a museum … there will be artists’ art and old photographs of Creekers hanging everywhere,” he adds.

Patrick creates many of his own pieces in turquoise on site. On most days, he can be seen working from the gallery’s north-facing porch. “This is a statement piece,” he says, referring to a silver ring that features a 4-inch rectangular cobalt blue lapis lined in turquoise.

You won’t find Patrick’s style at the mall, which is true for all of the work on display.

Mel Smith is the gallery’s featured artist. “He’s the creative force,” Patrick says.

Mel’s work is spaced carefully throughout the gallery. Among them, his life-sized mobile crosses are adorned in silver, turquoise, glass, and other materials traditionally used for jewelry hang from the walls.

When Mel was 14 years old, he worked under famous silversmith Charles Loloma, a master Hopi jeweler who was among the first to translate traditional Native American aesthetics into contemporary styles. One of the most influential and sought-after indigenous artists of the 20th Century, Loloma’s legacy still influences both Mel’s and Patrick’s work today.

“The man definitely changed my life for the better,” Mel says, recalling how it all started. “I was going to Scottsdale High School when it was the only high school, and I was taking arts and crafts from Wes Segner. He used to take us by the workshops of different working artisans. Charles Loloma was just getting famous at that time, and he asked Les if he had anyone that he could recommend. Les recommended me.”

Among other things, the artisan taught Mel to work with tufa, a porous volcanic stone that is easily carved and used for jewelry silver casting. Charles Loloma, who began as a potter, employed innovative techniques like these to modernize Indian art.

“He was one of the people who started the modern Indian movement. He was a very dynamic person,” Mel explains. “It was thrilling for me to learn to make jewelry. When I first saw a solder, I said, ‘Oh, I like this!’ and I was sold.”

Mel’s decorative Mayan-inspired masks in glittery metallic blues hang throughout the gallery. His wild imagination has also output rotating sculptures and life sized characters created from bull and cow skulls. The series includes a trio of 6-foot men adorned in jewels that look like an alien rock band.

“I got the idea from Star Trek,” Mel laughs, “The center man is Q, and he needed companions so he got The Destroyer, who holds a prayer wheel. He always says a prayer before he destroys. And this is The Creator—he’s blowing cosmic dust into our universe. He holds a solar system.”

Quilted, sleeveless leather jackets that were formerly Tonto Bar and Grill uniforms clothe Mel’s cast of characters. Like the crosses, they’re a fusion of jewelry, sculpture and thoughtful inspiration.

“I don’t believe in a dogmatic religion, but I believe in the good saints and the good gods, and a pandemic religion,” Mel explains. “I like crosses because of their juxtaposition of simplicity and complexity. Creating them is a search for simplicity.”

Eventually these life-sized creations will make their way to the front of the gallery and greet diners as they enter The Horny Toad.

Like Patrick, Mel sees the gallery as a chance to begin again.

“I feel very good about this space,” Mel concludes. “Frank Emil was really a genuine dude, and we want to carry on that momentum.”

Patrick had a soft opening of The Blue Gem in November and will hold a grand opening party this month.