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For the week of Feb. 9 through Feb. 15, 2000

Couples: weaving a life of art and love

Express Staff Writer

The popular conception of the artist is that of a tortured, cranky and isolated soul. Local artists and married couples Rusty Wilson and Denise Simone, Dennis and Roberta Ochi, and Michael and Kim Harrison turn that conception upside down.

Valentine’s Day might be busy for them, but they will be far from isolated. Their relationships were founded in the arts and continue to blossom in art.

Fools for love

Almost 20 years ago during a National Shakespeare Company’s rehearsal in New York City, Hermia leaned over and kissed an unsuspecting Lysander. Shakespeare didn’t write Midsummer Night’s Dream that way, but the director was in a matchmaking mood and thought his two actors, Rusty Wilson and Denise Simone, ought to get to know each other.

It worked.

“I just kept smooching him,” Denise said.

“And I thought, ‘I’m going to like working with her,’” Rusty said.

Denise and Rusty married in 1984 and worked as freelance actors, bouncing around New York, Los Angeles and then in Richmond, Va., where they joined an acting company and settled in.

In Richmond in 1991, Denise gave birth to their only child, Russel. A year later Rusty and Denise started their own acting company, Company of Fools—which they call “extended family.”

During a Fools’ production of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea in Richmond, friend and fellow actor Bruce Willis stopped in and suggested that the family migrate west to Hailey.

“‘You know, I’ve got this theater,’” said Rusty, quoting Willis, whose Hailey-based company, Valley Entertainment, owns the Liberty Theatre in Hailey.

After visiting the Wood River Valley for the first time, Rusty took an immediate liking to Hailey.

“I didn’t even know where Idaho was at that time,” he said. “But once I was here, I thought ‘this feels good.’ I felt there was an opportunity for Company of Fools to provide a service to a community that was ripe for what we do.”

Denise hesitated at first.

“We’re like yin and yang,” she said. “Rusty is much more graceful in change. I like digging my heels in.”

But she relented and in the fall of 1996, Denise, Rusty and Russel moved to Hailey.

“There was no blueprint,” Denise said of that transition. “It was truly a leap of faith in a place that was totally unknown to us.”

But it was a fortuitous leap. Since its first production in 1997, Company of Fools has been able to evolve its mission: to present works that show the human heart in conflict with itself and to educate the community, especially children, about theater.

Stages of Wonder, the theatrical program they offer to local grade school children, and other teaching endeavors are “what make us smile,” Rusty said.

What keeps them smiling in their relationship?

“Every couple has its challenges,” Rusty said. “We’ve had some pretty major bumps on the road in terms of the cards that life has dealt. But I feel that we’re connected in a deep way. I feel like we’re two very old souls together. And we’ve been great friends from the get-go.”

“He’s a great playmate,” Denise said. “I can’t wait to see him when he walks through the door and I love acting with him. I knew that’s who I’d be walking beside for as long as my feet can carry me.”

Denise and Rusty are in rehearsal this week for The Philadelphia Story, which runs at the Liberty Feb. 17 through March 5.

“In this play, she kisses everybody,” Rusty said. “But I get the last and most important kiss.”

Team Ochi

In the early 1970s, Dennis Ochi was a painter and teaching fine art at Boise State University. Enter Roberta, a diligent student of art history and aspiring painter. The rest is history.

They can chuckle today about that dubious beginning. They’ve been married for 23 years; are raising two daughters, Pauli, 15, and Gussi, 13; and they own a successful art gallery that they started together 26 years ago.

Dennis and Roberta opened the gallery in Boise in 1974 to help graduating students who had talent but stopped painting because they couldn’t find a venue. Ironically, Dennis and Roberta stopped painting to offer those students and others a venue.

“People ask us all the time if we miss painting,” Roberta said. “But the business takes up most of our creative energy. It takes more creativity to run a business than it does to paint.”

In 1988, they moved the gallery to Ketchum. Ochi Fine Art now occupies a colossal building on Lewis Street in Ketchum’s industrial area.

“It has been a team effort from the beginning,” Dennis said.

“In a way, it’s Dennis’ gallery, but I’m the president, CEO and boss,” Roberta said.

“And that’s the truth,” Dennis said.

Dennis’ eye is trained on innovators on the contemporary art scene, which puts the gallery at odds with popular tastes sometimes.

“If you’re working with artists who are innovators and ahead of the public, that means that you’re sort of the black sheep,” Roberta said. “So it’s good we have each other.”

“We really focus on the art part of it, whether it’s photography, painting, sculpture or drawing,” Dennis said. “The work has to meet certain criteria, although I’m not sure I can define that criteria exactly. We try to deal with original work, as opposed to work that would easily sell. We’re continually asking ‘what are we doing?”

It’s a challenge that they take on well together.

“We’re always making judgment calls,” Roberta said. “We have each other to balance our opinions.”

“We touch on deep issues and get challenged,” Dennis said. “You ask some of those higher questions, because that’s what the artists are doing.”

But to the Ochis, the gallery is not their top priority.

“Family first, business second,” Roberta said.

Marriage by design

Not only do Michael and Kim Harrison finish each other’s sentences, they finish each other’s projects.

“I’m the weird one,” Kim said. “I come up with ideas and the weird concepts. Michael is the one who can make it happen.”

“She’s the visionary. I’m the facilitator.”

“He’s the reality person.”

Kim is a painter, ceramist, musician and dancer. Most of her time is devoted to the Spiegel School, where she teaches dance and helps run its recreational programs.

Michael is a multi-talented design consultant, most recently for the company that manufactures Haro mountain bikes. He is currently working on documentary film projects for Crisman Films, which has offices in Ketchum and Los Angeles.

One of their major collaborations is their home in Warm Springs, which they share with their children, Kayla, 11, and Shane, 12, their dog Jet and a cat named James Bond.

They designed and built the house—tossing out an architect in the process—and continue to embellish its spaces with design elements, like Kim’s colorful mosaics. An indoor pond and a chandelier, which Kim is sketching and Michael is engineering, are in the works.

“A designer’s house is never finished,” Michael said. “We’re experimenting with chicken wire right now.”

“One thing at a time,” Kim said.

Michael and Kim met while they were students of commercial art in California at the Arts Center College of Design, now in Pasadena. They had their first date on April Fools’ Day in 1981, and married three years later.

In the 15 years since, they have almost never spent a night apart.

“We have the intense belief that we’re connected on a spiritual level, which is something we felt from the very beginning,” Michael said.

“We have similar values,” Kim chimed in. “Also, he’s the bait that keeps me in reality. If I hadn’t met Michael, I’d probably be on a street corner in Hollywood talking to myself.”

“What it comes down to,” Michael said, “is that she’s my best friend. And I’m her best friend.”


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