Published  07/03/2013

Purely Elemental: Wood Craft as Fine Art

Purely Elemental: Wood Craft as Fine Art

Nature Transformed: Wood Art from the Bohlen Collection
Museum of Arts and Design, New York
18 May-10 September 2006

The history of turned wood objects is long and varied, changing from functional craft to art to hobby and back again. During the past few decades, a growing number of artists have embraced the medium as one in which they can explore a variety of interests, from the more obvious possibilities of form and function to wood art as a method of communication, celebration of nature and emotional expression. 'Nature Transformed: Wood Art from the Bohlen Collection', now on view at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York City, serves as ample evidence that in the hands of such artists, turned wood can be transformed into intriguing and appealing objects. Visitors to the show will be treated to works that are dramatic or subtle, precisely symmetrical or eccentric, fantastic or realistic, and delicate or rough-hewn.

The exhibit was organised by Sean Ulmer, curator of modern and contemporary art at the University Of Michigan Museum of Art in Ann Arbor, where it premiered in June 2004. Like that institution, MAD received a number of pieces from the show through a donation from collectors, Robert and Lillian Montalto Bohlen. Like other well-known collectors of turned wood objects, Arthur and Jane Mason, and Irving and Mari Lipton, the Bohlens were moved by the beauty and variety of the objects they saw. Since 1997, when the Bohlens began their collection, they have followed the careers of major turned wood artists, innovators in the process of turning wood.

Traditionally, artists who worked with wood on a lathe inscribed their finished pieces with the type of wood, along with their signatures. As a craft and an art, turned wood pieces were considered to be a partnership between the wood and the craftsperson. The roots of the craft as a means of making functional objects are apparent in many of the fine examples at MAD, but viewers will likely marvel at the individual approach taken by the 71 artists - drawn from North America, Europe and Australia - included in the show.

The process of turning wood begins with a lathe, on which wood or metal rotates rapidly while it is cut or rubbed against a shaping tool. In the simplest lathes, shaping tools are hand-held. After shaping, a common practice is to rub sandpaper against the object as it continues to rotate, further smoothing the surface. Some contemporary artists use additional means of shaping the wood (chainsaws, drills); some incorporate additional materials and decorations; some apply paint or lacquer to obscure the natural surfaces; and some apply chemicals to bring out or mask natural qualities. When wood is turned on a lathe, perfectly symmetrical forms result. Many of the latest techniques involve breaking through the boundaries of symmetry by retaining cracks and gouges in the wood and encouraging chance, accident and asymmetry.

The works in 'Nature Transformed'are separated into three sections: 'The Vessel Unleashed', in which form is freed from function; 'Sculptural Tendencies', including shield-like forms, large wall installations and delicate, small-scale sculptures; and 'Allusions to Nature', with objects that resemble plants, shells and other shapes found in natural habitats. Although the categories are helpful, many pieces could fit in two, or even all three, sections.

Two works in the first section provide an interesting contrast. In his 'Phoenix Series # 7' (2000), Peter Schleh constructed from anegre and padauk a large, shell-like sculpture, held aloft on a pedestal. The rich, highly polished brown wood looks like panelling, with lighter tones running vertically through it. The curators have lit the piece to bring out the highlights and accentuate the shell-like, sinuous shape. Looking at this piece is a highly sensual experience, and some may feel an urge to run a hand over the smooth wood. Born in Oahu, Hawaii, Schleh built boats for 30 years. He now lives and works in San Diego.

Viewers may not think of wood at all when they see William Kent's 'Crushed Boot' (1991), which the artist carved from maple and found wood. From his home in Durham, Connecticut, Kent makes large carvings of everyday, ephemeral items. In 'Crushed Boot', highly polished tan wood is criss-crossed in spots with inky, jagged lines. The subject begs viewers to create their own tall tale to explain how the boot arrived in its current state. The piece succeeds as a dynamic sculptural form, an example of fine craftsmanship and an interesting conversation piece. With a degree in music and composition, and a former career as historic house curator, Kent is similar to many turned wood artists who began working with wood as a hobby or on a part-time basis. Mark Sfirri from New Hope, Pennsylvania, for example, began his career in wood when his son asked him to make a baseball bat. Such artists have brought influences from their other pursuits into wood crafting, energising the field.

The role of the vessel in human history informs the work of Christopher Cantwell. Vessels have been used to hold everything from flowers and fruit to relics and magical substances. Cantwell transforms the box, a common vessel, by infusing his pieces with symbols of human aspiration and longing. In 'Wonderland aka Imagination Box' (1996), Cantwell combined a variety of exotic woods from around the globe, including Mexican kingwood, Honduras rosewood, chakte kok and pink ivorywood. This small, jewel-like fantasy realm is a near-relative to Oz and is notable for its mythic potential. Cantwell has compared his boxes to 'chambers of the heart', where special moments and memories can be held. From an early age, the artist was drawn to wood. At the age of 12, a balsa wood sculpture he made won first prize in the Central California Art Association Young Masters Art Show competition. From there, he made cabinets, furniture, guitars and other pieces with specific purposes. Eventually, he developed a highly personal approach to his art. Soon after the Ansel Adams Gallery commissioned a number of Cantwell's inlaid boxes, he decided to pursue wood art exclusively. According to the artist, 'I work with the wood and my own ideas when I make my designs. Often, the challenge of using a grain pattern in the best way, or working with a particular piece of wood, will fuel my inspiration'.1

A leaf pattern and a fungus growing on a tree stump - the inspirations for Ron Fleming's 'Ling Chih' (1997) in tulipwood - were first captured in photos and drawings. This vessel resembles a mushroom and, while it certainly is remarkable as a sculptural form, 'Ling Chih' might cause imaginative viewers to time travel to a medieval forest or Tolkien's Middle-earth. Fleming worked as an illustrator and designer before taking up woodcraft, a legacy from his father and grandfather. According to the artist, who lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 'Whether it be the falling leaves of autumn swirling into a frozen form or a single flower bud unfolding in spring, each piece gives me an opportunity to make a statement about the never ending rituals of nature's evolution. Each form in wood becomes a captured moment in time of its own existence. And every vessel gives me a way to express my feelings about the things I see around me and to share these visions with others'.2

The infinite variety of shapes, colours and creatures in nature are a constant source of inspiration to many artists in all media, but particularly for artists whose medium comes from nature itself. Cortez, Colorado resident, Bob Womack, achieves tactile, asymmetrical shapes with a chainsaw and a bandsaw, and then refines the shapes with small tools. He made his 'Basket Bowl' (1999) from big-leaf maple burl using this method. The bowl resembles forms seen in underwater habitats, with the intricate surface decorations recalling coral. Michael Lee, from Kapolei, Hawaii, derived his imagery for the madrone burl 'Pterosaur' (1994) from fossils and marine life. He chose the title for the piece's resemblance to an extinct flying reptile, the pterodactyl.

Although placed behind other objects and in a corner of the exhibition space, Mike Irolla's large hemlock vessel, 'Hemlock Canyons' (2001) will hold viewers' attention with a mysterious allure. Born in Irvington, New York, Irolla now lives in Marquette, Michigan. In his work, he turns whole logs to retain the natural edge of the wood. The essential part of Irolla's process is the application of fire as a finisher; he has said that the wood is his canvas, which he paints with a torch. From a distance, the piece seems to be made of metal. As one lingers, savouring the dusky colours and sheer beauty of 'Hemlock Canyons', the piece begins to resemble an ancient tree touched by time; ages old and seared by the elements.

Some artists combine wood with other elements. William Moore from Hillsboro, Oregon, and German artist Christian Burchard, now a resident of Ashland, Oregon, used copper and madrone burl for 'Cradles in the Sea' (2000). Here, Moore's patinated copper vessels and Burchard's thin wooden ones could be a plant or a being from outer space. The work appeals most directly as decorative art, to be enjoyed for its lovely colours - dark wood and teal - sensuous curves and delicacy.

As a means of communication, wood has been used for signs, paper and pencils. Departing from the usual association between wood and the written word, Clay Foster uses it to comment on a salient feature of contemporary society. Drawing on African art and culture, Foster makes pieces that push against the limits of the 'Western fixation on uniformity, regularity, symmetry and precision'. In his mesquite and iron 'Ironclad' (1998), Foster made a patchwork of wood and metal as a means to move beyond fixed boundaries to a place where accidents and chance operate and magnify creative potential.

Betty J Scarpino has been making her wood sculptures since the mid-1970s. An active promoter of wood art, Scarpino teaches and participates in workshops across the country while continuing to produce from her home in Indianapolis, Indiana, art that can be found in many private and museum collections. Some of the techniques she employs are carving, texturing, colouring and bleaching. 'Launched' (2002, ash, wood, stained, filled with liming wax; egg: poplar, milk paint), is from her 'Egg' series. For these pieces, Scarpino uses the egg as a metaphor for the transformative power of change, in which birth symbolises new beginnings. 'Launched' was the artistic expression of Scarpino's response to her eldest son leaving for college. The piece resembles a seesaw with an egg at one end. The interplay of the striated grain of wood plank - stained a wistful, bittersweet shade of blue - and the smooth wood egg - a lighter, youthful blue - is vigorous, endearing and playful. 'Launched' does, indeed, hint at a new era as an old one passes away.

Commenting on her work, Scarpino said, 'I like ambiguities and use them often in my work, in titles and/or the piece itself. For "Launched", it's not clear whether the egg might jump off the end or remain perched, as if in a boat. Also, the boat form itself is not determinant - the passenger could be launched either up or down. Such is our lives. In any endeavour, there's always the unknown: how will things turn out? Even ostensibly positive beginnings contain possible disaster'.3

Turned wood is an amazingly flexible medium, maintaining roots in tradition while yielding to experimentation. After seeing these splendid examples of nature transformed, visitors may find themselves travelling to nearby Central Park - where wood is ever-present, surrounded by many other natural forms - having made a note to themselves to seek out more turned wood objects.

'Nature Transformed: Wood Art from the Bohlen Collection' opened in June 2004 at the University of Michigan Museum of Art in Ann Arbor, Michigan, travelled to the Mobile Museum of Art in Mobile, Alabama, and closes at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, on 10 September 2006. A full-colour, hardcover catalogue accompanies the exhibition.4

Cindi Di Marzo

1. Christopher Cantwell is represented by the Weiss Pollack Gallery in New York City and Bridgeport, Connecticut. A biography of the artist can be viewed on the gallery's website at (last accessed 3 July 2006)
2. Quoted in The Mountain Woodturner, the Web site of Carolina Mountain Woodturners. (last accessed 3 July 2006 3. Correspondence with the artist.
3. Elmer SM. Nature Transformed: Wood Art from the Bohlen Collection. Michigan:University of Michigan Museum of Art and Hudson Hills Press, 2004.

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