2011 Essay | AAW@25: Turning International

2011 Essay | AAW@25: Turning International

AAW@25: Turning International

By Kevin Wallace


Alain Mailland
Touch of Zen 2, 2010
locust burl
6.5 x 8.5

In 1985, thirteen individuals gathered at the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Tennessee to discuss the idea of creating a woodturning organization. The field of artistic woodturning had grown dramatically in the United States over the previous decade, and the time had come to create an organization to support its communication, education and exhibition. This growth was due largely to a number of individuals who had taken an ancient, utilitarian craft, and transformed it into a means of self-expression.

A quarter-century later, four of the individuals who had been integral to the creation of the American Association of Woodturners (AAW), formed as a non-profit organization in 1986, continue to create inspiring work and are featured in the AAW@25 exhibiton at SOFA CHICAGO: Mark Lindquist, who started the woodturning program at Arrowmont with his father Mel, David Ellsworth, the first president of AAW, William Hunter, and Al Stirt who served on the first AAW Board of Directors.

Woodturners have practiced their craft for centuries and the process has always been international in scope. From ancient Egypt to the villages of Europe, woodturners created utilitarian wares and decorative details for furniture and architecture. Considering that the woodturning process has existed for so long, it’s interesting to note that the use of lathe as a means of self-expression is a relatively new phenomenon. This contemporary approach, utilizing bowl and vessel forms as non-utilitarian objects of contemplation, began mere decades before the creation of the AAW. It grew out of a revolutionary American spirit of design, and once images of the bold new work being created by David Ellsworth, Mark Lindquist and others began to appear in publications, the possibilities of artistic woodturning spread quickly throughout the world. “Twenty-five years ago if you saw a piece of sculpturally turned wood, it would probably have been made by an American,” Terry Martin notes. “Now it is just as likely to have been produced by a New Zealander, a Frenchman, a South African, an Israeli, or any of the people across the world who have embraced this art form.”


J. Paul Fennell
Lattice in the Clouds, 2011
7.5 x 8.25

An Englishman living and working in Canada named Stephen Hogbin was central to expanding artistic woodturning internationally. At the 1974 World Crafts Council Conference in Toronto, an Australian initiative to have a “Craftsman in Residence” at Melbourne State College was announced, and Hogbin traveled to Australia in this role soon after. Connections between artists from England, Canada, Australia and the United States were made. “At this time everything was reevaluated – a result of travel and the times,” Hogbin says. “With each move I became very aware of the differences between English speaking countries on separate continents. Changing cultures or moving from the comfort of the familiar is really valuable for a creative person.” Hogbin’s impact on Australian woodturners was extraordinary. Australia is home to some of the most strikingly beautiful timbers, a rich history of Aboriginal art, and government supported arts and education programs. With the freedom of expression that artistic woodturning offered, artists across the country began to produce phenomenal work, much of it finding it’s way into collections in the United States.

The AAW@25 exhibition at SOFA CHICAGO features three leading figures from Australia, Terry Martin, Vaughn Richmond and Neil Scobie who represent three diverse approaches to woodturning. Terry Martin has proven the most influential, having spent decades traveling the globe to speak and demonstrate at symposia, and writing articles and books on the international woodturning scene. These publications have been vital to the growth of contemporary artistic woodturning, and the AAW’s journal American Woodturner continues to be an important means of educating and providing community. “Living Down Under, a long way from the hub of the AAW, it is hard to keep track of trends in the wood field,” notes Neil Scobie. “With American Woodturner, and the websites and forums, the distance is diminished.” Over the last three decades, Canada’s Michael Hosaluk has been a leading figure in inspiring and expanding the field internationally through his perception-challenging artwork, and his time spent organizing and traveling to demonstrate at symposia. “I have always believed we should push the limits of interpretation in the field of woodturning,”” Hosaluk says. “I was determined from the beginning to contribute to the growth of this field through my work, and what still motivates me to contribute are the people and the fun I have with them.”


Stephen Hogbin
Cornucopia Revisited, 2011
horse chestnut
8 x 18 x 17
photo: Michael McLuhan

Graeme Priddle attended a three-day conference of New Zealand’s National Association of Woodturners, where Hosaluk’s approach made clear the potential of the process. “I had been turning for three years, mainly knocking out bowls and simple stuff from pretty wood to keep the bills paid,” Priddle recalls. “The conference featured international turners including Al Stirt and Michael Hosaluk. I spent 90% of the conference with Hosaluk, as his creative freedom and openness to cut, subtract, add, paint, burn, embellish captured my imagination.” Soon after, Priddle received an invitation in the mail from the AAW to exhibit a piece in Growth Through Sharing, the first AAW exhibition, curated in conjunction with the 10th anniversary AAW Symposium in Greensboro, North Carolina. “Arriving at the Greensboro symposium was intimidating because I had never seen so many woodturners in one place, and so many whose work I had only admired in magazines,” Priddle says. “Everyone went out of their way to welcome me and introduce me to the great AAW family. I was immediately overwhelmed by the generosity, the sense of openness and camaraderie. I suppose it’s rather strange that I’m a member of the American Association of Woodturners, as I’m not an American, but then I guess that’s what I’ve always liked about the AAW, it’s a great big worldwide family that embraces inclusiveness.”

The Japanese artist Satoshi Fujimuna first encountered artistic woodturning in 1993, while traveling in New Zealand. Three years later, he began to teach himself the craft, unable to find information on the process in Japan. His sister, who was living in Kentucky, sent him a copy of American Woodturner. He joined the AAW and in 1998 one of his works was selected for Pathways, the AAW’s second international juried exhibition, presented at the Cleveland State University Art Gallery. The same year, Fujinuma attended his first AAW symposium. “I was surprised by how large the symposium was and the work that was being created,” Fujimuna says. “At the time I was creating functional work, but I saw sculptural works that were created on the lathe and that made a major impression on me. I realized that woodturning represented a means of creative freedom and my eyes were opened to the potential.”


Joey Richardson
Six Years, 2011
sycamore and acrylic colors
12 x 8 x 8

The experiences of Graeme Priddle and Satoshi Fujimuna are similar to hundreds of others, making it clear that the AAW has been vital to the expansion of the field of woodturning, aesthetically and globally. The inclusive spirit of the organization has resulted in a diverse group of individuals with a shared love of the process and material.

Many artists in the field come from backgrounds in woodworking. Germany’s Hans Weissflog studied his craft through a traditional apprentice system. Merete Larsen of Denmark began her career working with wood as a cabinetmaker and antique furniture restorer, Ireland’s Liam Flynn came from a family with generations of woodworkers, and Eli Avisera earned a degree in woodworking in Israel. Others came from diverse backgrounds, which ultimately influenced their work. Butch Smuts, a former wildlife ecologist from South Africa and American J. Paul Fennell, who worked as a mission, rocket performance and orbital mechanics analyst in the Apollo space program are some examples of these artists.

The stylistic range of work is equally expansive, from the eccentric work of France’s Alain Mailland and Pascal Oudet, which expands the language of sculpture, to Louise Hibbert of Wales, who creates containers informed by aspects of the natural world that are normally overlooked or unseen by the naked eye. Nationality reveals no cohesive influences, however, as works by Bert Marsh and Joey Richardson of England make clear. Marsh, who died recently, spent his lifetime exploring simple bowl and vessel forms, while Richardson embraces sculptural and mixed media approaches. Similarly, artists working in the United States might share medium and process, but their visual languages are varied. Todd Hoyer creates vessel forms that speak of the human condition, revealing the hidden interiors through what might be viewed as flaws in the wood, while Jacques Vesery creates highly detailed sculptures that marry repetitive pattern and proportion.

Binh Pho learned the craft of woodturning after immigrating to the United States from Vietnam and soon after began to explore its potential as an art form, employing a process of piercing and airbrushing to the vessel forms. Pho has been involved with the AAW from the beginning of his career, teaching at symposia and now serving on the AAW Board. “The AAW had foreign members before the Internet, even though there was not much communication among International woodturners outside of traveling to conferences,” Pho says. “In the woodturning world, we are willing to share our techniques and this is the motivation for many international woodturners to join the AAW. Mass communication through the Internet has made the word smaller for the community. and the AAW’s international membership is growing at a much faster pace, with 981 members from 72 different countries.”

Terry Martin also notes of this growth, “there were contemporary turners before the AAW was formed, but there were never so many, so well-organized, and so committed to the single aim of promoting turning. The AAW has become the largest and most significant driver of the woodturning agenda in the world.” “Studio wood artists forever changed the lathe from a craftsmen’s tool into a creative instrument,” adds William Hunter, “but the AAW had an organizational appeal that helped create the international cross-pollination of woodturning.” Stephen Hogbin notes that “culture is built from the ground up, from a sense of place and the physical environment. There is also a great tradition of the maker traveling, sharing knowledge and learning new approaches.”

This is the heart of the AAW – from a gathering of like-minded people in Tennessee to international members attending annual symposia – the sharing, learning and connecting through self-expression keeps the woodturning world turning.

Kevin Wallace is the Director of the Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts in Ojai, California and the author of numerous books on contemporary craft art.

Published in conjunction with SOFA CHICAGO 2011 special exhibit, The World Turns: AAW@25 presented by the American Association of Woodturners.

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