2013 Essay | CURRENTS in Contemporary Woodturning

2013 Essay | CURRENTS in Contemporary Woodturning

CURRENTS in Contemporary Woodturning

By Kevin Wallace


Joshua Salesin
Currents (one of three)
African blackwood
4 x 4 inches in diameter

Our connection to wood is inherent, as trees have shaped the ever-changing life on earth and humans have evolved with them. A material of mythic importance, wood proved the ideal material for creating civilization. It spurred the development of other materials, including clay, metal, and glass, and ultimately made all manner of mechanisms and machinery possible.

Utilitarian work has been designed and created by woodworkers for centuries, with dialogue and distinctions regarding art, craft, and design beginning with these works being considered as objects of contemplation. The founders of the contemporary woodturning movement in the mid-20th century viewed the life of a craftsman/designer as an honorable and worthy pursuit, free of the pretension found in the art world, offering the freedom of thought and expression they required from life. For many, this remains the case.

The rise of contemporary woodturning and the larger craft field in the late 20th century represented a major breakthrough in the ability of art to connect with a larger public. It proved much more accessible, and a larger percentage of the population could appreciate the material and workmanship and, while the work speaks of who we are as a culture, it remains democratic and international.

J. Paul Fennell
O’er the Bounding Main
African sumac
10.5 x 8 inches in diameter


Woodturners have practiced their craft for centuries – from ancient Egypt to the villages of Europe – they created utilitarian wares and decorative details for furniture and architecture. Considering that the process has existed for so long, it is interesting to note that the use of a lathe as a means of self-expression – utilizing bowl and vessel forms as non-utilitarian objects of contemplation – is a relatively new phenomenon. In 1986, the American Association of Woodturners (AAW) was formed as a nonprofit organization to support and promote the education and exhibition of this art form.

Every year, the AAW presents a themed exhibition in conjunction with their annual symposium. This year, the theme was Currents, a word with myriad of definitions, allowing for expansive interpretation. Participating artists explored time, progress, circulation, the rate of flow and movement in relation to events, water, air, and electricity. The special exhibit at SOFA CHICAGO 2013 consists of the finest works from the June 2013 exhibition in Tampa, Florida, combined with a number of pieces created specifically for SOFA CHICAGO.


Keith Holt
Currently Smiling
4 x 7.5 x 4 inches

In this exhibition, another level of meaning is explored, as it is an opportunity for viewers to experience the currents in contemporary woodturning. This continued growth has been propelled by a number of factors including: individuals who have reinvented the process as an expansive means of artistic expression, new technologies, and a growing global community.

Today, woodturning is a field driven by possibilities rather than preconceptions. Artists employ century-old techniques such as carving as well as techniques made possible by new technologies. Processes drawn from other forms of self-expression, such as painting, have expanded the language employed by contemporary woodturners, resulting in a bold new art form that is constantly changing.

The growth of the international wood field is evident as leading dealers exhibit and savvy collectors acquire. It is a world without walls, and an example of how individuals from different nations and cultures can be united by a common language. This expression of material, process and form is interpreted through a shared sense of beauty and accomplishment. The artists featured in Currents represent diverse explorations reflective of traditional approaches to woodworking, contemporary painterly explorations and contemporary woodturning.

Ron Layport
Spirit Winds on Traces of Past
maple, plaster, pigment
15.5 x 11.5 inches


Ron Layport’s work harkens back to centuries of indigenous works that feature animal effigies as a means of communicating with and through the natural world. He is known for pieces that feature animals, birds, and insects. “Examining societal relationships, repetitive patterns and subtle variations, within these gatherings, along with juxtaposition of positive and negative space, allows me to achieve a sense of movement without beginning or end,” he says. His work, Spirit Winds on Traces of Past, was inspired by a gathering of butterflies near a canyon wall in northern New Mexico. “In great numbers, they would come to rest and refresh for a brief moment in the dampness of the riverbed, then release themselves to the unseen air currents and be tossed skyward along the canyon wall, as if tracing the wind. Eventually, they would glide to rest once more on the dampness of the canyon floor. This turned and sculpted vessel recalls fond moments spent tracing the wind.”

A number of artists referenced water in the exhibition. J. Paul Fennell’s O’er the Bounding Main, takes its title from the late-1800s children’s song lyric, “Sailing, sailing o’er the bounding main/Where many a stormy wind shall blow?” “As the lyrics suggest, sailing the high seas is fraught with danger, brought upon by the strong interplay of ocean currents, wind, and waves,” says Fennell. “In the physical world, this can be thought of as nature’s dynamic and exhilarating display of energy and movement, familiar to anyone who is adventurous in sailing the high seas.” Fennell interprets the physical idea of the drama of the ocean’s energy and movement aesthetically by creating undulating abstract wave and swirling current patterns traversing around a three-dimensional surface.


Joey Richardson
Hot Water
sycamore, acrylic colors
6 x 6 x 6 inches

Joey Richardson’s Hot Water, is another oceanic form, portraying the power of the ocean and the fragility of the world.“ The red waves represent the greatest threat to man: increasing water levels in the oceans due to thermal expansion, and the melting of glaciers,” she explains. “The tide must turn before we destroy our coastal ecosystem.”

Neil Turner uses the grain pattern of the wood to mimic water currents. “The work is about action and reaction,” he says. “The swirling pattern of waves, and their impact on the surrounding environment.”

Marilyn Campbell’s work, The River represents the Niagara River, where she was raised. “The current along the Niagara is endlessly fascinating to watch because it changes so dramatically throughout its short length,” Campbell says. “It is slow and gentle in the beginning, deep and menacing further along, then finally treacherous as it cascades over the escarpment.”

Betty Scarpino’s work explores the theme of water by presenting the result – an abstract seashell washed ashore by ocean currents.

Keith Holt’s work addresses the special exhibit theme by looking at the workings of the brain. “Hidden within us is this amazing system of electrical currents that we use every moment of our lives,” Holt says. “I think one of the best uses of this system is to tell our working neurons to create a smile to share with the people around us.”

Binh Pho
Currents of Time
hackberry, nutmeg, acrylic paint
5 x 11 x 8 inches


Similarly, Binh Pho explores the idea of a current as the flow of time that moves thoughts, dreams and memories. In his work, dream and memories can be viewed through the openings, with a band of trees and fireflies holding these memories together. The bowl is covered with what appears to be pierced cloth (but is actually wood) to show that, even with the passage of time, if we look hard enough, our dreams and memories remain.

Over the last several decades, largely alienated from the art world, a quiet revolution has taken place, with contemporary woodturning, and the fields of glass, ceramic, fiber and metal experiencing tremendous growth. For a number of collectors, dealers, and curators, the art world has seemed to be in a state of deadlock and repetition, as new ideas and technical barriers were shattered by artists working in craft media. While paintings and sculpture exhibited in galleries and museums have maintained a “look, don’t touch” sensibility, works in craft media – and wood, the most familiar of them all – elevate life, allowing the hand, eye, thoughts and emotions of the artist’s to be more directly communicated.


Kevin Wallace is the Director of the Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts in Ojai, California. He is a regular contributor to numerous international publications and has guest-curated exhibitions for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Craft and Folk Art Museum, Los Angeles, the Long Beach Museum of Art, the Cultural Affairs Department of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles International Airport, and the San Luis Obispo Art Center.

Published in conjunction with the SOFA CHICAGO 2013 special exhibit
CURRENTS presented by the American Association of Woodturners.

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