2017 Essay | AAW Material Evidence

2017 Essay | AAW Material Evidence

Speaking the Trees

By Terry Martin

Christian Burchard
Tower of Bones, 2016
Bleached madrone burl and rock
34 x 15 x 12 inches
Photo: Rob Jaffe
Kirsten Muenster Projects
David Ellsworth
Black Ash Trio, 2017
Burned and burnished ash
Photo provided by artist
Adam Blaue Gallery

If you visit an exhibition of fine woodcraft, take the time to watch how people react. They will admire a piece, move closer and, almost invariably, you will see they itch to touch it, to reach out and caress its surface. The ever-present DO NOT TOUCH signs are confirmation that the compulsion is almost irresistible. In the gallery’s visitor book you will find repeated exclamations gushing over the woodiness of it all: “I just love wood!” Put a beautiful wooden bowl in someone’s hands and see them stroke its curves, then lift it to their face and draw a deep breath.

The positive feelings that wood evokes probably have deep roots of their own, possibly related to childhood memories such as a grandparent who worked with wood. Or just imagine sitting under the shade of a leafy tree and letting the dappled light play on your face. Most children have known such moments and the seed is planted in their mind – trees are wonderful.

But I believe this bond between trees and people runs deeper than that. Like us, wood is an organic material and every piece of wood you see was once a part of a tree. It grew, it breathed, drank water, swayed in the wind, and fed the atmosphere with life-giving oxygen. Every storm, every drought, every rainy spring is printed indelibly in the wood as it grows – fatter and thinner annual growth rings, rich figure that grew at stress points, scars from falling branches, insect invasion, the growth of cancerous burls and, even after the tree has died, the invasion of fungi that paint marvelous patterns in the wood.

For woodworkers who need predictable working qualities, all of these things can be reasons for rejecting a piece of wood. But when the baby-boomer woodturners started to arrive on the scene in the 1960s and 70s, that all changed. Because of a few pioneering visionaries, the idiosyncratic qualities of certain woods became another way to celebrate new-found individualism. It was almost like a contract between the tree and the maker: “I’m different and so are you, so let’s work together!” Trees that had been ignored or rejected in the past were sought out and given new life as creative work that changed not only which wood was used, but also what was made and how it was done. Unlike the predictable woods, grumpy wood had to be respected. If you want to celebrate bright figure, or leave damage as a sign of respect to the tree’s history, you need to change how you work. This new way of working evolved into a whole new set of skills and ideas, and spawned a new generation of creative woodturners who were confident enough to call their work art. If such wood is used to disguise poor work or, even worse, to disguise ugly pieces as “being the work of nature”, it will fail. But when a truly masterful wood artist is on song and works with the right piece of wood, the result can be achingly beautiful.

Mark Hanvey
Pith Vessels, 2009
16.5 x 7 inches
Photo by David Pauly
Todd Hoyer
Untitled, Suspended Square Series, 2016
13 x 6.5 inches
Photo by artist
Kirsten Muenster Projects

This exhibition, Material Evidence, is sponsored by the American Association of Woodturners, the largest body of its kind in the world. It is fitting that David Ellsworth and Mark Lindquist are included. Their presence is a poignant link with the exhibition that they, along with Michael Monroe, curated in 1985 called Woodturning: Vision and Concept. The groundswell of enthusiasm that followed led to the founding of the AAW in 1986 and since then the organization has been a leader in all things related to woodturning. Those two artists alone have inspired new generations of artists, but the other artists in the show – some veterans and some relative newcomers – have each inspired in their own way.

Since its founding, AAW has provided support for a genre of work that has been difficult to pin down. Sometimes it is turning at its simplest, while at other times it achieves a level of esoteric art that is only fully appreciated by connoisseurs. The membership of the AAW, topping 15,000 in 2017, spans beginners through to the most respected artists in the field.

Material Evidence, pays homage to the two common factors that unite the work of all the artists included. Firstly, even though much of the work has been manipulated in various ways, either by carving, burning or painting, all of it is at least partly turned on a lathe. But the second common factor is shared by all the pieces – they are made of wood, and wood is never a neutral material. It comes with environmental, social, and emotional baggage.

If we look for “treeness” in a piece of wood art, it would be hard to go past Bone Tower, by Christian Burchard. Like a family of salt-washed driftwood tree trunks, every nuance of its grain is fuzzily distorted by the shrinkage of the wood as it dried. This can only have come from a tree.

Black Pot embodies David Ellsworth’s ethos – clean line, celebrated faults, carefully aligned grain, and an impossibly thin opening through which all the wood was removed to create walls that are thin to the point of fragility. Its very modesty is testament to the mastery of Ellsworth, the most imitated woodturner in the world. Another veteran from the earliest days of the woodturning renaissance is Todd Hoyer. For many years his pieces have astonished with their structural improbability, but his work also deeply taps into the essential qualities of wood. After shaping, he exposes his pieces to the sun and weather for very long periods and the resulting bleaching and cracking celebrates another age in the life of a tree.

Eleanor Lakelin
Untitled, Contours of Nature Series
Horse chestnut bur
8.25 x 13 inches ea.
Kirsten Muenster Projects
Binh Pho
When Will I See You Again?, 2016
Boxelder and acrylics
20 x 14 x 4 inches
Adam Blaue Gallery

Sometimes a wood artist combines simple technique with the innate qualities of the material to visually describe something that can only be poorly expressed in words: I was a tree, I was cut with respect, I continued to assert myself after I was made. By leaving the small finger of wood inside, Mark Hanvey’s simple hollow tube becomes a technical tour de force. The offset finger alters the shrinkage of the wood, subtly distorting the piece, leading the eye inside. Only wood allows this kind of collaboration. By juxtaposing a bleached burl with its burnt and blackened partner, Eleanor Lakelin emphasizes the simple form that overlays the rough texture that once was the outside of the tree. Sun bleaches wood, while forest fires burn it. This offering deeply reflects more of the natural cycle of the tree’s life.

Alain Mailland’s extraordinary imagination can only take flight because he understands the extreme limits to which wood can be worked. To turn so thin, to push the limits so far, and then to steam-bend the work and sculpture it into an even more beautiful form is a testament to his mastery.

The set of eccentrically handled lidded boxes by Jim Sannerud is a marvelous play on the production work that was the mainstay of almost all woodturners in the past. He has delightfully contrasted the ideas of repeatability and individuality by carving the ebonized surface of each box with a different pattern. Hayley Smith’s textured wall sculpture could only have been made in wood. Like a wood-eating borer, she has drilled into the layers of the tree, creating an organic contrast with the formal frame created on the lathe.

For Curt Theobald to create his geometrical assemblages of turned wood requires painstaking measurement, cutting, gluing and finishing. Usually such work is given a highly polished finish to celebrate its uniformity and regularity, but Theobald here applies the simplest of subversive touches: by lightly sandblasting he exposes the most subtle differences in the grain.

Hayley Smith
Untitled, Mesquite Wallpiece, 2013
14 x 2.5 inches
Keyhole plate, carved, colored
and scorched wood
Photo by artist
Kirsten Muenster Projects
Curt Theobald
9.75 x 16 inches
Sycamore and imbuya
Adam Blaue Gallery

Paradox is a rare four-way collaboration. The piece began with the first collaborator, the black ash tree that produced the wood. My own contribution was turn a simple vessel, then Mark Lindquist applied his legendary captive chainsaw technique to create another vessel within the first. Zina Burloiu finished the piece with her enchanting carving. This piece is the result of their 111 years of combined experience and all the understanding of wood and technique that comes with it. Even Bihn Pho, who is best known for his thematically carved and painted vessels, has invoked the qualities of the wood by selecting a piece with fiddleback figuring that ripples beneath the background like dappled water.

Derek Weidman, the irrepressible turner of eccentric figures, always leaves some unfinished wood surface in his pieces, perhaps as an affirmation that although it seems improbable, it is definitely turned wood.

The curator of Material Evidence, Tib Shaw, was inspired to create this show by recently deceased Irish turner Liam Flynn. She acknowledges his influence by quoting him: "What interests me primarily are form and texture, and how the grain structure interacts with the line of the vessel. The blackening process that I use does not obliterate the grain; instead it brings the structure of the wood into a sharper focus." I am sure Liam would have approved of this exhibition.


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