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Wood has a lot of soul

by Barbara A. Melville

One of the inaugural weekend’s best-received events was organized by new president Jamienne Studley and especially by her husband, Gary Smith. Wood-art afficionados and founding members of Collectors of Wood Art, the couple had invited their artist and collector friends to lend works to a special exhibit titled "The Warmth of Wood." On view Saturday and Sunday in the Pohndorff Room of Scribner Library, the exhibit included 25 turned and carved vessels and sculptures, and featured gallery talks by two of the artists.

Sunday’s speaker was Arkansas artist Robyn Horn, maker of the Two American Quilts sculpture displayed onstage during the inauguration ceremony. Horn said that wood art, increasingly sought-after by museums and collectors, had "long been looked upon as a baser art for its lack of durability," because it can shrink and swell and even crack with temperature and humidity changes. "It’s pretty dramatic material," she said. "Wood has a lot of soul." Wood artists play on that soul with a variety of techniques, including machine-tooling, sanding, lathe-turning, burning, scorching, scoring, hand-carving, laminating, inlaying, freezing, oil-bathing, sandblasting, and more.

In the Skidmore display, these techniques had been employed on woods ranging from ebony to plywood, from burls of redwood, sycamore, and wild cherry to exotics like cocobollo, marblewood, and apple koa. In finish, shape, and treatment, the pieces ran from David Ellsworth’s ineffably fragile-looking Black Pot Tall—whose delicate eighth-inch-thick walls had been intentionally popped open in places and patched over—to an Ed Moulthrop work, a plump and glossy bowl, that resembled a supersized glazed doughnut. One classic vase had a finish minutely scored and cross-hatched to suggest coarse twill fabric; others startlingly incorporated the rough edges of burls. One was made of wood sliced so thin that when, after the talk, Smith lifted it high off its pedestal, sunlight passed through it.

"There are surprises inside wood," said Horn, adding that wood artists—surely not unlike college presidents—expect to encounter potentially design-wrecking "surprises." But, she said, "in reacting to them you can get something really wonderful."




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