At times, it’s difficult to shake the stereotype from the craft. Too often craftspeople are unfairly dismissed as antiquated and their products stale. Quilters with fusty, old floral blankets or candlestick makers with yellow beeswax pillars. The same can be said for woodturners and oversized fruit bowls.
While yes, those bowls exist, woodturning isn’t as old as it used to be.
Thanks to what The Globe and Mail dubbed as the “slow goods” movement, people (read: mostly hipsters) are returning to handmade crafts for their quality, and crafters are expanding their repertoire with modern designs.
Turning Against The Grain is currently on display at the Mary E. Black Gallery in the Nova Scotia Centre for Crafts and Design and challenged members of the Nova Woodturners Guild to develop the artistic nature of the trade, bridging the divide between art and craft.
As the show is a juried exhibit of work by experts and novices, there are a few classics —bowls and vases — but also some standout sculptural pieces.
Even the bowls, it should be noted, are testaments to the artists pushing their limits. They have beautifully rolled or undercut rims, each highlighting the natural grain and inherent qualities of the wood.
While the forms may not be particularly modern, the craftsmanship is top-notch and artistic. Richard Ford’s Hand of Fire bowl is a labour of love; patient turning and shear-scraping a maple burl brought out a spectacular grain pattern from the twisted, knotted wood.
Andrew Watson was able to step outside the confines of bowl-like parameters and experimented with, to great success, square bowls with turned-down corners. It sounds like a cardboard box with flaps, but is anything but.
Of the more whimsical forms is an amazing sculptural form by Don Moore. Entitled Branching Out, the piece is masterful. The organic form, use of negative space and dark, madrone root wood hearken back to the mill work of Josef Hoffmann or Frank Lloyd Wright. Hard to believe such fragility was created on a spinning lathe. Artistry, indeed.
A collection of delicate pieces counterbalance the heaviness of wood and the solid foundations of trees. Robert Atkinson’s Reflection is absolutely stunning and reveals his mastery of the skill — he was able to coax clean, airy forms out of a burl neck. His Lost Bouque vase is once again entirely unique and innovative. The deep cut in the front and the ring of pin holes are meant to reveal more than just the blooms of a bouquet.
Dianne Looker’s various pieces close the gap between art and craft, with deliberate design choices made. Looker creates sleek geometric shapes using varied grains and tones as a painter would with colour.
Stuart Taylor also creates visual interest by marrying geometric forms with raw living edges and splits in wood pieces. They’re unusual and engaging — something new to appreciate from every distance and angle.
For the uninitiated, the art of woodturning is foreign, the lathes and tools, archaic. (I’ll give you a minute to image search ‘lathe’.) Videos demonstrating the process (Ford already did one for another of his bowls on show) would have made for a more accessible showing. Alternatively, bringing in lathes or tools would have worked.
The exhibit’s lack of multimedia was an opportunity lost, especially with a curatorial aim of placing woodworking within a modern context.
I highly suggest paying the modest $5 for the exhibition catalogue. The artist descriptions are insightful, not only to the process, but also to their relationships to woodturning and the pieces themselves. Each of the turners embraced the notion of creative exploration with great aplomb.
A well-loved tradition of yesteryear is given a place in our modern world. For once, it seems the hipsters have gotten it right.