BY ALBERT LeCOFF
This exhibition examines the artists’ relationship with wood as a medium for expression, including the innovative techniques that enable them to make their vision a reality. It also provides a bookend to another exhibition from the Center’s past: Wood Turning in North America Since 1930 (2001).
Wood Turning in North America Since 1930, held 15 years ago, was a survey of the field. It was a testament to how the tried and true tradition of wood turning could be infused with new perspectives and nuanced modalities, bringing the potential of the lathe from its medieval origins to new innovations.
In 2011, with our name change to The Center for Art in Wood, we acknowledged how artists had broadened their focus beyond wood-turned objects to all art derived from wood, in combination with other materials and media. Now our exhibitions feature makers working with numerous techniques: lamination, bending, turning, and sculpting.
In 2016, for the Center’s 30th anniversary as a nonprofit, we again survey the field and find that technology over the past twenty years has contributed to the field in ways that were unimaginable. From multi-axis CNC to laser-cut reliefs and digital joinery, this exhibition examines the role technology has played in the work of wood artists. It highlights the nature of wood as a medium by investigating the boundaries of technique, such as new technologies and augmented tool(s), that create work that has a digital or technological look (“tech aesthetic”) and promote the dialogue between designer, engineer, and artist.
We hope you enjoy the breathtaking visions of today’s artists. Technology is only as far-reaching and resonant as the users’ intent and creativity. The works in Wood, Revisited will challenge your expectations and demonstrate that the word “impossible” no longer applies.
Technology Then and Invention Now
BY ALBERT LeCOFF
As of 2016, my career spans forty years of facilitating opportunities for artists to show and be documented for the interesting items they make from wood. Originally a woodworker and turner myself, I see and understand how things are made, and I quickly segued into organizing events and publishing books about the solitary twentieth-century art of woodworking and wood turning. Makers and teachers made their passions, skills, and techniques known to me, and ten years of symposiums at the George School in Newtown, Pennsylvania, and modest exhibitions and publications followed. Most notably, the exhibition Turned Objects: The First North American Turned Object Show and a catalogue entitled Gallery of Turned Objects show the state of modern wood turning as of 1981.
In Europe, ornamental and rose-engine lathes were invented to turn and texture intricate artwork from ivory, bone, and wood. Kings and the aristocracy coveted the delicate results and often were trained or hired or sponsored artists accomplished to operate these complex machines (figs. 1, 2). Historical and scientific literature includes accounts of ancient foot-manipulated lathes used around the world (fig. 3).
In the United Kingdom, pole lathes were typically used by wood turners known as bodgers to set up in the woods, cut the wood they could use in a day, and shape it using ropes slung over tree branches connected to foot-powered treadles. Robin Wood and Stuart King continue this practice to this day (figs. 3, 4).
By the late 1800s, the Industrial Revolution in Europe had led to factory-scale manufacturing inventions such as the Blanchard lathe, invented in Massachusetts by Thomas Blanchard (fig. 5). These long, heavy, noisy machines replaced individual workers by automatically turning and shaping multiple gunstocks, wooden shoe lasts, and even busts at the same time (fig. 6). (Wooden shoe lasts were needed to make the most of boots and shoes. You’ve probably seen shoe lasts tossed in boxes at antiques marts.)
For turning gunstocks, the rough workpiece (forward) and model (rear) rotate slowly on their respective axes, suspended in a swinging frame. The frame presses the model against the friction wheel and the workpiece against the rapidly rotating, horizontal-spindle cutting wheel. Thus the model controls the distance of the cutting wheel from the workpiece, and the distance changes as the model rotates and the two wheels move simultaneously sideways along the length of the workpiece and model. This 1820s Blanchard lathe is on display at the Springfield Armory Museum, Springfield, Massachusetts.
Neil Donovan utilizes shoe lasts that were made on a Blanchard lathe (fig. 7).
By the 1900s, individual lathes for shops and homes had been invented and improved to assist most architectural turners as well as furniture and treen makers. Columns for buildings, and spindles and rungs for chairs are among the elements turned on single station lathes (fig. 8). These lathes were simple machines that typically held a piece of wood between two centers, one stationary, which held the wood, the other connected to power, which rotated the wood.
Wood, Revisited, presents the technological advances that makers have creatively manipulated since 2001, when the Wood Turning Center (now The Center for Art in Wood) partnered with the Yale University Art Gallery to research, stage, and publish Wood Turning in North America Since 1930. That book, now a genuine reference work, documents lathe technology and invention used by makers between the 1930s and the year 2001, illustrating the objects and sculpture created during that era.
Today, thanks to Glenn Adamson, a major contributor to Wood Turning in North America Since 1930, and his mentoring of Anne Carlisle, currently working toward her master’s degree at the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, and financial supporters, we bring you this documentation of technological evolution.
The technologies and hand tools of the 1960s through the 1980s were customized to enable production and one-off artwork. Stephen Hogbin, Ed Moulthrop, David Ellsworth, Mel Lindquist, Mark Lindquist, and others designed and manufactured tools and lathes that made new artistic explorations and forms possible (figs. 9–22). Alluding to technique, Mel Lindquist once remarked that he would use termites or his teeth if necessary to create his work.
Ed’s and David’s custom tools led to their relatively narrow mouths and thin-walled vessels but at very different scales. Mel Lindquist developed tools to successfully turn spalted wood, while his son Mark adapted a chainsaw to the lathe to create unique textures and shapes.
In 1972, with the help of his father-in-law, Bud Thomas, Stephen Hogbin built a new lathe from a truck axle mounted on a steel frame. Using this huge lathe, he turned large-scale work, which he often cut apart and reassembled.
Hogbin mounted and turned a seven-foot-in-diameter and one-foot-thick laminated block of wood on his custom-made lathe. From this he created two large chairs, a table, and two shelves.
Ed Moulthrop manufactured a hook and lance tool to turn his vessels on his custom lathe.
Mark Lindquist mounted the chainsaw bar on a custom designed saw-bar holder, mounted in this case on a Wilton hydraulic work positioner. The first major piece he made was MacDowell Bowl, three feet in diameter, turned completely using the chainsaw/lathe technique with an assistant turning a large handwheel on the inboard end of the shaft. Large swing cuts were used to rough out the bowl, and fine “sheering cuts” were used to shape, finish, and texture the piece.
The spalted elm wood was a gift from the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, where Lindquist held a two-month residency.
Michelle Holzapfel uses a metal lathe (fig. 23) as a carving tool. It’s most often the first carving tool she uses in the initial generation of a piece. The lathe’s cutter is attached to a tool post. The tool post functions through the use of two handles that move the tool relative to the work. By manipulating the handles at different hand speeds simultaneously, Holzapfel is able to generate three-dimensional forms on the x, y, and z axes (fig. 24). To get a sense of the process, try making a circle on an Etch A Sketch.
These were the technology milestones from the 1960s through the 1980s: While exhibiting elaborate wood grain had been favored, some innovators, such as Giles Gilson and Wayne Raab, chose to paint perfectly good wood with car finishes or lacquer.
Some innovations presaged the coming turn toward technology: At the Center’s 1993 World Turning Conference, discussion topics included the HaWK lathe, a computer-guided lathe (figs. 25–26). (HaWK refers to the inventors: Dave Hardy, Ken Wurtzel, and Mark Krick of Pennsylvania.)
Each of these historical machines and tools utilized by artists and tradesmen were as innovative in their time as the Computer Numerical Control (CNC) carving in Wood, Revisited is in 2016. Just as typewriters replaced handwriting, and computers replaced typewriters, now makers manipulate software and hardware to test their technological concepts and fabricate their creations.
We hope you enjoy the future of making while glimpsing the technology threads that led us to the studios of today.