ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

“Family Tree” Petaluma Art Center’s Exceptional Fine Woodworking Show through March 13, 2011

Barbara Holmes' site specific installation from re-purposed building lath is the focal point of "Family Tree," the fine woodworking exhibition at the Petaluma Arts Center through March 13, 2011. Photo: Geneva Anderson

In the past two years, the Petaluma Arts Center has delivered several well-curated and immensely popular shows.  “Family Tree,” the center’s latest exhibition which runs through March 13, may be its best yet.  The show explores the lineage of fine woodworking in California from 1945 onward and is one of its most ambitious shows to date, bringing a number of woodworking masterpieces into the small center along with a bevy of artist demonstrations and talks.  If your conception of woodworking runs to bowls, tables and chairs, the show offers plenty of fine examples of these but it will also update you with some of wood’s latest trends. It also makes a compelling case for elevating fine woodworking into museums as a vibrant form of conceptual craft.

“Family Tree” is curated by Kathleen Hanna and presents the works of 25 artists, ranging from pioneers and mid-career artists to new entrants whose work has been influential in the CA contemporary fine woodworking movement.   Along side of this show, in the center’s community gallery, stands the innovative work of several students from the Furniture Program at California College of the Arts  who are rising stars in fine woodworking. 

Kathleen Hanna curator of "Family Tree" at the Petaluma Arts Center through March 13, 2011. Hanna is an independent curator who has worked with several of San Francisco's leading craft museums. Photo: Geneva Anderson

“Since WWII, the focus of the art world has shifted radically from the New York to the West Coast in the area of fine craft and I wanted to point to the history of what has happened here since WWII,” explained Kathleen Hanna, an independent curator specializing in 20th century furniture and decorative objects who has worked for San Francisco’s Museum of Craft and Design and Museum of Craft and Folk Art .  Hanna, a Petaluma resident since 1983, also has a personal connection to fine woodworking through her father, Arthur W. Hanna, a San Francisco boat builder who took up woodworking and furniture design after he came home from WWII.   “This is a very small space, so I wanted to work just with wood and trace the lineage back to a very small group of pioneers in wood and fine craft and show how subsequent makers have expanded the dialogue by painting, manipulating and emphasizing wood’s sculptural aspects as well as show some woodworking tools that are being locally made.”

Early Masters:   Material Worship

Much in line with modernist principals of clean lines, truth to materials and simplicity, early woodworkers revered the wood itself for its own inherent beauty and didn’t paint it or cover up its beautiful grain.  Art Espenet Carpenter’s (1920-2006) “Double Music Stand” is just one of the masterpieces on display from pioneering California wood artists. 

Art Espenet Carpenter's iconic "Double Music Stand," in rosewood, is one the masterpieces of wood art on display in "Family Tree."

Legendary for his sleek and distinctive furniture, Carpenter, who had just returned from military service was so inspired by a Good Design exhibition in 1946 at MOMA in New York that he bought a lathe and took up woodworking.  He then moved to California, where later he exuberantly embraced furniture design.   He taught at San Francisco State and became so popular that over 130 woodworkers apprenticed under him in his Bolinas studio. 

His double music stand, fashioned from rosewood, is finely inlaid with metal and exhibits elegant refined curves that show influence of Alexander Calder, Charles and Ray Eames, and Robert Maillart , a Swiss engineer and bridge builder whose startling and original spans influenced 20th century artists of all kinds.  The form of this music stand so appealed to Carpenter that he worked with it throughout his life, modifying it and creating many examples.  

Carpenter was also a founding member of the influential Baulines Craft Guild, formed in the early 1970’s, which brought skilled artisans together to further their techniques and artistic dialogue.  This led to the formation of Dovetail Gallery on Fillmore Street in San Francisco providing a market for their works.

J.B.Blunk’s “Chair” 1978, 36” x 40” x 40,” was carved from a massive block of redwood with a chainsaw. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Blunk was well-known for his redwood furniture and wood installations which were unprecedented in their size and degree of abstraction. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Sculptor J.B. Blunk (1926-2002) , whose proud and massive carved redwood chair(1978) is also on display, had a strong influence on wood artists in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  Using a chainsaw, Blunk created such iconic works as “The Planet” (1969) which graces the entrance of Oakland Museum of California’s Natural Science Gallery (closed for construction until 2012) and is made entirely of one ring of redwood burl thirteen feet in diameter. 

Like many early woodworkers, Blunk took up woodworking after military service.  After serving in the army in Korea, Blunk was discharged to Japan where he met sculptor Isamu Noguchi and delved into Japan’s rich ceramic tradition, apprenticing with legendary potters Kitaoji Rosanjin (1883–1959) and Bizen style master Toyo Keneshige (1896–1967).  After returning to the U.S., Blunk built his own home and studio near in Inverness and remained true to an aesthetic process that sought to release the inherent beauty in the material he worked with.  His legacy continues posthumously with a residency program through his Inverness studio.

Several extraordinary wooden bowls by revered wood artist Bob Stocksdale (1914-2003), a long-time East Bay resident, attest to his influence on many important contemporary wood artists.  Mesmerizing in their elegant simplicity, they encapsulate the bowl’s transition from a previously crude farm-style implement to a beautiful and functional

Bob Stocksdale’s lathe-turned vessels fashioned from exotic timbers, like this 1979 bowl from Ebony, exquisitely showcase each piece of wood’s unique grain and beauty..

aesthetic object.  Stocksdale’s small thin lathe-turned macadamia nut bowl, barely 3  inches in diameter, is a perfect harmony of graceful form and material, as is his larger Magnolia tree bowl.  These bowls were once available in limited supply at Gump’s and reasonably affordable as beautiful utilitarian objects.  Now, they are highly collectible and fetch thousands. 

Stocksdale’s love for exotic timbers, his care in selecting just the right piece of wood, and his gifted use of simple tools to explore the inherent beauty of wood grain were trademarks that gained him celebrity status.   Like most artists, he did not arrive at this spontaneously.  He was influenced heavily by James Prestini (1908-1993), an engineer turned artist who started to lathe turn wooden bowls in the 1930’s as art objects—bowls so thin they appeared to have qualities similar to glass or ceramics.  Prestini’s new way of looking at woodturning, with his emphasis on the design and shape of the object, influenced an entire generation, especially young Stocksdale, who first encountered him in Berkeley. 

Berkeley artist Merryll Saylan was one of the early female entrants to wood art and is noted for her polychrome finishes. “Tower, Keep and Besamim Büchse” (2005) are three turned towers she created referencing her husband’s experience on life support.

Second Generation:  Women, Color, Form, Experimentation

Looking back at the sexual politics of the mid-century and the immediate post WWII environment, where woodworking and handicrafts were forms of rehabilitation, and the explosion of power tools that became readily available and affordable, it’s easy to see why woodworking was initially a man’s activity. Berkeley artist Merryll Saylan, was one of the early women in the field, emerging as a leader in the use of color and texture in her lathe turned work.  She is part of the second generation of California artists who really went beyond worshipping wood for its inherent qualities and began to experiment with color, finishes and sculptural embellishment.  This generation of artists introduced a new round of individual expression to woodworking and began to elevate wood to the realm of conceptual craft. 

“Tower, Keep, and Besamim and Büchse”(2005)  are three turned wooden towers forming a powerful installation that incorporates the actual nitroglycerin bottles used by Saylan’s husband when he was on life support.  Aside from its highly personal nature, Besamim and Büchse (Jewish spice box) are a conceptual reinterpretation of Jewish ritual.  The towers have an opaque hard finish that Saylan has created with polychrome “milk paint” which she makes by adding colorants to caseine (processed from the curd of soured milk).  Milk paint is water soluble when wet but it becomes virtually intractable when dry and forms a very stable and attractive protective finish—an apt metaphor for what it must have taken to gain recognition in a predominantly male field.

Griff Oakie, from Santa Rosa, began working with wood in the early 1970’s and initially rebelled against color and the trend for painting wood that emerged in the 1980’s.  In “The Hand of the Maker,” for fun, Oakie put a very expensive bright red lacquer on a bench he’d made, completely covering the beautiful figurative aspect of the wood, and embellished it with a carved wooden hand left unpainted.

Ashley Jameson Eriksmoen’s “Fledge” 2006 is a table set based on the artist’s observations about how various young animals huddle near their parents’ legs. Constructed from various woods, acrylic and milk paints, casters, 36”x45”x14” and 24”x3-“x11.” photo: courtesy Ashley Eriksmoen

Gary Knox Bennett (born 1934)v has attained legendary status in the field of furniture and is well-known for his subversive humor.  In the 1960’s he created lines of roach clips along with his lucrative large-scale furniture and he also started a metal-plating company and has since imbued his wood furniture with decorative metal.  Hanna selected one of his satiny redwood tables for “Family Tree” and encourages viewers to browse through any of the 10 artist statements he prepared for the show.      

Ashley Eriksmoen’s  “Fledge” is a very gestural duo and amongst the most imaginative pieces on display —a solid wood parson’s table and end table set– highly organic in form and suggestive of a bird wing.  “Fledge” is based on Eriksmoen’s observations of various young animals (including humans) as they huddle near their parents’ legs.  “A gosling will find shelter under the mother goose’s wing as it peers at the world, just as dogs lean into their guardian’s shins when feeling shy,” writes Eriksmoen.  “In ‘Fledge,’ the parent table takes a protective stance as the young table leans out, contemplating leaving the nest on a solo flight while still needing the parent.”  Each “feather” of the table is an independent segment, shaped and fitted curve to curve.  The legs have lap joints in the “knees.”  Casters on the hind feet allow these winged creatures to have faster takeoffs and smooth

Russell Baldon’s table “Bad Digital” is a hallucinogenic exploration the possibilities of digital furniture design. Baldon is chairman of the Furniture Department at CCA and encourages his students to embrace technology. Photo: Geneva Anderson

landings, and to be moved easily with one hand.  Eriksmoen, who teaches at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco, has travelled the world studying ancient techniques which she applies in conjunction with state of the art design practices taught at CCA.  The result is a thoroughly refreshing body of contemporary work  imbued with life, movement, whimsy, and stunning craftsmanship.

Highly creative approaches to woodworking are being nurtured in CCA’s Furniture Program and instructors Russell Baldon, Donald Fortescue and Barbara Holmes also figure prominently in “Family Tree.”   Russell Baldon’s “Bad Digital” is a digitally-designed and executed table that resembles a Victor Vasarely painting in 3-D.  Baldon, current chairman of CCA’s Furniture Program, intentionally designs his work so that it straddles the line between furniture and art, science and art, and between function and nonfunction.   

Donald Fortescue's "Pike" (2001) were painstakingly formed by gluing rings of plywood together and turning and hand-shaping it to form a smooth minimalistic tower. In 2001, Fortescue became the first artist to win a design award from SFMOMA. Photo: courtesy Donald Fortescue

Australian born Donald Fortescue, previous chairman of CCA’s Furniture Program, was one of the first artists to receive the Experimental Design Award from SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) in 2001.  “Pike” (2000) are two impeccably made sculptural vessels that comment on the potential of non-rectilinear processes now common in design applications of all types.  Each was made by gluing innumerable rings of birch plywood together, then lathe-turning and painstakingly hand-finishing it into a single smooth layered form.  These layers, like sedimentary strata, stand as a perfect commentary on art’s cycle.  In the long run, almost everything in America that starts out at the pinnacle as a coveted art/design object in galleries or design stores cycles downward until it reaches Target and then ascends in large consumer markets.    

Barbara Holmes, a fine woodworker and CCA instructor from Oakland, has created the site specific “Tacoma” from reclaimed redwood lathe specifically for the Petaluma Arts Center.   This lyrical, spiraling 12 foot long line of lathe unfolds like a melody across the gallery wall.  The technique of stacking slats, nailing them and creating spirals is recent and springs from a residency Holmes did at the dump where she discovered how much lathe was a discarded by-product of demolition.  The repurposing of wood and wood objects has become particularly popular in Northern, CA, because of our strong interest in sustainability and eco-consciousness.  Wood artists like Holmes are exploring the material in new ways and creating pieces with a strong conceptual element behind them.

Sparks and shavings flew as Jerry Kermode demonstrated turning techniques to a packed house at the Petaluma Arts Center. Photo: Geneva Anderson

 In late January, Jerry Kermode, a full time wood turner from Sebastopol, gave one of the center’s most action-packed artist demos ever on problem solving for wood turners.  “I love the lathe because it’s really the only tool in the shop where you are the blade,”  Kermode told a packed house of wood enthusiasts.  Kermode teaches wood techniques out of his home studio and is featured in Sunset’s The Ultimate Garage: Getting Organized, Outfitting Your Garage, Creative Use of Space.  

Like many artists, Kermode studies ancient techniques and finds solutions for problems that are a blend of old and new.  While living in Hawaii, he encountered the cherished calabash (bowl) culture of the Islands and discovered that old calabash bowls were often repaired with wooden inserts, or kepa.  Kermode began experimenting with biscuit joiners used in cabinetry to hold together included or fragile wood while turning it and refined this into a signature technique of stitching (bowl repair).  Kermode, collaborates with his wife and business partner, Deborah Kermode, who finishes the bowls he has carved, and the couple has a number of natural edge of bowls in “Family Tree.” 

David Keller’s dovetail jigs, revered in wood circles, are on display at the Petaluma Art Center’s “Family Tree” through March 13, 2011. Keller worked for Art Carpenter in the early 1970’s who demanded that all casework be dovetailed, a task that was painstakingly done by hand. Together Art and Dave recognized a need for a jig that could precision dovetails and Dave subsequently designed it, along with the first flush-trim router bit . His model 3600 jig that he designed long ago is still a best seller and his bit has revolutionized tool work.

Tools of the Trade

“All these makers love tools” says Hanna, “whether it’s a bandsaw or a new industrial design machine.  Over the past 25 years, there have been major changes in the tools associated with achieving sculptural processes, in most cases designed by makers to meet a specific design need.”  

Dave Keller, of Petaluma, who apprenticed and then worked with Art Carpenter in the early 1970’s, refined Carpenter’s technique for uniform dovetail joinery into the Keller dovetail system in 1976.  Hanna has created a display of three of Keller’s aluminum templates and examples of different ways that dovetails are used. 

In "Alumination," Andrew Perkins painstakingly layered aluminum and maple and then cut and sanded to achieve exquisite patterning in his table. Photo: Geneva Anderson

John de Marchi is a Petaluma sculptor and machinist/welder renowned for his finely-designed hand tools for woodworking.  De Marchi fabricates new tools from scratch out of the finest steel available and also elegantly refurbishes old tools.

Rising Stars

The community gallery presents a snapshot of some of the latest developments in furniture design through student artists from the Wood Furniture Design Program at California College of the Arts.  These rising stars were asked to respond to various design problems posed by their instructors and you’ll see cutting-edge works in a variety of style, materials and intents.

Andrew Perkins’ stunning table “Alumination” is a clever use of aluminum, a very flexible material, which has been layered with maple wood and then cut and sanded to expose elegant metal patterning whose exposure increases as the table leg tapers downward.  Perkins is a 2010 CCA student recipient of the Ronald and Anita Wornick Award for exceptional talent in furniture design.

Noah Brezel’s “percival” (2009) is a functional seat with 12 legs that looks a lot like a spider.  Brezel took cherry edgebanding and glued it and bent it over a curve to create some highly complex intersections.  Brezel is interested in creating functional furniture with a perceived frailty and uses traditional hand-craftsmanship along with 3D computer modeling and laser cutting. 

Noah Brezel’s “percival” (2009) is a functional seat with 12 legs fashioned from cherry edgebanding and cherry veneer, 32’ x 41’ x 17’. Brezel has attempted to bridge the gap between craft and design and strives for clean lines. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Michele Marti deconstructs Victorian furniture and then reconstructs it for her own purposes.   “The Curious Sofa” has been formed by joining two Victorian chairs together to form a single sofa that forces two people sitting on the chair together to rub knees, a very un-Victorian thing to do.  “Victorian’s Spread” similarly co-joins two chairs and indelicately references America’s weight gain.  Marti and student colleague Brezel led a chair- making workshop at SFMOMA last year as part of its 75th anniversary celebration.   

Wood’s Rising Stature:

In the contemporary craft world, wood is still a little bit of an underdog that has yet to be discovered in the big way that glass or ceramics have been in craft collecting  and  museum circles, explains Julie Muniz, Associate Curator of Crafts and Decor, Oakland Museum of CA.  “Today’s wood craftsmen are really exploring the material in new ways and pushing the boundaries beyond the vessel and chair and into some very interesting installation pieces with some sort of commentary and conceptual element behind it.  All this speaks very well for wood’s repositioning as a vibrant conceptual craft form.”

Michele Marti's "Curious Sofa" is a gorgeous spoof on Victorian morays as well as furniture design. Two people sitting on this plushly upholstered seat are forced to touch knees, a very un-Victorian thing to do. Photo: courtesy Michele Marti

Muniz has worked closely with Ron and Anita Wornick of Healdsburg and San Francisco, whose wood collection was the basis of the Oakland Museum of CA’s 1997 show  “Expressions in Wood: Masterworks from the Wornick Collection.” Having amassed one of the most important conceptual craft collections in the country, and enthusiastically nurtured and supported wood artists through purchases, endowments, and fellowships, the Wornicks are now pushing to get wood its long due recognition in the country’s leading museums.  “Wood will only be elevated to the level of fine art when the best of the work gets into fine arts museums and gets the exposure and recognition it deserves to stand beside other things that are more readily accepted as fine art,” said Ron Wornick.

In 2007, the Wornicks bequeathed 250 pieces from their conceptual craft collection to Boston Fine Arts Museum, including the 120 works in the MFA’s 2007 exhibition “Shy Boy, She Devil and Isis: The Art of Conceptual Craft.”  In 2009, they gave several wood pieces to the Oakland Museum of CA’s wood collection.  Earlier this year, they gave 100 pieces to Racine Art Museum (RAM) in Wisconsin in conjunction with its “Knock Wood” exhibition celebrating wood’s entrance to RAM’s permanent collection.  Their collection includes pieces by many of the master artists in “Family Tree.”

Ron and Anita Wornick attended “Family Tree’s” opening and were impressed.  “Shows like this one here in Petaluma are critical in raising public awareness about how far wood has come,” said Wornick.  “I ended up spending a lot time there.  Normally an exhibition is a little more horizontal in terms of a certain time frame or artist, but this one went all the way from Gary Knox Bennett, who is as old as tree and one of the originals, to Barbara Holmes and Chris Loomis (who are mid-career) and these three represent a 40 to 50 year time span of making in this language.  There was real discernment in the selection of pieces too.  And not only did it have a range of artists and works but there were also some inexperienced collectors there too and it was fun to see all of this unfold.”

Artist Talk:  Saturday, March 5, 2011,  2-4 pm  Ashley Eriksmoen: From Vikings to Lasers: One Woodworker’s Journey Seeking Appropriate Technologies for Creative Work

To construct complex, asymmetrical, organic forms, sometimes the best technology involves 21st century lasers, and sometimes it requires hand methods used by 9th century Vikings.  An understanding of both can bring the best possible solution in Eriksmoen’s sculptural furniture work.  Ashley Jameson Eriksmoen has exhibited at galleries and museums nationwide including the Fuller Museum and Pritam and Eames, and is the recipient of numerous awards and grants including the Norwegian Marshall Fund.  She has taught woodworking and design courses and workshops at several schools, including College of the Redwoods and California College of Art (and Craft).  Eriksmoen currently creates in her woodshop in Oakland.  Fee: $5 suggested donation.

Recommended Reading:

Woodturning in North America Since 1930 (Yale University Press, 2003) complete history of woodturning

The Maker’s Hand: American Studio Furniture, 1940-1990 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2009)

Made in Oakland: The Furniture of Gary Knox Bennett (American Craft Museum, now Museum of Arts & Design, 2001)

Expressions in Wood: Masterworks from the Wornick Collection (Oakland Musuem of CA, 1996 available at the museum store at the Oakland Museum of CA and online.)

Details: The Petaluma Arts Center is located at 230 Lakeville Street, at East Washington Street, in central Petaluma,  94952.  Gallery hours: Thursday- Monday, noon to 4 pm.  Phone: (707) 762-5600 or www.petalumaartscenter.org

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1 Comment »

  1. […] To read more about how J.B. Blunk influenced CA’s fine wood tradition, read ARThound’s  “Family Tree” Petaluma Art Center’s Exceptional Fine Woodworking Show through March 13, 2011 […]

    Pingback by Rustic perfection! “J.B. Blunk: Nature, Art and Everyday Life” at Oakland Museum through September 9, 2018 « ART hound | August 13, 2018 | Reply


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