“American Robin,” 2019, white oak, machine screws, natural dyes of walnut hull and iron, by Leon Niehues.
“Ale Hen — Red Head, Sunburst, White, Quartered Red Head,” silver maple or birch, milk paint and walnut oil, by Mike Loeffler
Alan Crichton is a cofounder of Waterfall Arts and an artist from Liberty. His column, HiLo Art, runs every other week in The Free Press, alternating with Artists in Profile by Marjorie Strauss.
Beautifully curated by Center for Furniture Craftsmanship (CFC) Gallery Manager Victoria Allport, this exquisite exhibit features furniture, furnishings and sculpture created by a group of 22 U.S. and international artists who work with freshly felled trees, wood that is “green” rather than dried in a kiln. Green wood is both desirable and challenging, and each artist here has mastered it to a particular advantage.
In green wood, fresh and full of the moisture of life, both the wood and the bark are easy to cut and pliable, ready for bending, carving, shaving, turning. As wood is cut and worked, though, it dries and shrinks from its opened surface through to its core, and internal embodied forces of its growth appear in twists and cracks. So most lumber for housing and furniture is dried slowly under very controlled conditions in order to retain stability and remain straight while being worked and in the finished product.
Green wood, however, has its own “voice,” and these artists practice listening to each piece they use. Swedish artist Ramon Persson has made two tall, and one small, oval canisters of the familiar red and thick interior bark of birch, turned inside-out, rather than the typical white “paper” of the exterior. Ingeniously simple overlap joints interlock the bark to itself, and simple handmade punches enhance the natural textures. Finished with oil paint and wax and each with a carved, close-fitting lid, when handled, they have a warm fragrance and deep, muffled, resonant tones — each a respondent presence.
The artists use traditional practical forms — chairs, bowls, baskets, bottles, shelves for containers, even coat hangers — but all are made with enormous care and awareness, and each is as much sculpture as function. The objects are fashioned using traditional techniques — sawn, carved, shaved, turned, woven. They are joined by stitches, pins, grommets, mortise and tenon. They are finished in oil, egg tempera, milk paint, stain, wax, colored pencil. Besides green wood, what relates them all is the great care in their making.
One of the most delicate pieces, “American Robin” by Arkansan Leon Niehues, is an open basket form, round and full of air as a spring robin’s chest, perching expectantly off-center on its base. Thin but sturdy oak strips stained black with iron and rich brown with walnut hull are joined by hundreds of tiny brass machine screws ever-so-carefully threaded into brass nuts through the thin oak strips that gracefully flow over and around the space within. For all its openness and floating lines, it is carefully wrought and pleasingly sturdy.
Seattle artist Polly Adams Sutton harvests red cedar bark in spring forests when sap is running up from the roots. As she gathers bark, she mulls new forms to weave and twine. “When the cedar is damp, it bends like leather,” she says, and, in “controlling the tension, I see the potential for a good curve.” In “Calmo,” from a base of crossed 3-inch widths of bark, 3⁄16-inch strips are split and intricately woven with a fine copper wire, while other strips of roots interweave horizontally in lighter diamond patterns, and an asymmetric woven vessel emerges, evolving spontaneously to become a sculpture in basket form. Again, aesthetic more than strictly functional, its beauty arises from the artist’s awareness of the means and materials of its close and careful making, the intimate steady contact of hand and eye with every overlap, while inside is alertly integrated with out.
Mike Loeffler explores the north Minnesotan Swedish tradition in a modern interpretation with a suite of delightful painted bird bowls he calls “Ale Hens” carved and ready to deliver ceremonial drinks to thirsty mouths. “But their meaning extends beyond their role as a vessel,” he says. “The objects tell of humans in forested landscapes connecting to one another through shared experience. I am inspired by the celebratory social interactions these vessels were made to facilitate.”
And then Loeffler’s words ring with a reality that could easily express the philosophy of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship itself, or any of us, in fact, caught as we are in the midst of our common dilemma: “The identity crisis we experience from an increasingly automated digital world results in a deep craving to connect to real human experiences. Craft has a grounding effect. It provides us with a unique connection to the landscape via raw local materials, work [done] with our own hands, the kinship of fellow learners and a cultural community at large. I see craft as a powerful agent for connectivity and a necessary sanctuary.”
Dear Reader, there are so many truly wonderful works of art in this exhibit, many more than I’ve mentioned. You are fortunate to have until January 2, 2020, to see them all. And Christmas is coming! So carve out some time, bend your roots and turn your wheels along Route 90 to 25 Mill Street in Rockport and “Contemporary Greenwood” at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship’s Messler Gallery.
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