Friday, October 23, 2009

Hank Gilpin - Celebrating Wood @ Gallery NAGA

The Hank Gilpin show at Gallery NAGA in Boston (Oct 9 to Nov 7) demonstrates why he is one of the great furniture makers in the country. It isn't because he excels at the craft. Although his work demonstrates the highest level of woodworking skill, there are probably hundreds of other woodworkers in the country with equal skill. It isn't because he excels at design. Although his designs are impeccable, there are probably dozens of woodworkers whose imagination leads to work that is as unique, functional, and elegant. What sets Hank's work apart from his peers is his uncanny ability to find and use lumber that no one else is even considering. Piece after piece, the show highlights breathtaking beauty in design, execution, and wood selection.

The most surprising piece in the show is this tulip poplar table made with a blistered poplar top. The design is intentionally understated because the top says it all. I've never heard of such a thing and doubt that I would ever be able to find a board like this if I tried. He has a story that goes with each of the pieces on how he came across the wood. Taken individually, you would think he was just lucky, but as a whole you come to understand that luck has nothing to do with it - he has developed a sixth sense, like a blood hound on the scent its quarry, Hank has a nose for rare and stunningly beautiful wood.

Blistering/quilting effects are more commonly known, though still very rare, in maple; but this big leaf maple table is both exceptional and interesting because you can see the curl throughout the width of the board, in both the dark heartwood and the light sapwood, but the blistering is only found in the heartwood.
And, although I'd be happy to just spend my time looking at the top, if you look at the underlying structure (image taken from the gallery website) you see finely made furniture with equally beautiful wood.
Below is another interesting piece, entitled Curiously Red, made for the "Inspired by China" furniture show that traveled to a number of museums recently. With it, Hank uses elm (another rarely used species) to create a blood red altar with stain dripping over the very bottom. The naturally warped quarter inch top makes what would otherwise be functional furniture into sculpture that is evocative of something sacred. It isn't made to play a supporting role in a room, to hold a vase of flowers or a picture frame, but, rather, to be the subject, left alone and admired for its form.
I can go on and on about the numerous pieces of furniture in the show. Each is worthy of discussion, but what I really enjoyed about the show, and what I found the most surprising, were his wonderful wood sculptures. They range from small playful pieces to large statements of the "wood is art" aesthetic. I hadn't been aware that Hank made non-functional pieces but was told that he has been making the small pieces for a number of years as a way to have something affordable for people that would stop by his studio when it is open to the public. And affordable they are. The economy may stink, but the public still knows a deal when they see one and they will swam when they appear. As indicated by the red dots on this list of small sculptures, these pieces are a deal. For as little as $250 you can walk away with a Hank Gilpin masterpiece.

One of my favorites is the elegantly carved Theater made with blistered maple. It is hard to tell from the image but there is no joinery, it is carved from a single block of wood.Again, with this rosewood piece, Sushi?, there is no joinery.Hank doesn't like to use tropical woods - North American forests are full of the most beautiful lumber in the world so why bother - but if a client requires it, and especially if they supply him with the wood - like they did with this pink ivory used for Float (a scrap was left over) - he'll use it. (the wood is extremely rare and has a natural red/pink tone; it comes from southern Africa)
I love his use of this book-matched crotch/curly ash in this piece Flamin' Ash. He plays with the figure in a very natural way, it both makes sense and is captivating - like a flame, and where the hell do you find a 6 in thick board of curly ash anyway? Another masterful find.
With my bias toward wood art that really celebrates the wood as art, I have to say that the best work of the show are his large wall pieces. My favorite is this warped sheet of walnut (~1/4" thick), entitled Wood Moves. His appreciation for its natural beauty led him to let the wood speak for itself. It is perfect as it is but don't let the simplicity fool you; cleaning up and mounting this thin warped sheet of wood took expert craftsmanship as well as a keen sense of design.
And then there are these huge apple wood flitches, titled Wall Unit. It is extremely rare to find a solid board of apple this large, typically, large apple trees are hollow. Again, he demonstrates exceptional craftsmanship but also the sound judgment to minimize his involvement. He isn't imposing his will on the wood, but rather, finding the best way to let the wood speak for itself.
Finally, there is this amazing piece, Twisted Crotches, made with crotch white oak. He modestly and, somewhat apologetically, said that he created it by just letting the greenwood warp on its own, but the truth is it takes a lot of work and skill to clean-up rough-sawn warped boards, getting the lines straight and even, making the surfaces consistent thickness, and then mounting them. It also took great aesthetic sense, and courage, to take such prime lumber and dedicating it for a non-functional piece that would have uncertain form and impact. It shouldn't be surprising that Hank is such an accomplished sculptor given that he has been making functional sculpture for almost forty years, but it is surprising that he hasn't been more active in creating and promoting it. I'm sure he is very busy keeping his furniture clients happy, and sculpture has a less certain financial pay-off, but the art world needs more artists that are as concerned with their craft as they are with design. Gallery NAGA had been begging him for a solo show for two decades. Hopefully, he'll schedule his next show much more quickly and he'll continue to expand upon his wood sculpture portfolio.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Shell Commission Update

Here is the roughed-out shell commission. Having heard Hank Gilpin give a talk at Gallery NAGA two days ago, I've been thinking about what he said about commissions, how they are a great opportunity to do interesting things that he wouldn't normally do (he gave an example of a ten foot long table six inches high). I think this is a good example. There is no way I would have thought of doing a giant sea shell but I'm happy to be doing it and pleased with how it is looking. In this way, it is really a collaboration with the client. I don't mind collaborating; there is no reason I need to work alone with self-inspiration. Although there is always a risk in working with other people - that you may create a camel when you really want a horse - but done right, it can be an opportunity to make something much better than one would otherwise do.It looks like it will turn out to be 83" rather than the 80" I had in my drawing but I'm sure that isn't a problem. I was able to select curly yellow birch boards with similar figure and all the curls are moving in the same direction so it should look like one consistent board throughout the piece. I'll bleach the heart wood out of the top three sections so it won't distract from the coloring. The section second from the bottom is darker than the rest because I had started shellacking it to get an idea of what it would look like.

Working with yellow birch also has me thinking about Hank Gilpin because he is
famous for his use of rarely used species, which yellow birch is. Though, I now have a good understanding of why yellow birch is such an under-utilized wood. Frankly, it is a pain in the butt to cut. The wood is so hard and the curl so intense that you need to make the very smallest cuts on the joiner and planer or the grain will tear out with deep gouges. Then, there is so much tension in the wood that I can't get it through the table saw in one pass; the boards pinch the blade as it is going through so I have to repeatedly stop the saw, pull it out, and start again. A four foot board can take 4 tries to get it through the saw (rough cutting with the band saw might have been a good idea). Although it is extra work, it will be worth it. Yellow birch is the right species for this project and it will look great when I'm done. Besides, cutting the boards is an almost insignificant part of the project. I'll spend so many more hours painting it, I won't have any memory of the difference in cutting time when I'm done.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Paradise City - Northampton Debrief (2)

I got back from the Paradise City show last week having determined that the economy still stinks. Don't listen to economists, go to art shows and talk to artists. Most people weren't happy with sales. Personally, I can't complain. I sold four pieces that more that paid for the show (May Rain, Horst and Graben, Cherry Ribbon, and Blue Ribbon) and there is still hope that I might get some commission work from the exposure. Sometimes you don't know how good a show was until many months, or sometimes years, later.
One person was interested enough in exploring potential commissions that I drew up some ideas for the client's apartment with 14 foot ceilings. This one is based on "May Rain." It would be about 90" H x 40" W x 1.5" D, made with random width and thickness curly maple and accented with cherry. And this one is based on "Five by Ten". It would also be made with curly maple and cherry and would be 72" x 72" x 1.5".The great thing about commission work is that it would give me the chance to do bigger work that I wouldn't do otherwise for space and transport considerations. It also allows be to develop a more impressive portfolio.

Having sold the last of my ribbon series, I now have the money and justification to buy a big chunk of cherry to make more. I really liked having them on the ends of my display because it allowed me to point to something that I welcomed visitors to touch, unlike the shellac paintings (which people are all too ready to put their hands all over -- I draw the line when they start tapping their finger nails on them). It was a bit of a surprise to sell them because I had spent countless hours talking to hundreds of people (no exaggeration) about them over that last 2.5 years. Much admired but never sold - I was mystified as to why, but, at the same time, happy to keep them indefinitely.

Also at the show was Katherine Park. I had briefly met her at the Baltimore show back in May but got a better chance to talk to her at this show. Her work was definitely the most interesting furniture at the show. It is well crafted sculptural furniture, but it also tells a story and engages the viewer to think. For instance, this mirror clock, entitled "True Crusade" is mysterious and fascinating.

Although it is obviously a mirror, it also has an a figure on the left side that seems to have a door on its body. If you open the door, you find another door.
If you open the second door, you find a clock! And if you look closely, you'll see a tiny figure looking up at the clock.
I guess, while one is looking at oneself in the mirror, you can think about how time is ticking away while you waste time looking at yourself; or, if you want to know what time it is while you are looking at yourself, you can open a couple of doors and find out; or, you can just stand there and admirer the fine craft in making the sculpture; or, you can think about how small and insignificant we are to the passage of time. I didn't ask Katherine about this piece because I think it is more interesting to think about it myself, but I'm sure it has a story and deep meaning behind it. I look forward to seeing more of her work in the future.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Sorry George

For every piece that I finish, there is probably one that I started and didn't like and couldn't save. And of the finished pieces, I probably redo half of them at least once. This false start is especially disappointing, not only because it started as a big hung of valuable wood (the second half of a three inch thick board I used to create the book-matched wedge), but because I thought the draft looked good and invested a lot of energy trying to get the colors right. But after struggling with the colors I put it back together to see how it looked and felt certain it wasn't going to work.

I would have created two sets of wedges but the deep, live edges on both ends of the board meant that my wedge would only be a few inches wide. In looking for alternatives I thought using the live edges in a piece that revolved around the color blue might work, but the blue theme seems really boring now and as I look at the piece I think the live edges make each section to
individualistic to relate to each other. The question now isn't "can I save the piece?", it is "can I find something interesting to do with the wood I have left?"

George Nakashima would hate me for it, but I think I need to get rid of the live edges. I just don't think there is a good way to get the three sections to relate to each other otherwise. Perhaps cleaning them up (straightening the edges), cutting them up (and adding some other woods), and gluing together is the way to go. That way, I can add more contrasting colors and maybe create some interesting geometric shapes. Sorry George, I'm just not getting any inspiration from your spirit right now.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Woodstock Show Debrief

I participated in the Vermont Fine Furniture and Woodworking Festival in Woodstock, VT for the 3rd year during the last weekend in September. I set up early on Friday before most people were there so it was a pleasant surprise to arrive on Saturday morning and find that several new, and very talented, furniture makers were participating this year. The show keeps getting better and better and it is quickly becoming, without a doubt, one of the top furniture shows (based on quality) in the country.
My work is somewhat out of place but the show is close by, inexpensive, and draws a group of people that should also be interested in my art, so I keep doing it. I've sold two pieces in each of the last two years but this year was real weird. Plenty of people in attendance, probably more than previous years, but no sales -- I'm sure the economy was to blame because nobody else seemed to be making sales either. Regardless of the number of sales, the show is still good exposure, you never know where it will lead.

A big surprise at the show was the new entry of Brian Bright. Although he graduated with an MFA from the prestigious Rochester Institute of Technology School for American Crafts several years ago (whose alum also include David Hurwitz and Leah Woods), he had been toiling away creating very high end board room furniture with WallGoldfinger (their clients include all the top Wall Street investment banks, when I visited the shop a while ago they were working on "The Situation Room" for the White House) until the economic downturn gave him the inspiration and time to set up his own studio. His work demonstrates both fine artistry and craft that seems to play with the tension between asymmetry and balance. He is definitely someone to watch as his work progresses.

©Brian Bright

©Brian Bright

©Brian Bright

©Brian Bright

Another top level new entry to the show, but someone who is already very established, was Eric Sprenger. His contemporary designs have a light and welcoming appearance while also being big and sturdy.
©Eric Sprenger
For example, both the dining table and coffee table below are made with big hunks of wood but the table tops are floating above them rather than resting on the hunks.

©Eric Sprenger

I especially like the panels he used for the display. He said that they hadn't been used for a show in a long time and in the interim he let them be used by his hometown of Wilmington, VT for an event and the kid decorated them. I think they did a great job.

©Eric Sprenger

©Eric Sprenger

The show also gave me a chance to meet Timothy Clark, the famed cabinetmaker/chairwright. Windsor chairs are typically very traditional and a bit stodgy, not having changed much in over two hundred years of manufacturing, so Timothy should really be applauded for coming up with a contemporary twist (separating the arm rest from the back rails) that makes it simultaneously elegant/sturdy and modern/traditional.

©Timothy Clark

©Timothy Clark
His largest and most impressive commission to date is this amazing settee purchased by the Park Hyatt in Washington, DC. At 29'4" (with 206 rails), it had to be constructed in 3 sections, yet even with a close inspection it is hard to find where the joints are.

David Hurwitz was also at the show and, although he had very little time to create new work, he managed to finish this great new mirror (the cherry didn't have time to get a red/brown patina).

©David Hurwitz

The angled curves and tails at the beginning and end give it much more movement than his other waves (see neighboring mirrors). A nice addition to his portfolio. Perhaps he will be integrating the design in to furniture pieces as well.

My booth was across from ClearLake Furniture so I heard a lot about this impressive quarter sawn white oak round table.

They have a contract to create 60 of these for The Taft School, a private boys boarding school in Connecticut, as part of a $30 million renovation of their dining room. The table is a rock. Made with 1.5 inch boards, it weighs close to 400lbs. Thankfully, it breaks into two pieces of about equal weight. Normally, ClearLake creates pieces one at a time with one woodworker on each piece, start to finish, so production work like this is a big change but also a welcome source of income.

An interesting addition to the show was the Naked Table Project, conceived and organized by Charles Shackleton and Miranda Thomas. The idea is to promote sustainable forestry, woodworking, and agriculture. Participants pay around $650 to assemble and finish a table, over two days, that is made with sustainably harvested, locally grown, sugar maple; finished with Vermont Natural Coatings' environmentally safe whey-based finish; and inaugurated with a diner party featuring locally grown/raised food.

Here are the participants at the beginning of the project, sanding the table tops and preparing it for the finish. I think that is Andrew Meyer (in the middle with sweater and khakis), owner of Vermont Natural Coatings, giving some instructions. I have to say, they do have a great product. I got a sample at last year's show and compared it with General Finishes High Performance Poly (Fine Woodworking's top choice for water-based finishes) and I thought VNC was every bit as good if not better. The viscosity is very low so it goes on smooth but it still has a high percentage of solids so it builds up very fast. Two coats seemed to be plenty whereas with most other polyurathanes that I've used, three seems to be the minimum. Also, the fact that there are no noxious VOCs associated with it is a huge plus. You can be use it indoors without ventilation and have no fear of causing brain damage.

Here are the finished tables prior to their inaugural meal. They are nice study tables made with mortise and tenons that are pegged together. I don't think ShackletonThomas is making much if any money on the project, rather, it is an honest attempt to promote sustainability.
Kit Clark displayed this Maloof inspired rocker as part of the Guild of Vermont Furniture Makers booth. Not to take anything away from Kit, because it is a very nice - and comfortable - chair, but I think it speaks to how great a designer/woodworker Sam Maloof was that none of the rockers he has inspired come close to his artistry. His chairs are so organic and welcoming, they take on a life of their own. The great thing about Kit's chair is the gentle give of the back rest that contours to the body of anyone who sits in it. The back rails of his chair are laminate so they are both strong and flexible. If you can't afford an original Maloof, this is a nice substitute.
©Kit Clark
Another studio furniture maker that really raises the level of the show is the work of William LeBerge. His arts and crafts inspired furniture is meticulously designed and constructed. Very impressive work.
©William LeBerge

©William LeBerge
Also participating in the show are a number of larger companies that create good solid furniture one at a time, such as Maple Corner Woodworks, Pompanoosuc Mills, Copeland Furniture, and the already mentioned ClearLake Furniture as well as ShackletonThomas. They aren't really doing production work, each order is custom, but they have a large number of existing designs that customers can choose. There presence gives a nice balance to the numerous studio furniture makers. Below is an image of a new piece by Maple Corner Woodworks.
©Maple Corner Woodworks
They said that the structure is an existing design but that they just started blending walnut with maple. I like the style. I think blending different color woods together raises the aesthetics of a piece. It makes it much more interesting.

I plan to be back next year and hope the show continues to improve. Hopefully, the economy will turn by then and it will draw more buyers.