Notes from the Far Side

Even at the shop, I'm on my laptop. Of course, we didn't have wood yet. Monsieur Delorme took this photo.Tonight, I’m tired but not mortally exhausted. I take that as a good sign that I’m settling in.

Today was much lower key. We rendevoused at the shop this morning. By the time the rest of us arrived at 9, Sean had already begun turning a burl block left behind by the last ITErs. (He is a very early riser.) We mostly futzed about the shop, tweaking our setups and getting more familiar with the equipment and tools we have, both from the WTC and at the UArts shop. We even all took breaks for lunch.

Siegfried completed the first turning—turnings—of this ITE. He made miniature tops of boxwood to wish us all good turning. Here we are playing with the tops on the shop floor. Jean-François took the top picture.

Jean-François took this picture of all of us playing with Siegfried's tops.

Jane and Siegfried spinning tops.

I’m thinking of giving my job to Jean-François, because he’s much quicker to reach for the camera than I am. I get so involved with what we’re doing that I forget I’m supposed to be documenting it.

Jean-François gets ready to photograph Sean and the rest of us playing with the tops.

Tops are tops!

Jean-François made me a top too, because I gave him a penny. Here are my tops from Jean-François and Siegfried.

My tops from Jean-François and Siegfried.

Sean thinks “Jean-François” is too hard to say, so he’s calling Jean-François “Fred” instead. I believe he told Jean-François to call him “Poop Head” in return. Jean-François has “Poop Head” written on a board on his work bench to remind him what to say.

Jean-François turning his plate.In addition to the tops, I have started a bowl of walnut. Jean-François has turned a plate of cherry so that he doesn’t have to eat off of the plastic Coca-Cola plates we inherited from the last ITErs.

Welcome to the wonderful world of the ITE!

The goals of the ITE

The three goals of the ITE are research, exploration, and collaboration.

I certainly intend to do research. We have access to amazing public and private collections, including the permanent collection of the WTC. We visited the basement briefly before the symposium on Sunday, and, oh my stars, what a collection it is. I plan to spend a good deal more time there before heading home. They also have an extensive library that I plan to make good use of. And we will be traveling to see museums and galleries and visiting with private collectors.

The exploration has already begun. We set up the shop today, arranging lathes and work benches, then picked up boxes and boxes of stuff from the WTC. After we hauled it all back and into the shop, it was like Christmas. Every box held gifts and surprises: turning chisels, chucks, abrasives, adhesives, paints and dyes, glitter (!), rotary tools, carving tools, brushes, bits, paperclips, face masks . . . Some things we had to discuss to identify. Trying a bit of everything will be a blast.

During a break from loading boxes, David Bender of the WTC took this group photo of us with the guy from Stihl who brought us a new chainsaw.

The collaboration has also begun. As Albert has emphasized, collaboration is not just making work together. Collaboration is also what happens as we talk together, live together, eat together, explore together, and respond to each other.

Shop supervisor Jane Swanson discusses installation of the Stubby lathe motor with Sean, Jean-François, and Siegfried.


Albert LeCoff with Siegfried and Sean at the ITE orientation

After the “Roll Call” symposium Sunday, we ITErs met with Albert LeCoff for our official orientation. After discussing basic program logistics, we each shared some of our work and talked about what we want to focus on during the ITE.

Jean-François talks about his ceramic work as Sean and Siegfried listen.

Jean-François works with ceramics and glass as well as wood. And he’s essentially (now, at least) making the same vessels in each medium. He emphasizes spontaneity in his work, which is highly textured, with natural or subdued colors. He says he hates wood, and he often disrupts the natural color and grain through carving, brushing, washing, coloring, and other techniques. Indeed, he sometimes so alters the exterior surface of his vessels that you may not know they are made of wood until you touch them. His work is vigorous and visceral, expressive and strong.

Siegfried discusses his work, some of which can be seen on the table in front of him.Siegfried is a purist. He does not embellish his work in any way. For him, the three elements essential to his work are the integrity of the work (that is, the quality of his craftsmanship), the shape (curve), and the use of material without tension, which he ensures by drying the wood very slowly, over a period of five years. He believes that this drying process changes the fine structure of the wood, evidenced in the relaxed energy that radiates from it. His work invites touch. His wood choices attract but never overwhelm; as he puts it, if the eye is satisfied, there is no need to touch. The erotic is very much at play in his sensual pieces. He strives to work exclusively from the body.

Sean turns only as a beginning. He then carves away most of the wood, leaving delicate skeletons like leaves gone to vein. He is most influenced by the textures of nature and says that he feels drawn back to simpler work. He sometimes uses color, and his titles suggest abstract conceptualization, although he doesn’t like to plan pieces but to follow whatever unfolds. There is an organic quality to many of his pieces. Some suggest seed pods, with a protected core and an outer shell.

Sean talks about his work, some of which can be seen on the table in front of him.

I myself have been more of a purist, emphasizing turning without embellishment and collaborating with the wood rather than treating it as a plastic material. In my own work, I value form, craftsmanship, and the integrity—that is, the wholeness—of each piece. I strive to work with head, heart, and hands, together. As I’ve written elsewhere, my work is about form and substance, containment and expression, and the interplay between lift and mass.

“Roll Call” symposium

What a day. My mind is still buzzing so much I cannot sleep.

This morning we began by attending a symposium on “Roll Call,” an exhibition of student and faculty work from eight college wood programs, sponsored by the Wood Turning Center. In attendance were Albert LeCoff and Suzanne Kopko, of the Wood Turning Center; Doug Finkel, of Virginia Commonwealth University; Don Miller and Jane Swanson, of the University of the Arts (Philadelphia); Chris Weiland and Steve Loar, of Indiana University of Pennsylvania; Karen Ernst, of Edinboro University of Pennsylvania; Bob Marsh, of Kutztown University of Pennsylvania; and Mark Sfirri, of Bucks County Community College. Also there (reportedly forced to be there by Mark Sfirri) were turners Jacques Vesery, Merryll Saylan, and Jean-François Escoulen. And then there were we four ITErs: Sean, Siegfried, Jean-François (the Second), and I.

The topic of discussion was what could be grown from the “Roll Call” exhibition (follow the link above to learn more about the show). Along the way, participants discussed the challenges of organizing and mounting such a show, the benefits to the students and the wood programs, the challenges of running university craft programs, the discounting of craft in the art world, the tensions between turning artists and hobbyists, the importance of the arts in the economic (re)development of communities . . . And they brainstormed about ways to foster student interest in turning at the college level and to expose student work to a wider audience. As an outsider to academia, I found the discussion mostly fascinating.

I also found myself envious of the students who get to study turning in a context absent for most of us who are learning either on our own or through venues oriented primarily toward hobbyists. I wonder why there is no contact between our local club, for example, and the art departments of local colleges. I don’t even know what wood programs are available locally. (Note to self: Make contact when you get home! Start a conversation.)

Both the student work and the faculty work were inspiring. You can feel the energy of exploration in the work, and it is invigorating. I felt this kind of energy at Anderson Ranch last year, creative and electric and endlessly self-perpetuating. It’s an energy I look forward to soaking up in the ITE and bringing home with me. It’s an energy that should be cultivated in communities everywhere.

Here we are in Philly

Arrived last night and found the other turners already here: Siegfried Schreiber, Jean-François Delorme, and Sean Ohrenich. It turns out that Peter Oliver will not able to join us this year. The furniture maker, Peter Harrison, will join us for two and a half weeks at the end of June. In July, the scholar, Elisabeth Agro, will join us for a week, along with a dancer (!), Lesya Popil.

We are staying in a dormitory at the University of the Arts (where the woodshop is). We each have our own suite, and there’s a common room as well. The four of us (Siegfried, Jean-François, Sean, and I) got together there last night to share a simple rustic meal of bread and apples and some leftovers.

Language is only a small barrier as we get to know each other. Neither Sean nor I speak French or German, so we depend on Jean-François and Siegfried to carry the ball in English—which they are managing quite well. We haven’t hit an impasse yet; communication eventually happens even if the means is sometimes less than direct. And language is proving no barrier to humor.

We visited the woodshop today and got the full tour from Jane Swanson, the shop supervisor. We will each have a lathe (three Oneways and a Stubby), and we’re moving one from the front room of the woodshop to the back room so that we will all be together. We’re all eager to start but will have to wait until Monday, when the final lathe is pulled from storage and we’ll have all the tools and miscellany from the Wood Turning Center’s stores.

It appears to be a convivial group. We all seem ready to learn from and play with each other; “collaboration” is on everyone’s lips. We all found one incident particularly symbolic: we each were given a padlock to secure our belongings at the woodshop, but it turns out that each of our keys opens all of the padlocks. We will be sharing, indeed.

We have the day off tomorrow, but there is talk of visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art. On Sunday, we will meet with some students and teachers at the Wood Turning Center and then have our “official” orientation meeting. I’ll keep you posted.


“ConneXtions: A Collaboration of Glass and Wood” is an exhibition jointly sponsored by the American Association of Woodturners (AAW) and the International Society of Glass Beadmakers (ISGB). More than 100 woodturners and glass beadmakers are collaborating on pieces, and their creations will be exhibited June 26–December 15 at the AAW Gallery in St. Paul, MN.

Last fall, I met a glass beadmaker, Terry Bendt, a fellow Japanese-American, at the Tucson Museum of Art show. We liked each other’s work and liked each other, and when I next saw her, she told me about “ConneXtions.” Terry and I started brainstorming and decided to do two pieces inspired by the American internment of Japanese immigrants and Japanese-American citizens in camps in the United States during World War II. One piece is focused on the so-called relocation center at Manzanar, California; the other, on the Gila River camp in Arizona.

It’s been an exciting process—for both of us, if I may speak a little for Terry. We have both challenged ourselves technically to do work beyond what either of us has done in the past. Collaboration is new to me, and I’m loving the energy and the exchange. But the best part for me has been getting to know Terry and feeling like a midwife to Terry’s process. You see, Terry’s family was in Manzanar, the best known of the camps. And it’s not a part of her family history that she knew very much about. In making these pieces she has been learning about her own heritage. And it has been my privilege to be a witness and a facilitator to that process.

I’m also delighted with how our pieces are coming out. The heart of the Manzanar piece is a turned hollow vessel of applewood (“Manzanar” is Spanish for “apple grove,” and the site of the camp was an abandoned orchard-farming town). Only the inside of the vessel is turned; the outside remains the raw, chainsawn block I began with. The block is wider than it is thick, so when I hollowed the inside, the turning pierced the front and back walls, leaving “windows” into the vessel. I offset the center slightly so that the front window is slightly larger than the back; thus, when you look through the front window, you see the frame of the rear.

After the closure of the camps, landowners near the site of the cemetery at the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming uncovered a 55-gallon drum full of small stones painted with kanji characters. We’ve borrowed from that fact for both our pieces. Terry has made beads that look like stones, and I have painted some of them with characters such as those for “perseverance” and “family” and “dream.” Both the painted beads and plain faux stone beads will lie inside the bottom of the vessel with some scattered cherry blossom murrini beads. More cherry blossom beads and glass shard beads with family photos will adorn five strands of barbed wire that will wrap the outside of the vessel.

The Gila River piece will consist of a black serving tray partially covered with dirt from the Gila River camp site. Fallen over on the tray will be a teacup, a broken and mended rice bowl, and a pair of chopsticks, all turned from mesquite, a wood native to the Gila River area. Stone beads, both plain and painted, will spill from the cup and bowl. A strand of barbed wire will lie in the dirt, punctuated with handful of cherry blossom beads.

My grandmother once showed me a treasured tea bowl that had broken and had been professionally mended. No attempt had been made to conceal the brokenness; rather, the breaks were emphasized by conspicuous seams of adhesive that had been mixed with gold. Instead of diminishing the object’s value, the repair thus underscored it. This is the idea behind the broken, mended rice bowl.

In my original conception of the piece, barbed wire was to encircled the tray, attached to posts at the corners. One fact kept coming back to me, however: At the understaffed Gila River Relocation Center, the single watch tower was torn down soon after the camp was in operation, and the barbed-wire perimeter fence was taken down after six months. What model prisoners must the camp have held.

About me and writing

I used to write: poetry, fiction, essays. I had a talent for it, though words never felt easy to me. Nigh on twelve or thirteen years ago, I stopped. Grief silenced me. Editing mediocre writing for pay further numbed my love of language. I also quit talking about myself. Though some of my previous published writing had been quite self-revelatory, I became fanatically private.

Meeting me in person, you probably wouldn’t know any of this. Though I’ve always been shy, I’m quick, and I love to laugh and joke—when it come to puns, I verge on Tourette’s. So when I’m “on,” I can come across as jovial even. And over the years, I’ve learned to converse about the mundane. When I’m not focused on a task or goal, I can actually be friendly. I tend to ask a lot of questions, which keeps conversation flowing. I just reveal little about myself.

Of course, when I want to talk, when I want to connect with someone at a level deeper than the everyday, I revert to being painfully awkward and much too intense. So, mostly, I keep my silence.

My silence used to hurt. It doesn’t much anymore, one of the blessings of age—and art—for me. But breaking it does.

And writing, for me, is the most intense and painful form of breaking silence—so much so that even writing about the mundane is a test of perseverance. Simple emails? Ordeals.

So why the hell am I writing a blog?

Two and a half years ago, I applied to document this year’s International Turning Exchange, thus committing myself to this future task of writing on demand. I had warmed up the year before by creating my web site and writing most of the text that is still posted there. Then I wrote a couple of articles related to woodturning. A year and a half ago, I wrote a haiku. Last weekend, I wrote another seventeen syllables of poetry.

It’s time to begin to break my silence for good. My soul knows it, even if my mind still stamps and rears.

The International Turning Exchange (ITE)

The 2007 International Turning Exchange residency program, organized by the Wood Turning Center in Philadelphia, is coming up fast. This program brings together four woodturning artists, a furniture maker, a scholar, and a photojournalist from across the globe to explore, create, and collaborate for eight exciting weeks. The lathe artists this year are Peter Oliver (New Zealand), Jean-François Delorme (France), Sean Ohrenich (USA), and Siegfried Schreiber (Germany), plus me. (Like many of the ITE photojournalists before me, I’ll be participating as both a photojournalist and a [fifth] lathe artist.) The furniture maker is Peter Harrison (USA) and the scholar is museum curator Elisabeth Agro. I’ll be posting profiles of my fellow fellows as my departure date (June 7) draws nearer.

This adventure will take me away from home for most of June, all of July, and into August! I’ll be documenting it all here (complete with photos), so you’ll be able to follow along as the adventure unfolds.

In the meantime, do check out the book Connections: International Turning Exchange 1995–2005 to see what happened during the first ten years of the program. You can also see a photo gallery of some of that work at the Wood Turning Center site. And don’t forget to check out last year’s program.

Hello, world!

Well, now that I have my template set up, I guess it’s time to start writing.

I created this blog primarily to document the International Turning Exchange in Philadelphia (ITE) this summer, but since I’ve gone through the trouble to set it up, I’m going to use it also as a place to record thoughts about my work in general as a maker of turned wood art vessels.

I guess I’ll start at the obvious beginning point: who I am—namely, an erstwhile-writer-cum-editor-turned-professional-woodturner.

After many years of writing and editing and designing and laying out books, in October 2002, I was working as document production manager at an archaeological firm in Tucson. As such, I was responsible for editing and producing the firm’s technical reports and books and other materials. I liked the work, but the company was poorly managed, and I had been working there under unrelenting deadline pressure for seven long years. I had lobbied hard to change how things were done, but nothing had improved. By this point, I was angry all the time. My soul was screaming, and I had to make a change or die. I asked myself what I would rather do, and the answer that came to me was “turn wood.”

Now, I had never turned wood before. I loved wood and had collected a few fine vessels (thank you, Bob Rice!), but I had never turned—indeed, I’d never even seen a vessel turned. But I knew what a lathe was and the basic principle of turning, and I had a feeling.

I gave notice and left my job November 1. I couldn’t get into a woodturning class for two more months, but I got registered and I was ready. On January 10, 2003, I stood at a lathe for the first time and turned my first bowl, and I knew I’d found my calling.

I’ve been doing it full-time ever since.

The turning is a joy. The marketing is a challenge. I’m still learning how to make a living at this new career, and I’ll no doubt be writing about that challenge here. But I’m alive again. And from my hands now comes beauty.