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.

Orientation

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.

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.