Conversations With Wood: Selections From The Waterbury Collection

“Expecting to Fly” is from Jacques Vesery’s “Pleiades” series. It is made of cherry and wildrose. Collection of Ruth and David Waterbury, BA 1958.

NEW HAVEN, CONN. — Wood, the oldest of materials, has made a belated entry into the hierarchy of art, thanks to relatively recent developments in the field. Turned wood objects, long considered a craft, have over the last seven decades advanced toward an art form. Wood art, as it is now called, has taken its place in major museums and collections.

“Conversations with Wood: Selections from the Waterbury Collection” on view at the Yale University Art Gallery illustrates the developments in wood art over the last 25 years as seen through a single collection. Visitors to this exhibit may never look at a tree the same way again.

Minneapolis collectors Ruth and David Waterbury began gathering their wood art collection inadvertently in 1984 when on a trip to Hawaii they were headed to a cocktail party and the free Mai Tais on offer. They were diverted by a compelling display of turned wood bowls, the work of Hawaiian artist Ron Kent. It was Kent’s translucent wood bowls, each with a star pattern on the bottom formed by knots in the wood, that stopped them in their tracks. It was the first piece in their collection, an open bowl of Norfolk Island pine made that year. The Waterburys were hooked. David Waterbury had a lathe as a youth and enjoyed turning; Ruth later took to it. Kent, his wife and the collectors became fast friends. Kent’s wood art objects range through the collection.

Woodturning as an artistic endeavor began to be seen in the 1930s, but it was not until the 1969 exhibit “Objects: USA” that attention was paid; only in the late 1990s was wood art recognized as art. While turning once referred to the use of a lathe, it has come to denote the shaping of wood with any tool, including but not limited to the lathe. The form has expanded from a predominance of vessels to the diverse and purely sculptural. The Waterbury collection of more than 500 pieces delineates the evolution of wood art from one focused on the lathe and woodturning to an art field that now comprises many other processes.

“Conversations with Wood” in the recently reopened and splendidly renovated galleries at Yale features 70 objects from the Waterbury collection in addition to other objects given by the Waterburys to Yale, David Waterbury’s alma mater. The couple has also donated important pieces to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in their hometown.

Since 1997, four major exhibits have been mounted surveying the field: “Expressions in Wood: Masterworks from the Wornick Collection” in 1997; “Turning Wood into Art: The Jane and Arthur Mason Collection” in 2000; “The Fine Art of Wood: The Bohlen Collection” also in 2000; and the 2001 survey “Wood Turning in North America since 1930.” Those exhibits and their attendant publications contributed much to the foundation of scholarship on wood art. “Conversations with Wood” is a significant addition to the canon.

The Waterbury collection is unusual for its nature. The very title of the exhibition refers to the warm personal and professional relationships among Ruth and David Waterbury and the artists, as well as those with other collectors. Those relationships and the exchanges of information are conversations that have substantially broadened the scholarship of wood art.

The title of the exhibition refers to those myriad connections. It was Ruth Waterbury’s idea to ask the artists to comment on their objects. Consequently, each object in the Waterbury collection is personal and each is documented meticulously. These collectors saw many of these pieces in creation. Thanks to the relatively recent arrival of wood art into the hierarchy of fine art, and that most of the artists are still living, much information is known about the artists and their respective oeuvres. Additionally, the exhibit and the accompanying catalog document the Waterbury collection and serve as a permanent record of some of the objects they have donated to various institutions.

Wood, even more than stone, for example, can be manipulated in many ways while retaining its essence. Long after it has left the tree, it continues to live. As it dries, it alters in many ways. Wood artists capture and manipulate its layers and grain in astonishing variety.

“Conversations with Wood” was organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, curated by Jennifer Komar Olivarez. At Yale, the exhibition reflects the evolution of the field over the past 25 years, from its initial focus on the lathe and woodturned vessels to an artistic field that now includes many more processes and forms. Some artists use wood native to their geographic area; others prefer tropical hardwoods.

Patricia E. Kane, Friends of American Arts curator of American decorative arts at the Yale University Art Gallery, describes the order of the exhibition in New Haven as “from tabletop to wall.”

Early wood artists like the late Californian Bob Stocksdale preferred exotic woods for turning. He used Madagascar rosewood in his 1999 bowl “Marriage in Form Set,” so delicately formed that it seems to float, yet it retains its functionality. His wife Kay Sekimachi made an exact duplicate in hornet’s nest paper. A 1998 narra wood open vessel by the late Gene Pozzesi of California exhibits a similar delicacy; it, too, seems about to float in midair.

David Ellsworth began working in the 1970s and pushed the wood art envelope a little further with his technique of hollow vessel turning. In his 2000 13¾-inch sugar maple “Lunar Sphere,” he plays on the lines of the spalted grain to draw the eye. The effect is at once planetary and that of a beach ball in the sand. He writes that he has modified a set of Allen wrenches and screwdrivers to excavate the interior and make his vessels’ walls a consistent 1/16th of an inch thick.

For the Moulthrop family of Georgia, turning is a multigenerational affair. Their wood art makes use of native Southeastern woods. The late patriarch Ed Moulthrop designed and made all his equipment to accommodate the size of his work, large at a time when no one else was producing it. His Mediterranean cedar open vessel is outstanding for its size and its precision — it is also an exception to his rule of using native woods. Son Philip Moulthrop is noted for the mosaic bowls he makes by placing the end grain of sticks in resin and turning a vessel. His early mosaics were mostly pine and later efforts incorporated other local woods; the result calls to mind stained glass. While grandson Matt has inherited much from his forebears — he turned his first bowl at age 7 — he blends tradition and innovation in his own way.

Californian Bruce Mitchell makes use of the contrasts between sapwood and hardwood, a development he attributes to his background in sculpture. The 1989 redwood burl “Windscape” heightens that contrast with another of angles and curves.

Melvin Lindquist began tuning in the 1930s at General Electric and in his home studio. He pioneered turning vessels with natural edges, spalting, splits and other anomalies. A machinist and an engineer, he, and later his son, Mark, developed new tools and techniques for creating complex forms. His 1996 “Natural-Top Hopi Bowl” in cherry burl demonstrates his artistry.

Mark Lindquist achieved the next breakthrough when he used robotics in turning to achieve crossover spirals in his 1994 black birch burl “Prodigal Vessel (Returning) with Overlapping Spiralettes.”

Nearly two decades after a trip to India where he observed Mughal architecture, Michael Mode recalled a memory that inspired his winged vessels. The 1994 “Akbar’s Arena” incorporated exotic woods and contained a tiny chess set. Nine years later he created “The King’s City,” a vibrant winged vessel in holly, wenge, yellowheart and pink ivory that he describes as “one of the most audacious designs I’ve done.” The artist employed segmented turning: the body turned from a laminated block, the lid by stack lamination.

Kane describes North Carolina artist Stoney Lamar’s 2004 “Slipping Off the Wire” as “the poster child of the exhibit.” The artist employed multi-axis turning to create what he describes as “a figurative piece inspired by Cycladic figures that date back to 2500 BC.” Of madrone burl, steel and milk paint, the piece is deeply textural and sleekly acrobatic at the same time.

Arkansan Robyn Horn’s 1989 fiddleback maple, the 9¼-inch “Geode, Geode Series,” was influenced by geode rocks and work by Graham Marks and Isamu Noguchi and is smoothly tactile. Her 23½-inch jarrah burl “Full Circle, Slipping Stone Series” of 2003 makes use of the textured surface of the wood. Other later pieces also demonstrate her affinity for the chainsaw.

“Conversations with Wood: The Collection of Ruth and David Waterbury” remains on view through August 18 and is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog of the same name published by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

The Yale University Art Gallery is at 1111 Chapel Street. Museum hours are Tuesday–Friday, 10 am to 5 pm; Thursday until 8 pm (September–June); Saturday and Sunday, 11 am to 5 pm. Admission is free. For additional information, or 203-432-0600.

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