One of the most interesting and exciting developments in the craft field in the late Twentieth Century was the development of lathe-turned wood objects as an art form. Over the last quarter century or so, the age-old field of woodturning has matured rapidly, achieving an elevated level of sophistication, artistic expression, aesthetic quality and technical innovation. As craft authority Suzanne Ramljak puts it, woodturning “has arrived at a level of confidence and self-awareness that forecasts a promising future.”
Each object, with its inherent color, varied grains and imperfections, poses a challenge to turners to achieve a delicate balance between precise control, artistic objectives and the forces of chance. Master craftsmen stand out for their skill at revealing and enhancing the natural beauty of wood.
One of the world’s finest collections of contemporary lathe-turned wood has been assembled by Washington, D.C., lawyer Arthur K. Mason and his wife, Jane.
“Excited” after seeing their first exhibition in the field at Washington’s Renwick Gallery, “The Art of Turned-Wood Bowls from the Edward Jacobson Collection,” the Masons purchased their first piece at a “craft shop in the hills of West Virginia” in June 1986. Within a year, collecting with a self-described “frenzy,” they accumulated more than 100 objects. The pace of acquisitions has slowed since then as they became choosier, but they owned 800 pieces at their peak. Today, after making major donations to museums, particularly the Mint Museum of Craft + Design, the Mason family still possesses more than 500 objects.
The Masons observe that the “collection has changed in character only slightly over the years. It remains&ocused on the beauty of wood. Arthur’s [late] father [a Yale-trained forester] is up there watching. The works of turned wood in our collection are part of our lives and identities,” summarizes Jane Mason.
The breadth and quality of the Masons’ collecting efforts was recently showcased in a nationally touring exhibition organized by the Mint Museum, “Turning Wood into Art: The Jane and Arthur Mason Collection,” that was last on view at the Museum of Texas Tech University (see www.smithkramer.com for tour schedule).
The collection pays attention to the first-generation woodturners †Mel Lindquist, Ed Moulthrop, Rude Osolnik, James Prestini and Bob Stocksdale †whose “courageous and determined commitment essentially saved the art of woodturning from extinction,” in the words of craft authority Michael W. Monroe. Their shared aesthetic, he adds, that “emphasized pure form and beautiful grain” resulted in “a surge of [younger] turners and attention from museums, galleries and collectors.”
Whether working realistically or semiabstractly, woodturners can be intriguing narrative artists. Michael Peterson of Long Island, Wash., created “Water Way Course,” 1997, a small, circular object made of locust burl that suggests how sedimentation and time have eroded a tree’s growth rings to resemble canyon walls.
Approaches in design range from lathe-formed roundness and symmetry to variations on existing design styles to a precision/minimalist aesthetic to objects that exploit burls, knots and roots. Working with pink ivory wood, Stocksdale created a very small, appealing multicolored bowl of impressive grace, untitled, in 1987.
It is fascinating to see how artists like Robyn Horn, from Little Rock, Ark., a major leader among woodturners and collectors, and James Partridge of Oswestry, Shropshire, England, have turned apparent imperfections into masterful works of art. Horn’s “Narrow Spaces, 1994, made of redwood burl and Partridge’s untitled work from the “Blood Vessel Series,” 1987, formed out of oak burl, turn deformed wood into beautiful objects that are highly prized among collectors.
Hawaii-based Ron Kent, described by Arthur Mason as “one of the giants in the woodturning field,” works almost exclusively with Norfolk Island pine. “His very thin bowls,” said Mason, “soaked in a special oil, glow with a seductive transparency.” Indeed, Kent’s “Small Gold Translucent Bowl,” 1989, seems lit from within, heightening appreciation for what Kent calls its “rich spalting and exciting knot patterns.”
As Jane Mason summarizes, “Much as we covet the pieces in our wood collection, we want to expose others to their beauty and variety, and to the spirit that motivated us to collect each piece. These works have given us unlimited deepening pleasure; now we send them out to speak with their simple, yet deep, sincerity to a greater audience.”
For more information, www.mintmuseum.org/mason/masonsite/overview.html or 704-337-2000.