Published: January 24, 2018
SCOTTSVILLE, N.Y. — Wendell Castle, a visionary woodworker, furniture maker and sculptor who became one of the most acclaimed artists ever to call Rochester, N.Y., home, has died at the age of 85.
Castle died on January 20 at his estate near the Genesee River in Scottsville, according to an announcement by Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), where he was an artist in residence.
The much-celebrated American designer and craftsman invented a completely new way of designing and constructing furniture, allowing unrestricted forms to be realized that would be impossible to create using traditional techniques. His award-winning pieces crossed over into the realm of sculpture that today belongs to the permanent collections of more than 50 world-class museums and galleries across the globe.
Just three days before he passed away, Castle was honored at Christie’s as the Wunsch Americana Foundation honored both him and noted Outsider art collector Audrey B. Heckler as the 2018 recipients of the Eric M. Wunsch Award for Excellence in the American Arts. The award, bestowed annually, honors the memory of Martin Wunsch, a collector of American decorative arts and Old Masters paintings.
“Wendell Castle is known the world over for his contributions to the field of art and design,” said Josh Owen, professor and chair of RIT’s industrial design program in RIT’s School of Design.
Owen recalled a story when he and his wife visited Paris several years ago and knocked on the door of a gallery that represented Castle. “When we explained that we were friends of Wendell’s, their eyes widened and they urged us to ask Wendell to ‘make more things, more quickly for us. We cannot keep up with the demand!’”
Up until recently, Owen noted, Castle had regularly taught a graduate industrial design seminar, which enabled RIT students to interact with the renowned artist in an intimate setting. He also regularly opened up his Scottsville studio to give RIT students in the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences a peek behind the scenes into the inner workings of his unique practice.
“Wendell gifted us with his enthusiasm, his eagerness to collaborate and share, and his generosity to deliver his intentions with tangible and always elegant results,” Owen said. “We will never forget the joie de vivre that Wendell shared with us.”
A native of Emporia, Kan., Castle — renowned for carefully taking everything in from behind his iconic small, round, colorfully framed spectacles — initially conceived and identified his design’s shapes and forms through a discipline of drawing several hours each day. His drawings began as free sketches that captured a concept and formed the initial step in designing sculptural furniture. He chose certain drawings for further exploration and worked them into a design series.
Using translucent paper through which the former drawing was viewed, he reworked the form until he was satisfied that it would serve as a roadmap for the journey from paper to dimensional form.
Castle’s connections with Rochester and RIT ran deeply. Harold Brennan, the director of what was then the School for American Craftsmen (SAC), recruited him in 1962 to join the RIT faculty to teach woodworking and furniture design. SAC served as the fertile ground where Castle’s creative roots took hold. He maintained his own studio on Troup Street in downtown Rochester, within walking distance of RIT’s former city campus during the 1960s.
When asked years later about his relationship with RIT and its connection to his work, Castle said, “The time I spent at the downtown campus was wonderful and amazing. I believe that I learned as much, or more, those first few years, as the students did. The faculty whom I met during that time and became friendly with, I still count as some of my dearest friends today. I’m also still close with some of my students from those first years with RIT.”
By 1965, Castle’s work and influence positioned him at the forefront of the growing Craft Furniture Movement sweeping the nation. He was a standout among a group of artists who became known for making furniture by a skilled hand, highlighting individual design and beauty to propel it into a new category: art.
Castle’s designs were organic, bold and at times whimsical. Crafted from hardwoods, plastics, concrete and metals, he utilized multiple disciplines that included stack lamination, hand carving techniques, casting forms in bronze and even programming a six-axis computer numerical call (CNC) milling robot to carve his designs. In the 1970s, he moved to Scottsville, where he continued to maintain an active design and production studio.
He garnered myriad honors throughout his illustrious career, including the Leadership Medal in 2015 from the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC; the Smithsonian’s Visionary Award (along with fellow RIT Artist in Residence Albert Paley) in 2014; and the Eastman Medal from the University of Rochester in 2013. The inaugural Visionary Award was established to honor those artists who “have risen to the pinnacle of sculptural arts and design.”
Additional awards included the above mentioned Eric M. Wunsch Award for Excellence in the American Arts, a 1994 Visionaries of the American Craft Movement honor sponsored by the American Craft Museum and a 1997 Gold Medal from the American Craft Council. In 2007, he received the Modernism Lifetime Achievement Award from the Brooklyn Museum. He also received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, among others.
Castle was among ten members of the RIT family who were immortalized as members of the first class of inductees into the RIT Innovation Hall of Fame in April 2010.
His work has been exhibited around the globe, including London, Paris, Seoul and New York City. In addition to national and international private and public collections, Castle’s work can be found in the permanent collections of more than 50 museums and cultural institutions worldwide, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Castle is survived by his wife and acclaimed artist, Nancy Jurs; a brother, Wayne Castle and his wife Margaret of Kansas; a sister, Nancy Benedict and her husband Gerry of Colorado; two children, Alison and Bryon; and two grandchildren, Arabella and Archibald Staropoli.
Arrangements are pending.
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