David Ellsworth

David Ellsworth' "Lunar Sphere." (Image courtesy Yale University Art Gallery / May 30, 2013)

Conversations With Wood: Selections from the Waterbury Collection

Through August 18, Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St., New Haven, (203) 432-0600, artgallery.yale.edu

Ruth and David Waterbury will be at the gallery on May 30, at 5:30 p.m. for a conversation with curator Patricia Kane.


When was the last time you had a decent conversation with, or about, wood? Whatever preconceptions you may have about wood — that most familiar, even intimate of materials — will likely be turned on their head by "Conversations With Wood," an exhibition at Yale University Art Gallery on view until August 18. You may even find yourself at a loss for words when you see what these 40 or so mostly American and contemporary artists have done with and to wood.

"Wood may not have the same eternal feel as marble or bronze, but most people on earth have a relation with wood that they don't have with marble or bronze," said John Stuart Gordon, assistant curator of American decorative arts. "Wood takes on so many guises, has the tactility and warmth that people respond to."

The works, taken from a collection of Ruth and David Waterbury of Minneapolis, were mostly made by "turning wood" on a lathe and working it the way a potter works clay. This is not sculpting, per se, or really even carving, and often the resultant "turned" object is then fussed with further — painted, stained, bleached, added to assemblages, warped or even sand-blasted. Thus, the term "wood art" has been coined to cover every conceivable permutation that can be visited upon this material.

The Waterburys fell in love with wood in the late 1980s in Hawaii after seeing some finished bowls by Ron Kent, whose work is included here. This sparked what they call "an all-consuming passion." Indeed, 500 pieces later, they've amassed one of the largest private collections of wood art in the U.S. "Conversations With Wood" was first installed at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, though the Waterburys do have a Yale connection — they helped organize "Wood Turning in America," a 2001 show at Yale's gallery, and David is a Yale grad.

Gordon and Patricia Kane, the curator of American decorative arts, reorganized the Minneapolis show so that it now creates a narrative charting the story of wood turning and wood art from the 1980s to the present. Among the most striking "conversation" starters are works by Bob Stocksdale, Rude Osolnik, David Ellsworth and Melvin Lindquist, early pioneers in the field of wood art. The self-taught Stocksdale was a dominant figure in the 1950s and 1960s who made clearly recognizable, utilitarian objects, while Osolnik was a maverick who proved that even plywood, if turned properly, can be made into beautiful art. Ellsworth's globe-shaped ball made from "spalted sugar maple" has been, astonishingly, hollowed out somehow. Lindquist was renowned for retaining and even emphasizing the rough edges and flaws in wood that might have been discarded by other artists. His son, Mark, has picked up where his father left off.

In the 1960s, artists began to experiment with all sorts of wood, even "turning the wood green," which is to say using green wood that had not been fully dried. Though easier to work with, green wood is not stable. What you finish with might look flat or round, but it will gradually torque and warp and split as it dries, and it is out of that process that the work seems to come to life. The pinnacle of this process was achieved by Christian Burchard in "Torsos," a series of nine mountings, from the same source of Pacific madrone, that have been sand-blasted and bleached; the effect is enhanced by the juxtaposition of the mountings against Louis I. Kahn's architecture.

"It takes on new life after he's through turning it," explained Gordon. "It started as a thin flat piece, and as it dries it contorts to take on 3-D quality, letting the accident happen like Jackson Pollock mastering the accident of dripping paint."

Such experimentation continues apace throughout "Conversations With Wood" with J. Paul Fennell's mind-blowing mesquite "Carved Basket-Weave Closed Vessel"; William Hunter's "Garden Songs" made from Cocobolo, a hard wood, to resemble the fronds of grass blades; David Sengel's "Cliff Dwellers," which he created from gnarly maple burl, on which he has added crab claws, rose thorns and cast silver lizards.

The ultimate in pushing the envelope is Stephen Mark Paulsen's "The New Sohum-Nomendo Gallery in Dr. Marquard's Notorious Clandestine Museum on the Third Planet." This wall construction echoes the mysteries of Joseph Cornell's box constructions but unlike Cornell, Paulsen does not use found objects inside his boxes: he makes everything from scratch. And to create this one he used 26 different wood types. Every single tiny piece is part of an ongoing narrative that documents "the travels, adventures, and misdeeds of Captain Marquard, the notorious intergalactic explorer and freebooter…and unscrupulous rogue."

If that does not start a conversation with wood, nothing will.