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Thanks to Ruth and David Waterbury's passion for the contemporary art and craft of wood, Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG) is presenting "Conversations with Wood," an exhibition of more than 70 objects from their collection of 500 works deemed one of the finest collections of wood art in the nation.
The eclectic display focuses on the evolution in the field over the past 25 years that began with lathe and wood turning and now includes many more processes, such as carving, joinery, piercing, painting, lamination and inlay. Works from simple turned bowls to large sculptural pieces are represented in the show, employing a broad range of indigenous and exotic woods.
Patricia Kane, curator of American Decorative Arts at YUAG, talks about the broad scope as well as intricate details of the exhibit.
She points out that the Waterburys like to get to know the artists represented in their collection and asked them to comment on their pieces - recollections about making the work and ideas they were pursuing.
"What you'll find here on the labels," Kane says, "is not just a little chat about the artist and his or her oeuvre, but also a statement, which is the artist's voice that adds to the richness of the presentation."
Although much of the work was created in the last 25 years, Kane says a lot of it shows the trajectory of where the wood field has been, starting in the period right after World War II.
Bob Stocksdale of California was one of those artists who began making his living as a wood turner after the war, turning elegant bowls out of exotic woods, such as Madagascar rosewood.
"They sold at stores like Gumps," Kane says. "People were probably buying them to serve the macadamia nuts, although other people were looking at them (purely) as art objects."
On exhibit is a pairing of a bowl by Stocksdale and a hornet's nest paper bowl by his wife, Kay Sekimachi, in the identical shape but of different material. The couple has done a number of these pairings that they call "Marriage in Form."
The next big moment in wood turning, Kane says, happened in the 1970s when David Ellsworth developed a technique he called hollow turning - a technique adopted by a number of other artists. The exhibit features an impressive example of the artist's hollow turning, titled "Lunar Sphere."
"It's a huge piece of spalted maple and weighs virtually nothing," Kane notes. "He made a tiny hole and with a tool, cleaned out the entire interior."
Pieces like Christian Burchard's "Torsos" take wood art to a different level - 10 panels of ultra-thin turned madrone wood appear like floating forms covering a large section of wall in the gallery.
Moving on from the hollow vessel tradition, Kane comments that many artists began to use wood that was distressed or diseased and to use those areas of rot as part of the expressive quality of the wood.
"It becomes an important part of the aesthetic - worm holes, everything else that adds to a sort of archaic look."
One of the leaders in this movement was Mark Lindquist.
"He began to use chain saws to shape his objects and leaves the tracks of the chain saw visible," Kane says. "He does very rough turning on the exterior and leaves the object highly unfinished."
Wood artists also began to focus on the natural edge of the wood as a part of their expression, illustrated by Edward Bosley's vessel, "Sand Castle," in which the broad leaf maple burl is left rough-the natural, uneven edges exposed.
At the same time, Kane says, a group of artists were doing much more precise, refined work, like Michael Shuler, who makes turned vessels out of pine cones, impregnated with epoxy.
"He then turns them so the geometry of each leaf of the pine cone makes this wonderful patterning on the surface," Kane explains.
Another category of artists falls under the highly skilled virtuoso carvers.
"William Hunter is probably the best known and most respected of people who really push the boundaries of the wood to create these beautiful, open work forms, she says. She points to his piece "Garden Songs," inspired by plants and grasses situated near water, undulating in the currents and breezes.
Although the field continues to be dominated by men, there are strong women artists represented in the show, too. Among them are Michelle Holzaphel of Vermont, originally from Rhode Island, whose work Kane describes as beautifully carved, naturalistic forms; Robyn Horn, who "simply yet powerfully" incorporates geometrical forms with steel and leather dyes; Hayley Smith, known for her maple forms with carved surfaces; and Andi Wolfe, a botanist, whose delicate forms, such as her piece "Imagine the Hidden World," from Australian grass tree, are inspired by views of animal tissue she has viewed through a microscope.
What: "Conversations with Wood," an exhibition of wood art
Where: Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St., New Haven
When: Through Aug. 18. Museum hours: Tues.-Fri., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thurs until 8 p.m; and Sat.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
The gallery will host "A Conversation with the Collectors" on Thursday, May 30, at 5:30 p.m. Patricia Kane will talk with Ruth and David Waterbury about their collection.
Cost: Admission is free and open to public.
Info: (203) 432-0600 or online www.artgallery.yale.edu.