Wood Speaks

 Some say trees don’t talk.  We hear restless winds rustle their leaves, delight in songbirds they beckon, snap to attention at their groan-and-crack when lumberjacks bellow, “Tiiim-berrr!”  But the stoic tree itself seems stubbornly mum.  Woodturners know different.


To celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the American Association of Woodturners (AAW), the 25th Annual International AAW Symposium is being held June 24-26 at the RiverCentre in St. Paul, Minnesota.  Stunning exhibits featuring thousands of the very best works in the world will be on display, along with trade shows, panel discussions, workshops, and an “instant gallery” in which the general public is invited to show and sell local wood-inspired artwork along with members of the over 350 AAW chapters throughout the world.


You can get a preview of the craft before the RiverCentre events by visiting the American Association of Woodturners Gallery of Wood Art located on the second floor of St. Paul’s historic Landmark Center.  The gallery hosts 4-6 exhibits of woodturned art  annually in addition to its permanent displays, and admission is free to the general public.  Currently on display is a remarkable exhibit, Roots, which features a few woodturned works actually transformed from root balls, the unearthed heart and soul of a tree.  However, Invited artists have interpreted ‘roots’ in a number of ways, from the literal use of tree roots, to exploring their own evolution or the evolution of the art form. Several turners revisited materials they worked with earlier in their careers to explore possibilities from a new and perhaps deeper perspective.


The ancient craft of woodturning has been responding to the whispers of wood far longer than the Egyptians entombed these treasures within their time capsule pyramids.  Methods have changed through the millennium, and ever changes, but the basic art remains the same — rendering sharp tools to spinning hunks of wood on a mechanism known as a lathe.  What results from skilled hands is imaginatively magnificent. 


The best woodturners will tell you that the extent of their work is dependent on what the individual piece of wood itself allows.  Every diverse variety of tree, every condition it experienced during its life, every distinct grain it grew dictates the splendor an artist may conjure from it.  The beautiful possibilities are endless.  Whether it’s sturdy walnut from Minnesota, rare koa from Hawaii, or silky melee from Australia, every tree carves its own unique, compelling story. 


Artist David Ellsworth calls wood the most perfectly imperfect material.   “Every species of wood has its own particular properties and attributes.  Tib Shaw, curator of the AAW Gallery of Wood Art agrees. “The possibilities for frustration working with wood are high,” she says “Artists must contend with the material on its own terms.  The craft is something of a ‘dance,’ you simply can’t ‘force’ it to do anything.”


Different woods and different parts of the tree respond differently when turned.  Instead of a grain, a burl has a moonscape quality consisting of fascinating little lumps.  The lumps are essentially a benign cancer, a tumor that nonetheless does not hurt the tree.  Its makeup is more unpredictable to the turner.  In the more conventional parts of a tree, fresh wood — as opposed to dried wood — causes a distortion.  Different points of pressure on a tree will twist in interesting patterns after it has been worked on the lathe.


Some examples of the unique qualities of tree species include the madrone of the Northwest Pacific region.  It is considered a “trash” wood by-product by lumberjacks, and yet gives an incredible natural golden color when turned, and will twist dramatically when dried after turning.  The douglas fir is uncommonly stable and straight.  Fruit woods are amazing in their incomparable characteristics.


Over the years, root balls have used for the production of certain high quality smoking pipes. They are encouraged to enlarge by regular pruning of the surface growth of the plant. This process also gives it the burl figuring. On extraction from the ground, they are covered with earth and often contain stones within them.


Bert Marsh of West Sussex, Great Britain explains how his untitled piece was turned from a small root ball, 7” to 8” in diameter,  “I took advantage of the natural shape and edge of this ball as well as the void left after extracting the stones.  I also made use of the wood’s moisture when turned; on drying the vase has developed a slight textured surface giving the finish piece its tactile quality.”


Woodturning has far surpassed being a medium just for making table legs and salad bowls. Well-established turners have clearly recognizable styles, and put forth a myriad of shapes, textures, and techniques in their works.  More and more, turners are springing up from other arts backgrounds, giving it an increasing look as a sculptural medium.


David Nittmann of Boulder, Colorado demonstrates what is exciting about the craft with Roots Nittmann, a piece made from a California manzanita burl.  Erupting from the delicately carved knar is a ‘basket illusion.’  A single spiral rises to the edge, the root of many of his designs.


Stephen Gleasner of Appleton, Maine uses birch plywood, maple, denim and resin in his creation, Now and Then.  He interpreted roots as a metaphor for time, a link to the past.  “This piece chronicles my woodturning journey — beginning at the base in maple (my first turnings were in solid wood), then plywood (the start of my artistic career), now denim (my current medium), and back to plywood in the rim, bringing the piece full circle,” says Gleasner. “I view the piece itself as a tree.  It has roots of maple, a trunk of plywood, a canopy of colorful denim.  Inside the piece, the plywood mimics the annual rings of a conventional tree.”


Shaw is most impressed with the sharing and innovative nature of woodturners, “This is an open-sourced craft.  It is not a cloistered community where artists hoard their ideas,” she says. “What we are seeing is that the field is constantly growing by leaps and bounds because of the deep camaraderie and collaboration that runs through it.”


Roots is the fifth exhibit created by the Professional Outreach Program of the AAW.  Earlier exhibits included The Sphere, The Spindle, and The Teapot.  At the conclusion of the International Symposium, the pieces created for the exhibit will be auctioned for the benefit of AAW programs on woodturning.  For more information, call Tib Shaw at (651) 484-9094 or visit

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