Forest Gumption

Better lathe than never for a furniture exhibition by Arizona's finest woodworkers

Implausible feet literally appear in Pedestrian Table, a trestle table designed, built and carved by Cole Merritt in walnut and mahogany. Carved, life-size fingers whimsically snake through the top of the table where dowels should be, while two pairs of carved feet modeled after Merritt's own size 8-1/2s act as its support. Merritt makes good use of mesquite and ironwood, both native to the American Southwest, in Mesquite High Boy, a traditional early 20th-century-style dresser.

To a fine woodworker, a beautiful run of wood is as precious as a quality gemstone is to a jewelry designer. In several pieces in the exhibition, the materials themselves jockey for position with the design of the object into which they have been incorporated. Krista McKenna's Speckled Trout Desk is a good case in point. The strong, asymmetrical design of McKenna's massive desk -- made of unusual speckled white oak McKenna has dubbed "trout oak," and red oak veneer -- is virtually lost in the seductiveness of the odd but beautiful wood she's used for the desk's top. Likewise, the skillful craftsmanship evident in David Fleming's coordinated corner table and cabinet is almost overshadowed by the luscious, shimmery blond grain of the quarter-sawn white oak with which the furniture maker has constructed his pieces.

The woodworker's obsession with letting nature shine through -- and the constant search for the intriguing and anomalous -- is also evident in Louis Clark Little's maple burl slab frame with beveled mirror, priced for sale, as some of the exhibition objects are, at a hefty $2,700. The price, however, can be explained away by the rarity of Little's choice of material, which evokes alien life forms. Burls, which can produce exotic, gnarled grain patterns and forms (bird's eye maple is a type of burl), are abnormal, tumorlike growths occurring on the trunk, branches or roots of a tree. Some burls from madrone trees in the Pacific Northwest are so sought after, especially for paneling in luxury cars and private jets, that burl bandits will illegally poach to score the warty rewards.

Kerry Vesper's Chair #13, composed of fir plywood and West African bubinga.
Kerry Vesper's Chair #13, composed of fir plywood and West African bubinga.

One of the few non-utilitarian objects in "Makin Furniture," Twisted Aphylla by Tucson's Ed Hill, is a towering sculpture that Hill has crafted from laminated segments of Arizona tamarisk that completely cover a tortuous fiber-glass infrastructure. Slices of wood in different sizes cling like bubbles to the form's surface, giving a sense of upward movement to the piece. Hill's work, while impractical, ends up being a strange but effective melding of the organic and manmade.

Functionality aside, the work in "Makin Furniture," if nothing else, demonstrates the breadth of good, solid design and craftsmanship that flourishes in this state. It also underscores the fact that the objects we use every day can and should be engaging and well-made -- a concept that other cultures, like the Japanese, embraced centuries ago. Hopefully, as the thin membrane between art and craft becomes ever more permeable, it's an aesthetic value that this off-the-rack, production-line culture will make its own.

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