Forest Gumption

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

When fine woodworker Steve Makin became sufficiently frustrated by the lack of gallery and museum exhibition opportunities available to Arizona woodworkers, he decided to do something about it. The most recent fruits of Makin's persistence can be seen in "Makin Furniture," an exhibition of fine wood furniture and functional objects created by Arizona artists and artisans at Chandler Center for the Arts.

"Two years ago, I became a little disgusted with the fact that there were no real venues for woodworkers here in the Valley," says the custom craftsman turned curator. "When I checked around, I found there were only a few galleries, like Bentley Gallery and The Hand and the Spirit, that show wood pieces, but you really had to be in with them. It's pretty tough for a lot of people to get into those galleries. It didn't seem like anyone was really interested in showing this kind of work."

That is, until Makin approached Vision Gallery, a small public art space owned by the City of Chandler and directed by Eric Fahlhauber, visual arts coordinator for the city.

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.

"Eric was very receptive to new artists and was open to the idea of a show," Makin says.

Using his own time and money, Makin, who works full-time as a sales representative for a local hardwood supplier while continuing to design and create unique pieces for a small clientele, put out the call for a woodworking exhibition. With the help of his wife, Jean, print collections manager at ASU Art Museum, he created and distributed invitational fliers not only at his company, but at all seven of his competitors' businesses as well. He fielded inquiries, made studio visits to potential show participants and even sent out his own press releases to drum up interest.

Maybe it was America's rapt love affair with Martha Stewart, the self-proclaimed Queen of the Beautifully Handcrafted -- or basic human interest in combining the decorative with the utilitarian -- that helped to make that first show such a raging success. It was so successful, in fact, that Makin was approached by Chandler Center for the Arts to put on the current exhibition, which was co-juried by Rudy Turk, the former ASU Art Museum director noted for his expertise in contemporary American crafts.

"We were after mostly functional, one-of-a-kind pieces," Makin says.

Passionate about his love for wood and fine workmanship, Makin has been ecumenical in his curatorial selections. He's included not only well-known artists who work in wood, but also more traditional craftspersons who earn their daily bread by custom woodworking. And the variety of forms included in the show is surpassed only by the wide range of domestic and imported exotic hardwoods incorporated into the objects on display.

Paula Cooperrider and Kerry Vesper are two of the artists exhibiting who specialize in what could be broadly termed functional sculpture.

Cooperrider, who earned an undergraduate degree in English literature from Stanford University, a B.A. in Studio Art and an F.F.A. in Wood from ASU, combines literary fantasy with function in Bryan's Beast. A tall, griffin-headed creature with taloned feet, the piece seconds as a music stand. Natural hue variations in walnut, oak, ash, cherry, African paduk and zebrawood act as a full-range color palette deftly exploited by Cooperrider in her mythical rara avis. The sculptor's imagination is also loosed in Family Skeletons, a solid maple door from which a large, three-dimensional hand and the hint of a body outline emerge. The effect suggests some phantom beginning to walk through the door, rather than bothering to open it.

Vesper's contemporary stack-laminate Chair #13 of fir plywood and West African bubinga is an exceptional marriage of visual appeal and comfortable utility. An artist who frequently exhibits his work around the country, Vesper starts with a solid block of glued layers of contrasting wood, then carves and grinds out the basic shape for his now famous chairs -- much like a sculptor working in marble chisels -- and chips away to transform a block of stone. The silky, undulating lines of Vesper's thronelike chair are ergonomic.

The design techniques and aesthetics of every century make an appearance in "Makin Furniture." For example, John Harper resurrects the fine art of marquetry in a humidor and corner curio cabinet that all but steal the show. Marquetry, a woodworking technique that experienced a revival about 40 years ago, involves overlaying small pieces of wood veneer and other materials in a decorative pattern onto the surface of furniture and other objects. This meticulous and time-consuming decorative procedure dates to ancient Babylonian and Egyptian times, was refined in 13th-century Italy by Dominican monks and finally reached an apogee in 18th-century France during the reign of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Harper, who studied under the tutelage of Silas Kopf, a contemporary marquetry master, uses a number of exotic veneers, including much prized black ebony, to create intricate patterns on his pieces' highly refined surfaces, though dyes, stains, scorching and bleaching historically have been used to expand color range and effects.

Apparently unwilling to commit himself to any particular stylistic period, William Barrand straddles several centuries in this show. In Queen Anne Tray Top Tea Table,the artisan follows an archetypal 18th-century form -- named after the fashionable female monarch who ruled England in the early 1700s -- in creating a rather delicate mahogany table with elegant cabriole legs (an authentic Queen Anne tea table, lusted after by collectors, would fetch thousands of dollars). Whisking several centuries ahead, Barrand embraces postmodernism in his Memphis-style Cone Collection High Boy. The face of the sizable dresser is fashioned from iridescent, blond curly maple veneer, with its side panels made of rich red African paduk. It sits astride four large blond cones, the cone shape repeated in paduk drawer pulls.

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 Deskis 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.

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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