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Bentley Gallery Heads Into the Woods With Work From Phillip and Matt Moulthrop

The Moulthrops' wooden vessels articulate emptiness perfectly.
courtesy of bentley gallery

Remember a couple of years ago when the Obamas took heat for their diplomatic gift-giving? A box set of classic American films presented to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his wife, discs that wouldn't even work in across-the-pond DVD players? The Browns' gift to the Obamas, an ornamental pen holder crafted from a British anti-slavery ship, made the Obamas' offering look even more thoughtless and gauche in comparison.

Those DVDs may have ended up in the royal rubbish bin, but what happens to the really cool gifts exchanged by heads of state? In the United States, law dictates that those gifts, after use or display of them in the White House during a president's administration, belong to the government and are managed by a federal agency, such as a presidential library. Some are displayed in such places as the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum in Atlanta, along with the usual archival documents and photographs.

Some of those gifts are probably difficult to part with, both in the leaving with the feds and in the original giving. Hillary Clinton probably thought that a wooden vessel by world-renowned woodturner Ed Moulthrop would look amazing on her credenza, but she gave it to Nelson Mandela, anyway. Carter, himself a woodworker who does more than swing a hammer for Habitat for Humanity, collects the Smithsonian-honored Moulthrop's work (Fritz Scholder did, too, as does Paolo Soleri).

Ed Moulthrop, who is in his 90s, isn't the only Moulthrop to be recognized by the Smithsonian or deemed dignitary-worthy. Following tradition are Philip (Ed's son and the artist behind eight pieces presented by George W. Bush to world leaders at the 2004 G8 summit) and Matt (Ed's grandson, commissioned by legendary woodworker Sam Maloof to make two pieces — one for Carter and one for himself — from scraps of wood left over from a chair Maloof made to honor Jimmy Carter's Nobel Prize). Two thirds of the Moulthrop woodturning dynasty — Philip and Matt — have come west. Their vessels are on exhibit this month at Bentley Gallery in Scottsdale.

Woodturning is more akin to pot-throwing or sculpture than to craft we might normally associate with wood, like fine furniture or carving. Woodturners take a chunk of wood — typically, a tree trunk — secure it on a lathe, spin it really, really fast, and bore into it with — depending on the shape of the vessel-to-be — a series of handled gouges. The smaller the opening of the vessel, the more creative the handle of the gouge. Think of a ceramic pot or vase with a narrow opening. How did the potter get his or her hand in there? Naturally, clay is malleable. The stump of a felled white pine? Not so much.

Take a look at a spendy Williams-Sonoma salad bowl. It's pretty, right? But it's probably a bunch of pieces of wood glued together in a rough version of what the bowl will eventually look like, then turned, basically sanded aggressively, or shaped, into the bowl it becomes.

A solid tree trunk isn't really shaped like a bowl or a vase, not on the inside. The art of woodturning lies in what the artist takes away, in the process, seeing and creating what isn't going to be there, like silence or darkness — the space that makes a vessel suitable for holding your pears or your poppies.

Philip and Matt Moulthrop, both natives of Georgia, like their famous grandfather, articulate emptiness beautifully. They turn — with a handmade lathe and hand-forged tools — wood only from fallen trees in the Southeast. Globes, vases, platters, and bowls emerge from rough, barky trunks of red, silver, and ashleaf maple, sweet gum, red bud, tuliptree, wild cherry, mimosa, oak, white mulberry, black walnut, Spanish oak, cherry laurel, and more.

Like the vessels, the woods are remarkably different and characteristic, which isn't surprising, of course, given the lifespan of most trees. If your knowledge of trees is limited to rings and their relationship to age (it's called dendrochronology and it's true — one ring represents about one year of growth), and you picked up your wood savvy from Home Depot's kitchen cabinet catalog, you're in for some schooling (a beautiful art book replete with images and rare interviews with all the Moulthrops is available through the gallery or on amazon.com).

Photos of the vessels are impressive but can't come close to the act of walking around each piece or, better, looking down on each. Doing this, you start to grasp the eye and perspective required for an artist to create something that "works" from its opening at the top, when he's limited to approaching it from the most awkward angle imaginable, often blind. Surveying a finished vessel from all angles reveals awe-inspiring symmetrical perfection or, even better, a slight bow here or wave there — proof that while the lathe turned the trunk, eye and hand guided its fate.

Aside from occasional resin — used to fill and/or stop cracks (though we'd not know the difference) — and Philip's few bundled mosaic (many different woods bonded with resin) pieces, this exhibit is organic, from the materials to the imagery inherent in the gourd-ish finished products. All are suggestive of highly polished stone, but wood offers a depth that stone can't. Perhaps it's all the living that trees do. In fact, looking down on the vessels means that they eerily stare back at you. There's more than ring-counting going on here.

Philip's Spanish oak (224) globe looks like the face of an owl from one angle and a dish of tiramisu from another. The rich chocolate browns and caramel golds of Matt's black walnut (219) vase, which stands over two feet high, are reminiscent of a luxurious and velvety human ponytail. Its wave and shape suggest movement and drape, even though the material is hardwood. Both Matt and Philip's ashleaf maple pieces are fleshy, almost wound-like in places, with their reds and oranges and freckly spatterings. There's a cartographic element here, too, as if Earth's resources can only mimic the shape and structure of the earth itself, a canyon wall, the western edge of South America.

Not all of a tree's beauty is a product of its own growth. Spalted sweet gum and spalted oak are not varieties of gum and oak, but wood (usually hardwood) that has basically decayed and been colored or bleached by fungus rot. The fungi themselves, which grow on felled trees, color the wood, creating intricate patterns of what are called stain or zone lines. Philip's spalted hackberry (185) globe reveals a nearly photographic image of a fungus fan. It's smooth as glass, yet textured. Spalted red oak (220), another tall vase turned by Matt, features zone lines that suggest figure drawings. Some of the 80 pieces in this exhibit reveal nearly symmetrical Rorschach-type patterning, but others have lines and constellations that seem so purposeful as to have been plotted by some calibrated seismic drawing contraption.

That deep and hidden beauty is true beauty is cliché. But that each piece of wood's unique patterning is completely out of the artist's hands yet brought out by his hands is beautiful, wordless irony. The story is not lost — three generations, two represented here, set out to translate those fallen, wordless lives one tree at a time.

Matt Moulthrop has been chosen for the 40 Under 40: Craft Futures exhibit in 2012, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery, where the museum's collection of crafts and decorative arts are housed, in Washington. His contribution will become part of the museum's permanent collection. Both his father and his grandfather are represented there as well.

So what became of Matt's Sam Maloof chair-scrap vessel? It's on display at the Carter Library (all three Moulthrops have work exhibited there). And, you might be relieved to know, the Obamas' gift-giving has since improved. France's first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, scored a limited-edition Gibson acoustic guitar months after the DVD gaffe. Not exactly an anti-slavery ship, but wood, it seems, is good.


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