News / USA

Wood Revolution Comes to Washington

Rare collection of contemporary wood art by America's finest craftsmen on display

Wood turner Eliot Feldman uses a lathe to shape a block of wood into a drinking vessel.
Wood turner Eliot Feldman uses a lathe to shape a block of wood into a drinking vessel.

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An exhibit at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery in Washington D.C. is featuring turned and carved wood by some of America's best known craftsmen. The exhibit, donated to the museum by husband and wife collectors, is considered one of the most important collections of its type in the United States.  

History of wood art

For centuries wood turners around the world have been using blocks of wood to make common household objects like candlesticks, bowls and drinking vessels.

They use a machine called a lathe to spin the wood, and special cutting tools to shape it.   

Form over function

But starting about 40 years ago, innovative wood artists began to use the lathe in a more sophisticated way, creating objects that were sculptural rather than functional.

Now an exhibit at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. is showcasing more than 60 pieces of turned and carved wood by some of the finest artists in the U.S.

Curator Nicolas Bell says the exhibit reflects the energy that's come out of that movement, and shows how it has evolved over the last few decades.

"It developed on the ground with people coming together and saying, 'I'm interested in this material; I'm interested in exploring something new that hasn't been done before and really doing it at a community level.'"

A new exhibit at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. is showcases one of the largest collections of wood art ever donated to an American museum.
A new exhibit at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. is showcases one of the largest collections of wood art ever donated to an American museum.

Feel-good qualities of natural wood

The pieces in the exhibit were donated to the museum by collectors Fleur Bresler and her late husband, Charles.

Bresler says her love of wood art began in this same gallery when she saw a similar exhibit decades earlier. If there hadn't been guards on duty, says Bresler, she "probably would have taken the tops off the cases, picked them things up and touched them."

"It is alive because it comes from something that is living. And you can pick it up, you can hold it, you can feel it," she says.

Bresler was further inspired by the wide range of colors that she discovered while collecting her wood art.  

"I had never seen wood in that many colors with that many patterns in it," she says. "I was hooked."

Curator Nicolas Bell says about two to three dozen exotic woods, including African Black wood, pink ivory and ebony, are represented in the exhibit.
Curator Nicolas Bell says about two to three dozen exotic woods, including African Black wood, pink ivory and ebony, are represented in the exhibit.

Exotic woods

Nicolas Bell says about two to three dozen exotic woods are represented in the exhibit.

"Everything from African Black wood to pink ivory wood to ebony to wonderful domestic woods such as pine, oak, maple, cherry and the incredible array of colors that comes out of those materials," he says.

Bell and Bresler say that as wood as an art form continues to evolve, there will be a shift away from the lathe and more towards carving and sculpture, as has been the trend for the past 20 years. Objects by renowned artists like Ron Fleming and Michelle Holzapfel, may appear functional says Bresler, but are really sculptures.

Fleur Bresler hopes her decision to share her collection will inspire a new generation of both artists and collectors.

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