My personal interest in wood art and woodworking comes from a childhood doing carpentry with my father and learning the craft through the lens of utility. Weekends were spent applying cedar shingles to New England Cape Cods, hanging decks or roofing, or building kitchen cabinets; a chess board inlaid with Mahogany, Poplar, and Cherry; or beautifully intricate birdhouses for my mother.
I think most folks envision these same things when they think of wood art: building houses and furniture. Yet later in life, those skills allowed me to build my own wooden cradles for painting, stretcher bars for canvas, and custom handlooms for weaving work. There is a wealth of non-functional, decorative objects that stems from that skill set, and understanding the manipulable qualities of the material can aid us in discerning pieces we may wish to adorn our spaces with.
Let’s dive into one of the oldest arts in human history and what contemporary pieces can tell us about humanity today.
The roots of wood art
From humble beginnings to the most intricate veneer work, wood art and woodworking have propelled our civilization forward and spurred social and cultural growth in several ways. First, consider that wood is the tool and the substrate in this history: think of the handle of the adze and the canoe that it hollows out. As the tools improve, so too do the skills of the user, leading to both aesthetic and utilitarian epiphanies.
Some of the earliest objects of that utilitarian and aesthetic combination come from Egyptian tombs, where they were well preserved. Furniture, as well as the inlay of exotic materials in sarcophagi, provide wonderful examples of the ornamentation our cultures have been perfecting for thousands of years.
In neolithic civilizations, these materials would have been locally sourced, but the increase in trade, expansion of trade routes, and in some cases, deforestation brought the import of new materials and shared ideas about how they could be manipulated. Where wood art is concerned, we’ll be focusing on the aesthetic object informed by these utilitarian skillsets as well as the inherent qualities of the material itself.
Wood you look at that
There are several factors when considering the substrate that provides immense choice for the artisan. Wood is either hard or soft, affecting its malleability and grain structure or figure. Speaking of grain – each is unique, like a fingerprint, and can be influenced by several external factors, such as a burl. Its color, ranging from pink to black, varies by species, growing conditions, and where it is sourced from within the tree (sapwood or heartwood). Even how it is milled can alter its appearance.
There are also several tool considerations that are worth noting as well. Wood can be carved, joined, turned, or veneered. Hand tooling can leave deliberate marks as a nod to the artist’s hand, and the time and labor involved can be a major factor in both pricing and appeal. The advancement of power tools has allowed for ever more intricate and precise execution of finished designs; however, the monetary barrier for entrance can be quite high. The best of both worlds may be digital technologies such as laser cutters and CNC machines which have made it more accessible than ever. If you live in an urban area, looking up “maker space” will likely direct you to a location with access to these tools and potentially friendly and knowledgeable folks as well.
Key factors in collecting wood art
For those interested in collecting wood art, I see several considerations related to either materiality or technique that are worth considering.
How are they using the species? Woods come in a variety of colors and patterning. You have everything from the pinks and purples of Red Cedar to the chocolate browns of Peruvian Walnut. Are these color differences being used to convey depth and space? Create delineations in geometric patterns? Is it a stark pop providing visual interest for our eyes? Christopher Lloyd Tucker’s “The Stare Down,” pictured above, uses several wood varieties to great effect here and is a beautiful example of digital technologies and laser cutting.
How are they using the grain? Disease, fungal growth, and knots can create “figures” in woods such as spalting and burls, which are highly prized for their unique designs, but the patterning of the wood’s internal structure is first: a directional quality. Is it being used linearly to create movement, depth, or curves? Is it crosscut, exposing the rings, or using the end grain? Is the grain pattern itself different colors and adding to the piece in an interesting way? Sean Henson’s work slices wood boards into thin layers and utilizes the wood’s end grain to an ethereal effect. By combining the pieces with a light box, he achieves both geometric and organic patterns and a radiant contrast and symmetry that is hard to look away from.
What is the technique? The number of ways one can alter wood is immense and could probably be its own article. Each has historical relevance and associations, and knowing what we are looking at can increase our appreciation of both the craft and the maker.
Is it inlaid with a special wood or other exotic material? Is it a strong example of marquetry: an image made by combining different woods? Is it carved in relief or in the round? Is it a meticulously scroll-sawn intarsia? Is it joined in a unique way using, perhaps, resins – or more traditional methods such as dovetailing? Is it burned through pyrography to create representational imagery or shou sugi ban for color and texture as seen in Amelia Currier’s “Castanets”?
Going against the grain
Wood has got a lot going for it outside of a place for your butt. Much like the other craft forms, there is a public interest in the handmade and unique that is exciting to see. Wood is so close to us that it can be almost banal at times, and we can take it for granted. Yet we’ve all witnessed the beauty of a live edge coffee table, the joinery of an antique mahogany dresser, or the superb scrollwork on a Victorian façade.
Fine wood art takes the best of these tools, techniques, and materials and fashions them into something familiar but novel. It blends utilitarian traditions and their ornamentation with purely aesthetic goals, and I think you’ll find something you love once you know what you’re looking at.
What wood art turns your head? Let us know in the comments.