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The smell of sawdust filled the air and ribbons of shaved wood flew from a lathe at the Renwick Gallery’s most recent exhibit opening.
Eliot Feldman, a member of the Montgomery County Woodturners, demonstrated wood turning, the process in which hunks of lumber slowly become elegant works of art, like the pieces presented in “A Revolution in Wood: The Bresler Collection.”
The 66 works of turned and carved wood in the exhibit were donated to the Renwick by collectors Fleur and Charles Bresler. Fleur Bresler has been collecting this kind of wood art since the late 1980s. She said she first became interested in the art form in 1986, when she found herself taking shelter from a rainy day at the Renwick.
“If there hadn’t been guards upstairs, I would have taken the tops off of the cases and started handling” the pieces, she said.
From that moment, Bresler said her collection started slowly and “scientifically,” one or two pieces per year. If she bought a short and wide work, her next purchase would be a tall, skinny one.
Despite the abundance of material for this art form, the style has only existed for about 50 years, exhibit curator Nicholas Bell said.
Although lathes have been used for thousands of years, the idea of using them to create art only came about after uniform manufacturing became the norm, he said. Once items like furniture legs and banisters no longer needed to be made by hand, wood turning opened up new creativity.
Interest in wood turning exploded during the 1970s and became the “quintessential grass-roots movement” in art, Bell said.
The works presented in the exhibit range from the functional to the sculptural. Simple but skillfully created bowls and vases fill the room alongside ornate and whimsical works.
Mark Sfirri’s “Rejects from the Bat Factory” shows a sense of humor distinctive from any other work in the exhibit. The five baseball bats hanging from a rack are polished to perfection, but they wouldn’t do much good in a major league game. One has a wiggle of wood right in the middle, while two others feature bulging deformities and odd lengths.
Some pieces, such as Melvin Lindquist’s “Vase with Duckbill Handle,” incorporate the original shape of the wood into the artwork. Rather than remove the knotty root that forms the handle, Lindquist incorporated it into the vase, giving the work an organic form.
Other works seem to defy the very material they’re made of with intricate or elegant designs. If not for the visible wood grain, it would be easy to mistake the carefully smoothed and polished pieces for stone.
It’s this close attention to the material that makes wood turning unique. Wood artists often covet trees or types of wood, but they are also careful not to damage the natural environment in their search for material, Bresler said.
“I don’t think I know a wood artist who isn’t an environmentalist,” she said.
Bresler wants the exhibit to create the same passion for wood turning in visitors to the Renwick that she has — so long as they don’t act on the desire she had to touch the pieces.