Adrien Segal: On Skill

AdrienWeb1Adrien Segal is a data sculptor, which means precisely what it suggests. In her hands, commonplace climate measurements yield sumptuous forms, often in carved plywood, which conveys in its figurative stratigraphy the ebb and flow of nature. The digital sophistication of her process, wherein Segal translates large data sets into contour lines that are then mapped onto and cut from plywood, can nettle traditional wood artists. As Segal explains it, they think that “you just push a button and it cuts it out for you.” And yet, as she points out, one need look no further than Auguste Rodin to discover that the mathematical extrapolation of data points onto sculptural molds is a time-honored tradition. It’s just one in an arsenal of skills that Segal deploys toward making art that matters. “Data [is] just a resource,” Segal explains, “for … creating narratives about the time and place in which we live.”

Segal’s path to data sculpture began in the furniture program at the California College of the Arts. While there, she was captivated by the ruins of Sutra Baths, built over a century before along the beach beneath San Francisco’s famous Cliff House resort. She was also inspired by data visualization pioneer, Edward Tufte, whose work encouraged her to imagine how the tidal action at Sutra Baths might be rendered in wood. Segal pored over Bay Area tide charts and replicated their data patterns in ribbons of bent steel arrayed across a walnut table. The result was Segal’s thesis project which, as she recalls, was “really well received,” and sold soon thereafter to a collector.

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[Click here to hear Segal discuss nature and process.]

The economic calamities of 2008, however, conspired against aspiring wood artists. Segal scraped together a living variously making cabinets and waiting tables. Internships, artist residencies, and work trades sustained her along the way, and introduced her to Oakland’s Crucible industrial arts school where she’s currently headquartered. Her fascination with data sculpture flourished all the while. In 2012, Segal exhibited in Marfa, Texas along with other prominent data artists. The show earned her national attention and brought Segal into a small circle of fellow travelers, including Loren Madsen, who pioneered data sculpture during the 1970s. Madsen identifies Segal as one of a very few young data artists working today in three dimensions.

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[Click here to hear Segal discuss skill.]

And yet, Segal is quick to assert that she’s not interested in art for art’s sake. “What is the point,” she asks, “of making art that doesn’t question bigger ideas about our time?” The idea that Segal is most concerned to question is the tendency in science to conceive of humans and nature as distinct. According to her, “we are a part of the environment and intrinsically tied to it.” Segal’s distinctive digital technique therefore aims to blur the line between our experience of nature and nature itself. But digitization is “just another tool,” according to Segal. “You have to … keep learning new skills.” Segal’s quest for skill speaks to the difficulty of her work, and the rigor of her vision. It also betrays a furniture maker’s pragmatism: “you can always rely on those skills,” she reminds us, ”to make functional things.”

Zina Manesā-Burloiu: On Risk

zinaweb1If we accept David Pye’s oft-stated claim that risk is an index of workmanship, then Zina Manesā-Burloiu easily ranks among the most accomplished of wood artists. The dazzling swirls of hand-chipped facets and micro perforations that characterize her work epitomize Pye’s notion that risk inheres in the abandonment of guides and other tools of standardization. And yet, Manesā-Burloiu has risked considerably more than imprecision on her path to becoming an internationally known wood artist. Coming up amid the twilight of Romanian Communism created unique opportunities for the artist, but also confronted her with considerable challenges. Through it all, Manesā-Burloiu has kept close her faith in destiny and a love for wood and tradition imparted by her family.

Manesā-Burloiu first encountered wood carving as a young girl in rural Romania, where she carved intricate geometrical patterns into the soft bark of tender walnut shoots. Though mere “play,” in her words, passing time this way amid the slow pace and scarcity of Communist-era village life honed her attention to detail. “Tradition,” she recalls,”was more important because of the way of life.” A traditional agrarian life, however, was not what Manesā-Burloiu wanted for herself. Mechanically inclined and with a talent for math, she left home at age thirteen to study engineering in the city. Manesā-Burloiu supported herself through high school and, later, university, by working mornings in a truck factory and studying by night. It was in the factory, in fact, where Manesā-Burloiu learned to make edged tools like the carving knives she uses today. It was one step toward a career she had not yet imagined.

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[Click here to hear Manesā-Burloiu discuss her work.]

And then came 1989. Romania’s leaders succumbed that year to the wave of revolution that would topple Communism throughout much of the world. Manesā-Burloiu reached out to an uncle who had spent decades imprisoned by the old regime. He had mastered traditional Romanian wood carving techniques while in prison and, after the revolution, Manesā-Burloiu became fascinated by his work. “I fell in love with his house and his carving,” she recalls, “I wanted to do that too.” Her uncle chafed at first, resisting the notion that women should carve. But soon Manesā-Burloiu was helping him with his work and, in turn, learning her art from a master craftsman.

Manesā-Burloiu began showing her work—including spoons, cups, egg holders, and candle sticks—at Romanian craft fairs, though a corrupt jury system and relentless traditionalism frustrated her. ”I was almost at the point [of] giving up wood carving.” And then, in 1997, destiny intervened. Albert LeCoff had been searching for traditional Romanian wood turners and discovered Manesā-Burloiu’s uncle through an acquaintance. LeCoff invited him to visit the United States on behalf of the Center for Art in Wood, and to bring Manesā-Burloiu along as a translator. When the two arrived, however, LeCoff was surprised to discover that neither were actually wood turners. And yet, their work was so impressive, LeCoff sponsored their participation in a host of events. Before long, Manesā-Burloiu was in conversation with the nation’s leading wood artists, and developing a reputation of her own. “It was a mistake,” she says, “that changed my life.”

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[Click here to hear Manesā-Burloiu discuss her method.]

It was not, however, a change without risk. In 2001, despite the vagaries of Romania’s fragile economy, Manesā-Burloiu left her factory job to pursue wood art full time. “Making a living from [wood carving] is my dream,” she says, “but when you live it, it is not so easy.” The market for wood art in Romania, for instance, forces Manesā-Burloiu to be more stylistically traditional than she’d like. Travel presents challenges too. Manesā-Burloiu had planned on being in residence at the Center during 2013, but was delayed for two years by a visa mishap. Now that she’s here, Manesā-Burloiu admits that “Philadelphia is the love of my life!” For her, the city is a place of inspiration and transformation. And the ITE residency, she explains, ensures both.

For more, see David Pye, “The Workmanship of Risk and the Workmanship of Certainty,” in The Nature and Art of Workmanship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968).

Julia Harrison: On Looking

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Click here to hear Harrison discuss imagery in her work.

Look long enough at Julia Harrison’s work and you may feel like you’re staring. That is, in fact, precisely the point. Harrison explains that “the act of looking really hard at another person to try to figure out what the hell they are thinking or feeling or talking about is a universal thing.” It’s a theme most immediately evident in the pursed lips and oblique eyes that appear specimen-like in Harrison’s hand-carved brooches and wall sculptures. Though these pieces invite our gaze, the ambiguity of their expressions unsettle us into considering what it means to look and to be looked at. “The specifics are different,” she adds, but “the grasping for understanding is everywhere.”

The playful reflexivity of Harrison’s fanciful body parts reveals a mingling of art and anthropology. Professionally, Harrison wears both hats. She was inspired early on to study the anthropology of craft, but was frustrated by the tendency of ethnographers to ignore processes by which objects get made. A two-year stint studying traditional needlework among Minnesota’s Hmong refugees allowed Harrison to explore linkages between craft technique and the rhythms of daily life. The experience was formative, and it encouraged Harrison to turn her anthropological lens on another favorite topic: sweets. In recent years, she has blogged, mapped, and exhibited research into the complex web of cultural forces that sustain our global appetite for sugary foods and fantastic confections.

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Click here to hear Harrison discuss looking.

Looking also figured prominently in Harrison’s path to wood art. Although formally trained as a metal artist, Harrison warmed to carving wood while studying conservation science in England. Previous experiences with basswood had been unsatisfying, but carving small objects from aged boxwood was different: “I could get it to hold all of these tiny details.” Harrison next traveled to Japan, boxwood in tow, and acquired tools suitable for working in a small apartment. She recalls being surrounded by Japanese wood art. “My first teacher was just going and looking at things … and trying to imagine, if this is what the carving looks like now, what kind of shaped block would it have come out of.” Learning by looking enabled Harrison to engage Japanese artisans through careful acts of observation.

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Click here to hear Harrison discuss materials.

Years of travel explain the prevalence of small objects in Harrison’s body of work. “I had to have things that were really really small, really durable [and] I had to figure out ways of making things more engineered than they look.” Even more significantly, Harrison explains, she had to learn to work “subtractively.” “Even if I was having a bad day … I could look at those wood chips and think … at the very least it’s getting more portable.” The press of travel, however, has preserved within Harrison’s work a material record of the artist’s journey. Bits of wood gathered here and there “become part of the story,” she says. And new places invite new techniques. Turned paintbrushes and miniature dirigibles highlight Harrison’s run with the lathe in Philadelphia. New directions for an artist who is always looking.

Grant Vaughan: On Place

“When I’m thinking about things to do,” explains Grant Vaughan, “I’ll go for a walk in the bush.” He doesn’t have far to walk. Vaughan hails from New South Wales, Australia, where he lives on eighty-five acres of bushland. Although his work has shifted over the years, variously between sculpture and furniture making, all of it in someway bears the imprint of Vaughan’s love for the landscape that surrounds him. Most telling in this regard are the loping spheres and crisp edges that unfold like leaves from his carvings.

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Vaughan grew up amid the scattering of small towns west of Australia’s Great Dividing Range. Though he briefly studied engineering and architecture at the University of Sydney during the 1970s, the swirl of excitement surrounding Australia’s burgeoning youth counterculture lured Vaughan away from school and deep into the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales. It was there that he first experimented with wood carving and furniture making, despite having no formal training. “I had my plane blade in upside down for twelve months!” But with time, and guidance from an early mentor, Vaughn began hand-carving organic forms in tables and mirrors, all inspired by his fascination with nature and a taste for Art Nouveau.

All the while, a revival of interest in hand-crafted furniture had created new opportunities for wood artists in Australia. Vaughan joined the Woodworkers Group of New South Wales and began showing his work regularly throughout Sydney, including at a landmark show in the Sydney Opera House. “That went really well,” he recalls, “I was getting so much work, I couldn’t keep up with it.” Vaughan’s success inspired new creative directions, including a bowl he carved for the Opera House show that prompted a flurry of interest throughout the international woodworking community. Furniture, however, remained Vaughan’s mainstay for many years and sustained him with commissions, including for an elaborate set of exhibit cases showcased in Austrailia’s Parliament House.

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Vaughan’s late return to carving owes, in part, to a broadening appreciation of his work in American galleries during the last decade. It’s a shift that he understands within the context of global economies. Sydney’s emergence as Asia Pacific’s financial center has shifted tastes among Australian collectors while raising real threats to the the landscape that nourishes Vaughan’s work. So, though encouraged abroad, working away from home creates real challenges for someone so powerfully influenced by place. “You need to get away,” as he puts it, to “do other things, and come back with a new perspective.” And yet, Vaughan brightens when he speaks about his land and the hundred species of trees he’s discovered there. “Understanding the landscape,” he says, is “about being informed about what you’re looking at.” It’s a conviction that applies just as well to Vaughan’s work and that, in many ways, explains it.

Rex Kalehoff: On Awareness

IMG_4130 Perhaps none of this year’s ITE fellows are more at home in Philadelphia than Rex Kalehoff, who earned a BFA in sculpture from UArts before moving on to RIT’s MFA program in woodworking. As he tells it, Kalehoff’s work is inspired by long travels around the Pacific Rim and a consequent fascination with the power of wood art to connect us with deep pasts and diverse cultures. The prevalence in his work of animal forms and fanciful masks connotes global mythologies and the archetypal Trickster figure.

But Kalehoff draws too on more recent pasts in making sense of his creative vision. “[My] attention to aesthetics,” he explains, “comes from growing up on a boat.” Kalehoff spent much of his early years with his parents, one a musician the other an artist, aboard an elegant fifty-foot wooden sloop. When shoreside, Kalehoff savored his parent’s New York City recording studio, which he recalls being filled with “amazing instruments and amazing musicians.” Within his memory of these two spaces—wherein art, craft, and design coalesced in dazzling arrays of wood—Kalehoff sees the beginning of his artistic journey.

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[Click here to hear Kalehoof discuss his artistic vision.]

The journey has not been without its challenges. Kalehoff recalls a long struggle to balance his love of form with a commitment to craft. “There were always those who were telling me … that [my work] wasn’t cutting edge enough, that it wasn’t conceptual.” And yet Kallehoff refused to shift his path, committing himself foremost to creating objects that are well-made and beautiful. Along the way he found inspiration in the work of others, including Ricky Swallow’s meticulously crafted trompe l’oeil wood sculptures, that demonstrated how concept and craft could successfully coexist.

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[Clear here to hear Kalehoff discuss awareness.]

If anything, Kalehoff has become even more mindful of method as he’s settled into teaching at Brooklyn’s Makeville Studio. “The teaching I do,” he explains, “is therapeutic because I’m teaching people about awareness … I slow them down.” As Kalehoff sees it, making students aware of shop safety, or even the importance of a square square, promotes self-awareness and a sense of calm. It also encourages innovation. It was just this kind of creative self-awareness that prompted Kalehoff to begin using his bandsaw as a sculpting tool. “I learned it from studying furniture…you can do multiple [small sculptures] the same way you do chair legs.” The proof: a buffet of figurines on Kalehoff’s bench, including six masks, fifteen fish, and as he puts it, “a bunch of hands.”

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[Click here to hear Kalehoff discuss tools and technique.]

Chips and Sparks

Today I rejoined my fellow fellows from the Center for Art in Wood residency program, a month since first meeting them.  Only minutes after I arrived, Albert LeCoff–the Center’s director and co-founder–joined us for a studio tour.  Albert asked that everyone browse one another’s work stations and return with an object of particular interest.  We did and for the next hour or so the group discussed what each piece revealed about work processes, artistic goals, choices of material, and other facets of the residency experience thus far.

I learned a lot; and quickly, at that.  Most significantly, I learned how incredibly facile these folks are with their tools of choice.  For instance, Adrien Segal digitized a form that she modeled by hand in clay so that she could then recreate it, again by hand, in plywood.  The confluence of digital and analog techniques reveal impossibly intricate contours in a material that most folks wouldn’t give a second thought to.  We learned from Zina Manes-Burloiu, a master of traditional Romanian chip carving, that after years of making her own tools, she can discern differences in metal by the type of spark it makes.  I find this type of material knowledge–literally, thinking WITH things–absolutely fascinating, and I intend to explore it more during my residency.

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Grant Vaughan, a woodcarver from New South Wales, compares Adrien Segal’s clay and wood forms.

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Works in progress by Zina Manesa-Burloiu.

Our micro-charrette also reminded me how useful this kind of exchange is.  It’s a type of conversation that, outside of writing workshops, doesn’t happen enough in humanities classrooms: asking about one another’s methods, proposing new ways of doing things, gently nudging one another to explain why it is we do the things we do.  It’s an incredibly useful exercise; one that helps us learn to be critical without being hostile.  And one that makes us realize that sometimes our peers are our best teachers.