Turned Wood Emerges as New Art Collectible

Though wood turning is many centuries old, its uses were strictly utilitarian. However, it was often decorated with carvings. Over the last decades of the 20th century, interest grew in turned wood objects, so beautiful that they were displayed and collected as art. Now, such objects are known as studio art woodenware.

Yet, it wasn't until the late 70s that pieces of professionally turned wood were accepted by art galleries and later by museums. These days, many of those pioneer wood turners are known to collectors. Toomey Auctions in Oak Park, Il., periodically includes them in their art and design auctions. Prices are hefty. At their September auction, a set of four wood turned vases by acknowledged master turner Rude Osolnik sold for $1,100. The tallest was 3.5" high. In a gallery, his pieces can cost over $5,000. An oil-soaked Norfolk pine bowl with thin walls sold for $550. It was by well-known turner, Ron Kent (Hawaian-American).

It was the Danish designers who, in the 1950s, first began to exploit the beauty of the various woods used in everyday objects. Suddenly, the salad bowl and pepper mills came to the table along with the newly popular stainless steel flatware in modern designs. Dansk, founded by American Ted Nierenberg, hired top Danish designers. Beautifully grained wood was finished with rubbed oil instead of varnish. The favored wood was teak with its varied graining.

In America by the 1950s, wood turners were caught up in the designs of modernism. It was the perfect addition to the interest in the merging of organic objects with industrial design. No longer was a wooden bowl simply round. It could take on various forms, each developed from the natural forms and even imperfections of the wood. The parts of the trees usually thrown away, burl and roots, became the artisan's material. Branch growths became handles.

James Prestini, now considered one of the greatest American masters of wood turning, began even earlier, in the 1930s, making lathe-turned wood bowls. He began teaching as a craftsman at the Chicago School of Design (1939-1946), and interest in wood turning as an art form began to grow, along with studio art glass and ceramics. In 1950, his work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Collectors began to seriously collect. Other wood turners emerged. Among them Rude Osolnik, Melvin Lindquist, Ed Moulthrop and David Ellsworth.

CLUES: Each artist is known for specific techniques. Turning, carving, bleaching and sandblasting among them. Contemporary turners often include other materials, such as metals, semi-precious stones and even barbed wire.

David Ellsworth used freestyle turning to enhance defects in wood, such as rotten areas, splits and bark inclusions. Mel Lindquist discovered the linear patterning of spalted (splintered) wood, and was the first to use natural and ruffled edges on turned burl bowls. He also invented tools that enabled turners to create bottle forms with narrow, tall necks.

Ronald Kent uses only native Hawaiian Norfolk Island pine. He works with a lathe and hand tools. Some of his works have knot patterns resembling tortoiseshell. Rude Osolnik experimented over the years with various woods. His work includes asymmetrical vessels with cracks and roughly textured edges. All the master wood turners signed their works.

The Mint Museum in Charlotte, N.C., has the permanent collection of Jane and Arthur Mason. In addition, an excellent book about the collection is Turning Wood Into Art, published by Harry N. Abrams and The Mint Museum.



Turned wooden vase by Rude Osolnik; one of a set of four, each in different wood. Hand-signed, "Osolnik Originals" with name of the wood. Set sold for $1,100. (Photo: John Toomey Gallery,
Oak Park, IL.)

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