Turning Archive 2006

Op Ed Piece: What about Tradition

Keith Tompkins
>Last Wednesday's chat, which was a critique of two artistic turnings, got me thinking about the history of turning, and what influence traditional turning methods are having on the turning revival we are experiencing.

Based on turning's rich history, one could expect to see a multitude of well executed, classic turnings on display at the various symposiums held across the country. Yet, they are conspicuously absent. Have you noticed the same thing, and wondered why?

There was a time when the craft of woodturning was almost lost. Opportunity for employment in the field disappeared as skilled craftsmen were replaced by automated equipment. Demand for highly embellished turnings dwindled as sleek, modern styles of furniture became fashionable. Schools dropped their turning programs in favor of more appropriate ones, such as computer technology classes.

Against these overwhelming odds, turning has suddenly made a remarkable comeback. Today, turning is enjoying a popularity that far exceeds any other form of woodworking. What can we attribute this to? What is the driving force behind it? One simple word can explain it...ART.

The resurgence of turning can be traced directly to a handfull of turners who were not content to turn the usual fare; rather, they focused their attention on pieces they considered to be works of art. Turners with names such as Moulthrop, Stocksdale, or Lindquist began to raise the status of the turned bowl from a utilitarian item to an art form. These pioneers set the stage for the likes of David Ellsworth, whose hollow forms have changed forever the way we look at turnings. The work that these turners produced was innovative, bold, and exciting.....it was the catalyst that sparked a whole new wave of turning innovation. Suddenly, the lathe was seen as a mode of self-expression, as a way to explore form, a way to find one's "voice".... the possibilities seemed unlimited. Contrary to the beliefs of many, the artsy crowd did not highjack the turning movement, they started it! Does this help explain the absense of traditionally turned spindles, balusters, and chairs at the various symposiums...and the explosion of art pieces?

Am I saying that traditional turning has no place in today's world? No, I am not. I believe every aspiring turner needs to study and learn from the tried and true methods and techniques. They are an absolute requirement if one is to build a solid foundation from which to build upon. There will alway be a place for traditional work. Many pieces, such as the Windsor chair are timeless classics, and will never be improved upon. Few will ever master the techniques required to create one...

What I am saying is that if anyone aspires to make a name for themselves in the turning world , they need to understand and master the fundamentals, and then move on, looking forward, not back. It is no longer enough to copy a classic design or emulate a master turner. There are simply too many good turners now. The successful turner must draw from something within, from their own life experiences, and then bring their ideas to life. The future belongs to the innovators.

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