Turning wood into Art

David Smith on the lathe in his basement studio. — File photo by Susan Safford

Michelangelo reportedly said that he saw his famous statue, David, inside a block of marble and simply chipped away until the figure emerged. A humble appraisal.

Island wood turners David Smith and Bill Nash are also humble men, fascinated by what they find inside natural materials — the oak, ash, and cedar boughs and trunks of Island trees.

“When I turn wood, I have an opportunity to see what’s really there,” Mr. Smith says. “I’m not creating anything, it’s an opportunity to see, inside a burl, for example, what’s really there.”

His art is displayed at Gossamer Gallery on State Road in Chilmark, where owner Joan Merry first encouraged him to show the results of his avocation.

“Well, all my life, I’ve loved things of the land — and wood in particular. I’m still fascinated by trees and wood,” Mr. Smith says. “Wood is a glorious part of creation, the diversity and infinite variation in wood. It is a natural beauty and because we are human, we have the capacity to see and to understand the beauty,” he said.

His favorite wood forms are burls, the large, rounded outgrowths on the trunks and branches of trees. Curiosities of nature, it’s believed that irritants such as bacteria produce wood burls, also used decoratively as woodcraft veneer.

“That’s why I’m not a production turner. No two pieces are alike though they may be similar,” says the retired Episcopal priest, psychologist, and wood turner.

At 78, he seems nonplussed by the popularity of his simple small bowls and artifacts, mostly less than 14 inches in diameter.

“Most of this work is new. Last year’s stock mostly sold out,” he says. Mr. Smith’s work ranges from $30 to $150. “It provides the funds to pay for my tools and it feels good to know that people can own a handmade wooden piece,” he says.

In his West Tisbury home studio, Bill Nash draws on his lifetime of cabinetmaking and woodworking. His pieces include swooping curved vases, fitted boxes and bowls, and other artifacts. He displays his work, ranging from $450 to $600 at the Shaw Cramer Gallery in Vineyard Haven.

“I use maple, ash, whatever’s growing on the Island,” he says. “White walnut is even-grained but I expect elm to be difficult because it has an interlocked grain, very tough. Pine is difficult also. Because it’s soft, it is tough to get a clean turn. Cedar is soft too, picks up silicone from the soil.”

Mr. Nash says, “I use a lot of salvage wood. You can take a piece of waste wood, firewood, and turn it into something like this,” and he points to an elegantly shaped and subtly burnished vase.

Noting that increased interest in American folk art has brought more attention to woodturning, he says, “It’s actually one of the oldest crafts. Evidence of early lathes go back nearly 1,000 years BCE.”

Mr. Nash, 65, studies periods and styles, but does not follow a specific stylistic form. “I don’t enjoy doing standard or reproduction pieces — beautiful work, but it has no interest for me,” he says.

“Native American work is a big influence. The American crafts movement is a source, and influences like Shaker provide inspiration. I use the inspiration but it may or may not be successful. I like to sketch on white board but I don’t get too specific,” he says. “You don’t know what you’ve got when you open a piece of wood. You have to see whether it holds up.”

While Mr. Nash’s work is often finely turned, often thin-shelled with fluting and color striations, he keeps the utilitarian history of woodturning in mind. “Take this pot,” he says, “broad at the bottom, narrow at the top. It’s Native American-inspired. The broad base allows it to hold next season’s seeds for planting and the narrow top kept the varmints out.”

Both men’s perspectives are informed by their strong northern New England roots: Mr. Nash in Vermont and Mr. Smith in Maine. Both enjoy the fraternity of the woodworking community and both seem delighted by the sense of discovery and the metamorphosis they are able to effect in their craft.