Turning Wood into Art: The Jane and Arthur Mason Collection

By Suzanne Ramljak; Michael W. Monroe et al. | Go to book overview

As the World Turns: Wood Turning in an Expanded Context

Suzanne Ramljak

Fig. 1. Kaiser Rudolf II. Lidded Cup. Late 16th century. Turned wood and rhinoceros horn with silver gilding. Height 9′ (23 cm). Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen fig. 2. Andreas Cellarius. The Celestial Sphere, from Atlas Celestis seu Harmonica Macrocosmica. 1661. Engraving 17 x 20′ (43.2 x 50.8 cm). The New York Public Library, Map Division

The reputation of wood turning has taken a sharp turn over the last few centuries. Once the favorite pastime of kings, practiced in courts throughout Europe, turning in the twentieth century has been mainly a hobbyist's field. The historical path that led from the palace to the garage is now veering back to the palatial again (to museums, the modern "palaces of the people"), and wood turning is poised to regain a key role in contemporary society. 1 As the history of turning is closely linked to changes in cultural values, any assessment of the subject must address such shifts in social taste. A look back to the former glory days of lathe-turning provides insight into the forgotten virtues of this craft and points the way to a new evaluation of the field.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, lathe-turning was an almost obligatory activity within European courts, practiced by rulers such as Kaiser Rudolf II ( 1552- 1612) and Czar Peter the Great ( 1672- 1725) (fig. 1). 2 Following royal fashion, the lathe soon became a popular toy of the upper classes. The reasons for turning's popularity within the royal courts were complex. In addition to serving as a form of recreation, and as a means of developing technical skill to help rulers command craftsmen in their charge, lathe-turning was also central to the then-prevailing view of the cosmos. Within this cosmology, the earth and planets were thought to be perfect spheres, and it was reasoned that such concentric forms could have only been crafted on a lathe. God was therefore imagined to be a turner. The lofty status of lathe-turning during this period was thus supported by a metaphysical view in which the cosmos was seen as a beautifully turned creation, a celestial sphere (fig. 2).

This view of the cosmos is no longer tenable in the twentieth century, although it does rightly emphasize the circular and revolving nature of our solar system. Any argument for the importance of wood turning today must be built on a different foundation, and a fresh set of values must be developed for this millenniums-old art form. Compelling evidence for such a new valuation of wood turning can be found within the fields of psychology, ecology, biology, and philosophy. By repositioning turned-wood objects within these contexts, it can be demonstrated that wood turning does indeed have a vital and potent role to play in our contemporary culture.

This is a particularly ripe moment to reflect on the unique properties of turned-wood objects. The field of wood turning has matured rapidly over the past two decades and has arrived at a level of confidence and self-awareness that forecasts a promising future. The literature on the wood-turning field is striving to catch up with the rapid artistic developments, and, while artists are making startling new forms, most of the commentary continues to perpetuate habitual thinking about the medium. Though the majority of the literature is in the howto or technical genre, turned-wood objects are slowly becoming the subject of serious debate. Recent publications have sought to position the medium in broader contexts like industrial history, wooden sculpture, and the vessel-as-art. 3 However, the well-worn issue of "art versus craft" continues to dominate the dis

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Turning Wood into Art: The Jane and Arthur Mason Collection
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 3
  • Contents 5
  • Foreword and Acknowledgments 6
  • Preface 9
  • The First Year 11
  • As the World Turns: Wood Turning in an Expanded Context 17
  • A Passion for Wood: the Jane and Arthur Mason Collection 33
  • Notes 46
  • Cataloque of the Exhibition 47
  • Checklist of the Exhibition 194
  • Selected Bibliography 197
  • Biographies of the Artists 199
  • Index 207
  • Photograph Credits 208
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