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An Artist on the Factory Floor

Tom Shields at Century Furniture
Tom Shields at Century with one of the tables he is working into a project. On the right is a stack of tables in progress on the factory floor.

 

During his time as a resident artist at Penland, Tom Shield’s studio was constantly filled with old, worn furniture. “I collect wood furniture from the trash and let it pile up in my studio until it slowly starts to work itself into groups,” he once explained. “In the course of a few weeks, I constantly move and cluster chairs around my studio in different bunches. Once the groups get narrowed I start letting them talk.” The sculptures that result from this process are marked not only by Tom’s hands, but by the hands of those who used the furniture before him over days and weeks and years.

As interesting as it can be, working with discarded furniture does have obvious limitations. “For me, it’s always been on my list of where I want to go as an artist to up the pedigree of my materials,” Tom told me recently. Thanks to a brand-new collaboration with Century Furniture, he now has the opportunity to do just that.

Tom is the inaugural artist-in-residence at Century’s case goods factory in Hickory, NC. Hickory has long been known as one of the furniture capitals of the world, and Century has established its own reputation as a producer of high-end, heirloom-quality furniture.

During his three-month residency, Tom has free reign over what he creates—and he also has free access to a whole new caliber of raw materials. “I get to use anything that’s a second,” he explains. That means dozens, if not hundreds, of brand new furniture pieces that are only slightly less than perfect. “I’m super thankful for the whole opportunity,” he says.

 

Tom Shield's table sculpture and detail
The beginning of Tom’s first project at Century. As he remarked, “Devil’s in the details.”

 

A quick scroll through Tom’s Instagram gallery shows that he’s already put the time and materials to good use. Since the residency began on October 4, Tom has been working on three different sculptures made from Century tables. Two are crafted from groupings of identical tables, while the third is made from a single piece. This one is a bit of a departure for Tom: he has cut the table in two, dropped one side down three-quarters of an inch, and shifted it over two inches. “Because the pieces are so new and so pristine, I barely have to change them at all to make them into something completely different,” Tom tells me. “Before, I felt like I needed to do more to put my hand in it and have the same impact.”

The new materials are not the only departure from Tom’s individual studio practice. As he describes it, “I’m making work right on the same floor as all the people who are making the furniture for Century.” A lot of those people have been in the furniture industry for thirty or forty years, and Tom wasn’t sure how he’d be received as the first studio artist in their midst. “It’s intense, and it’s definitely working under a microscope, but everybody has been super nice and really helpful,” he says. “I feel like half of my day is spent just talking to people, sharing ideas and approaches.” And, now that he’s getting comfortable with how everything works at Century, “I’m just going to start making crazier and crazier things,” he laughs.

 

Tom reimagined these Century tables as a stack.
From sketch to sculpture, Tom is transforming these five Century tables into a single piece.

 

As a woodworker who has spent so much time with old furniture, Tom is intimately aware of what can bring a piece to the end of its life: the disposable design, planned obsolescence, and shoddy craftsmanship that are so common in much of today’s mass market furniture. Being at Century has provided a reassuring look at the other end of the furniture spectrum. “Every piece of furniture is touched by so many hands and created with such individual care,” Tom states. “I think people have this misconception now that there are CNC machines and other tools and you just put a bunch of wood in one end and it comes out as a piece of furniture at the other end. That’s not the case at all. So many different people are involved in every aspect of creating a piece.”

In fact, Tom revealed that the high level of craftsmanship at Century has actually changed the way he works with furniture. As he describes, “Normally I take everything apart by just banging on the joints. But at Century, I can’t get pieces apart. I’m having to learn to do everything I’ve been doing with all the pieces completely intact. It’s a whole new challenge, but it’s been an amazing opportunity.”

The opportunity was made possible by Ande Maricich, an active friend and supporter of Penland’s. Ande has deep ties to the furniture industry, and her husband served as Century’s CEO for a while. “Ande is really invested in both the craft world and furniture manufacturing,” Tom remarks. She had been excited by the partnership of artists and manufacturing facilities in the Kohler Arts/Industry residency and wanted to create a similar partnership at Century. When she saw Tom’s furniture sculptures a few years ago at the Penland Benefit Auction, she talked to him about the possibility of a residency at Century. Now that it’s become a reality, Ande would like to expand the program to include other artists and other factories and further strengthen the reciprocal ties between art and industry.

Reflecting on those ties, Tom points out that both he and the Century employees he’s working alongside are making things by hand. “I’m an artist, but they’re all artisans working on the floor, too—what’s really the difference?” he asks.

—Sarah Parkinson

 

After completing his residency at Century in December, Tom will be at Penland for the spring as the studio assistant to Raivo Vihman’s timber framing concentration. He was also just selected for a Kohler Arts/Industry residency—congrats, Tom!

 

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Timber! | Timber Framing Concentration with Raivo Vihman

studio, lincolnville, main
Detail of a timber-framed studio Raivo built in Lincolnville, Maine.

 

“My first frame was raised by hand with a group of a dozen friends, and by the end of the day limitless space was bounded by posts and rafters into the shape of a house. I was bewitched.” So Raivo Vihman describes his first experience constructing a timber frame.

Looking at the many timber frames Raivo has designed and built since, it’s not hard to see the appeal. His structures are at once graceful and solid, intricate and beautifully simple. Together, the wooden beams take the familiar shape of a house or a barn, but individually their knots and exposed grain still speak of nature. His structures are built with wood in the truest sense of the wordeach beam is unique, and each one gives something of itself to the frame as a whole. For Raivo, even after years of building, every new timber frame is an opportunity: “It’s still about the act of creation, the interplay between aesthetic grace and functional design, and the beauty hidden in the wood.”

 

farmhouse, buckwheat blossom farm
Raivo included these curving boards of live edge cherry as the attic collar ties in this farmhouse in Wiscasset, Maine.

 

This spring, Raivo will be here at Penland to share his craft—and his love of his craft—with students in Timber!, an eight-week timber framing concentration. Like all Penland workshops, Timber! will be an opportunity to gain technical skills, a deeper understanding of materials, and exposure to new ideas. What makes it extra special is that students in the workshop will come together to build an enduring structure on campus. The resulting timber frame will reflect each of the students who’s hands worked to build it, as well as the Penland landscape it will become a part of.

In fact, the structure has already been set into motion. In spring of this year, Raivo was at Penland preparing wood. He and his studio assistant (and former Penland resident artist) Tom Shields stacked dozens of fir, pine, and cypress beams under temporary roofs. The beams have been curing so that they will be ready to frame come next spring:

 

Raivo and Tom with timbers
Raivo (left) and his studio assistant Tom Shields with the beams they stacked in preparation for this spring’s class.

 

Raivo also cut a number of beams from the woods right here at Penland. He wanted the structure to include local trees, and he wanted to incorporate pieces into the design that have natural curvature to them. With the help of some eager Penland volunteers, those logs, too, are awaiting next spring:

 

tulip trees

volunteers
Volunteers during last spring’s concentrations pose with the large log they helped Raivo haul out of the woods. This red timber cart was the only one not smiling by the end.

 

“The class will be tailored to student interests,” Raivo says. He has structured it to introduce students of all levels—from complete beginners to experienced builders—to the details of timber framing. The workshop will move through the complete process of designing and raising a frame, from drafting plans and building models to working with hand tools and different species of wood. For anyone like Raivo who is fascinated by the potential for both beauty and function in this type of building, Timber! will be an invaluable eight weeks.

Register now for Timber!, which will run March 13 – May 6, 2016. Scholarships are available for the course. Scholarship applications are due November 28, 2015.

 

Timber!

Raivo Vihman – In this workshop we’ll delve into traditional carpentry as we cut, join, and raise a timber-framed structure that will become a permanent part of the Penland campus. We’ll explore various approaches to timber preparation, layout, joinery design and execution, and compound-angle joinery. We’ll also cover scribing techniques as we incorporate round logs into the structure of the frame. Students will begin by designing and building their own timber sawhorses and will leave the class with the skills needed to design and build their own timber frames. All levels. Code S00W

Carpenter, founder and proprietor of Haystack Joinery (ME); teaching: Waterfall Arts (ME), Miljandi Cultural Academy (Estonia).

haystackjoinery.com

 

Penland Spring Concentrations, March 13 – May 6, 2016
Books  |  Clay  |  Glass  |  Iron  |  Metals  |  Textiles  |  Wood

 

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Going Deep: Sculpture & Furniture Laboratory with Sylvie Rosenthal

Sylvie Rosenthal in her shop

This fall, Sylvie Rosenthal will be returning to Penland to teach a concentration in the woodshop. Her course focuses on furniture and sculpture, but its audience is far wider than that. Anyone fond of whimsical details, anyone interested in conceptual ideas made tangible, anyone eager to prototype and problem solveall will find something to inspire them in this 8-week laboratory. After all, as American Style noted in a profile of her, Sylvie specializes in being able “to combine function, style and humor in one clean package.” Her work is intricate and detail-oriented, often kinetic, and, in her own words, “steeped in the impossible.” It’s a pretty remarkable combination.

There are still spaces left to take part in the workshop this fall from September 20 – November 13, 2015. Register here.

 

Going Deep: Sculpture & Furniture Laboratory

Sylvie Rosenthal – In this fun and fast-paced workshop, we’ll work in and out of the studio as we make furniture and sculpture for interior and exterior settings. While exploring experimental and traditional construction techniques—including lap, mortise and tenon, and dovetail joints—we’ll make forms, structures, masses to carve, and literal and metaphorical frameworks to support your ideas. Our main material will be wood, but we’ll use other materials—plaster, metal, ceramic, found objects—as projects necessitate. Thinking creatively, solving problems, and keeping safety in mind, we’ll use additive and subtractive processes as we cut, glue, join, shape, break, and fix. Risk taking will be encouraged. All levels. Code F00W

Sylvie Rosenthal is a studio artist specializing in woodworking and sculpture. She has taught at Haystack (ME), Anderson Ranch (CO), University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Penland. Her work has been exhibited at the Museum of Arts and Design (NYC) and the Mint Museum (NC) and is in the collections of the Museum of Arts and Design, the Fuller Craft Museum (MA), and the Kamm Teapot Foundation (CA).

sylvierosenthal.com

 

Desk and stool by Sylvie Rosenthal
Birdie Suite, 2007. This desk and stool set features a kinetic bird sculpture perched next to the mirror. Ask the bird if you look good, turn the crank, and watch it nod a yes. Photo by Steve Mann.

 

Whale sculpture by Sylvie Rosenthal
Ballena, 2011. This 11-foot long “whale with a roof rack” is part of Sylvie’s series of “edificios imposibles,” or impossible buildings. Photo by Ramon C Purcell

 

O'Possum Whiskey, 2005. As Sylvie describes, "The whiskey cabinets beckon as kinetic skulls agree, you should have another drink." Photo by Larry Stanley
O’Possum Whiskey, 2005. As Sylvie describes, “The whiskey cabinets beckon as kinetic skulls agree, you should have another drink.” Photo by Larry Stanley

 

As the images above make clear, Sylvie has a strong background in wood and fine furniture, but she doesn’t let materials or traditions hold back her designs. As Andrew Glasgow put it in American Craft magazine, “Her sculpture has a fine-furniture maker’s sensibility while her furniture…possesses a sculptural quality that exhibits utter ease at flowing between the genres.” Come bend the rules and blur the lines with Sylvie this fall at Penland.

 

REGISTER NOW FOR FALL CONCENTRATIONS
September 20 – November 13, 2015

 

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Winter Studio Visit: Dustin Farnsworth

dustinfarnsworthpenland1

 
Dustin Farnsworth’s studio is stage-bright when we walk in. He’s working on three headdresses, and brings our attention to one: three coopered towers to be mounted on the head. To see the expression on the figure’s face is to know something about where this is all going: not only to the world of  “players and painted stage” but somewhere much darker and much more strange.

 

Ah, the “dark” and “strange”–all of it has been commodified in clever ways (Tim Burton, anyone?)–and Dustin’s work nods–and then brilliantly subverts any pop-culture context, favoring more risky considerations of poverty, angst, race. The souls in his headdresses are inexpressibly clear and burdened by what they have to wear (twenty-seven essays could be written about the faces alone), and what they wear is a profound architecture.

 

As we look at the headdress-in-process, Dustin tells us he’s been inspired by Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse–the three headdress sections evoke water towers: signifiers of how we once handled water, and possible indicators of our future demise. As Dustin talks with us about his Michigan roots–“the burn’t out” feeling of Detroit arriving in his hometown of Lansing, Michigan– it’s hard not to see disaster abiding in all his work.

 

But the apocalypse hasn’t happened yet. There’s a lot to do. This, too, is part of Dustin’s sensibility. He shows us a system of walkways that will cross the towers in the headdress, a kind of back-and-forth plank-work. As he talks us through how it will go, the work immediately shifts. There will be an imagined cross-way, the kind that invites a child in. A little Borges in the gloom. A smile in the wince. On a side wall of Farnsworth’s bright studio, behind a door, he’s left a book open. The heading is: “The End Which is the Beginning.”

 

dustinfarnsworthpenland3

 

Photographs by Robin Dreyer; writing by Elaine Bleakney