Penland’s eight-week concentrations are known for being intense and immersive workshops that leave students with new ideas, new skills, and new friends. This spring’s timber framing concentration was all that, but it also left a permanent mark on the Penland campus. In just eight weeks, the class, led by instructor Raivo Vihman and studio assistant Tom Shields, raised a full timber frame that will become the permanent home of a historical display just behind the Craft House. It took weeks of work to prepare the beams and fit them all together, but the raising took place in just one exhilarating day! Here’s to teamwork, cranes, and careful planning.
Thank you, timber framers, for this gorgeous structure! It will be a cherished part of campus for years and years to come.
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.
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.
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.
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!
“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 word—each 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.”
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 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:
“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.
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).
The chair. A form for one. A group of chairs: a human gathering, a table, a home. Gertrude Stein put it this way: Is there not much more joy in a table and more chairs and very likely roundness and a place to put them.
Tom Shields has been messing with wooden chairs—and our domestic contexts for them—for a while now. He collects, breaks, and alters–reworking flat-backs, ladder-backs, whatever chairs he can find by responding to and then rebuilding them into each other. (And away from each other, too.) Even the bank of discarded chairs that Tom keeps as raw material in his Penland studio (below) feels kind of irreverent:
It’s not just chairs: irreverence fuels all of Tom’s sculptural “furniture” work. Take this recent commission, made from a group of original Heywood-Wakefield tables:
“Blasphemer,” says Tom, grinning as he tells us what one studio visitor called him after seeing the commission. If you’re a mid-century modern junkie, Tom might just be your nemesis. But looking closely, the tables retain their modern context. Form is interrupted and not shattered: the “futuristic” lines and planes are made fluid by Tom’s choices. It’s almost as if the atoms in the birch went haywire and some happy blasphemer came along and set the forms into each other, responding to the tables as potential parts of a larger functional sculpture.
In the irreverence in Tom Shields’s work, reverence. To put a finer point on it: in irreverence, reverent play. Gertrude Stein, another blasphemer, would’ve raised her glass. She said in 1935: A very important thing is not to make up your mind that you are any one thing.
Photographs by Robin Dreyer; writing by Elaine Bleakney
“I don’t draw something and then go find a pile of wood and build it.
I find the pile of wood, respond to that pile of wood,
and then make something based on what’s there.” —Tom Shields
Found wood and one’s attention to it as inspiration for design will be at the core of Penland resident artist Tom Shields’s spring woodworking workshop. “Patinas, nail holes, rot in an old piece of wood–all of these can be springboards into what gets made,” says Tom.
Along with covering traditional woodworking techniques, the eight-week workshop will veer to embrace the nontraditional. Conversations about idea and content will be generated by activity in the workshop. For example, the first project: Shields’s students will all be asked to bring a loved object with them to Penland. Then, they will create a cabinet for the object. The function and design of the cabinet will be up to the maker: would you build something to hide, display, or protect your object?
Tom Shields – Make Do with What You Have, Take What You Can Get
March 9-May 2, 2014
In the wood studio
Want to learn woodworking while giving new life to discarded wood? We’ll spend time learning where to find recycled wood: the dump, junk stores, dumpsters, the woods. Then we’ll make sculptural, functional, and furniture pieces from any kind of wood object, applying traditional woodworking techniques and joinery to nontraditional materials. We’ll also use some new lumber to fabricate elements as needed. Both hand and power tools will be used as we incorporate woodworking and trash into the same vocabulary. The workshop will also cover sharpening, the proper use of tools, and safety. All levels.
To find out more and register for this workshop click here. Spring scholarship deadline is November 29.
Please note: applications need to be at Penland by this date to be considered for scholarship. Overnight service may not deliver to Penland’s campus on time, please plan accordingly.
Making something with what’s available in the world–and wholly rejecting the capitalist enterprise that tries to commodify it–was intrinsic to the punk movement of the 1970s and 80s and to Tom Shields’s own emergence in craft. Punk’s restless creative ethos is part of his philosophy of teaching today–with an emphasis on an open invitation to anyone to take and make, dispelling the cliché of “punk” as a closed zone of angst or aggression.
Tom Shields’s students will take their own DIY impulse into time and materials, while also picking up some incomparable experiences. Timber framer Raivo Vihman will be the studio assistant–he’ll be demonstrating large-scale timber framing and joinery. Annie Evelyn will also visit to demonstrate techniques in upholstery. Bob Biddlestone will cover router jigs, fixtures, and talk about applying woodworking techniques to other materials.
“I definitely like to teach people how to do just about everything with as little as possible. If you have a chisel, a block plane, a hand drill, and a Japanese saw, you can build just about anything.”
Tom Shields is a resident artist at Penland School of Crafts. He has taught previously at Penland and the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. His exhibitions include Blue Spiral 1 (NC) and the North Carolina Museum of Art. His work is part of collections at Decordova Museum (MA), Gregg Museum (NC), University of Arkansas, and the North Carolina Museum of Art, among others.