As a lathe rotates the wood, an artist applies a carving tool to shape his or her masterpiece, careful not to make a mistake and have to change the piece or start over again. This subtractive art is known as wood turning.
“We’re the only organization in the world that focuses on wood turning through exhibitions, symposiums and through a collection and research library,” said Albert LeCoff, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Art in Wood.
Since 2011, the center has been in the heart of Old City at 131 N. Third St., between Cherry and Arch streets. Its number of visitors has increased from 2,000 a year at its previous location on the outskirts of Old City, to a record-breaking 16,000 in 2015.
Before the not-for-profit’s establishment in 1986, it started as a series of symposiums and exhibitions held by LeCoff and his brother. What grew out of their efforts was the gallery, displaying not just wood turned pieces but also combined materials and techniques in conjunction with wood.
“He [Albert] saw that artists were compromising themselves,” said Fred Kaplan-Mayer, interim director of business operations and advancement at the center. “So he started the center to really encourage artists to make things they wanted to make, where more would be from their own inspirations.”
Currently, the center holds around six exhibitions a year and has a Windgate International ITE Residency Program. Attracting more than 100 artists during the last 21 years, the program has held workshops and open studio days to help students who want to learn more about wood turning.
“We are the only central focused medium-based art form in wood in the world that offers all these types of programs,” LeCoff said.
The Center for Art in Wood currently holds two exhibitions that run until the end of April: “Beyond the Trees” by artists Dorothy Gill Barnes and Dona Look and “The wildLIFE Project” by Wendy Maruyama. During the early days of March, the center held an event where visitors could meet both Barnes and Maruyama, free to ask them questions about their work.
“These two artists are very concerned about the environment,” LeCoff said.
Barnes saves tree bark and roots, hoping to help bring awareness and importance regarding the conservation of trees. Maruyama sculpted life-sized elephant heads and ancient Asian shrines using wood pieces to show her opposition to the ivory trade in Africa and the poaching of elephants for their tusks. Both women have turned their art into advocacy.
“I want [visitors] to realize the creativity of the artist in utilizing wood in so many different ways,” LeCoffe said when asked what he wanted future visitors to gain from coming to the center, “and [wood] can be manipulated to create a unique statement from artists from all over the world.”
-Text, images and video by Sarah Elizabeth Sweigart.