I'm Steve Ember.
I'm Shirley Griffith with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. At several galleries in the Washington, D.C.
area, you might see work by the wood turner Phil Brown. His many wooden bowls
and containers have a smooth and modern look.
One tall bowl with a wide opening is made from black
cherry wood. It is so perfectly formed it is hard to believe it is handmade.
How did Phil Brown make this bowl? We will answer this question as we explore
the many artistic traditions of wood.
from almost all cultures throughout history have been making objects from wood.
Some of the first wooden objects included weapons and tools. Early cultures
also learned to make boats, buildings and furniture for the home from this
material. However, it is not always easy to say which wooden objects existed
during a historical period because they often did not last as long as objects
made from clay or metal.
Experts say most current woodworking tools were
developed by the beginning of the Bronze Age, about five thousand years ago.
These tools include the saw, axe, chisel
and drill which are used to cut and shape wood in different ways. The lathe may
have been developed as early as two thousand seven hundred years ago.
This tool holds and rotates the wood. As the wood
turns, the wood worker uses a sharp tool to slowly and evenly cut pieces from
are many methods of woodworking and each culture has its own traditions.
Artistic wood creations include architectural decoration on buildings,
furniture for the home or even carved animals.
example, in Thailand, richly detailed carvings from teak and other hard woods
are an important part of ancient palaces and religious buildings. Woodcarvers
were a very important group of artists. A person needed many years of training
with experts to be a wood carver. Wood
carvings often include plant forms such as the lotus flower as well as figures
taken from Hindu and Buddhist religious stories.
carvings are very detailed and must be carefully planned. Usually, a carver
draws out the patterns and forms on paper. Then the artist cuts holes along the
outlines of the design. This paper is placed on the piece of wood then covered
with chalk dust.
white chalk dust goes through the holes in the paper and marks the wood so the
carver has a visual guide to begin cutting. Finished woodcarvings are often
painted, sometimes with gold to reflect the surrounding light. These expertly
made golden carvings give an airy lightness to Thai buildings.
wood working traditions developed more recently. For example, wood artists in
the state of Oaxaca in Mexico have been carving mask face coverings and toys
for hundreds of years. But Manuel Jimenez became one of the most famous carvers
in Oaxaca by creating a newer tradition.
In the nineteen fifties, he saw a growing demand for
traditional Mexican art that visitors wanted to buy. He decided to experiment with new kinds of
wood and forms. He started carving expressive animals such as frogs, coyotes
and rabbits out of copal wood.
Soon, his whole family started helping produce these
lively, wooden creatures. The Jimenez men carved the creations while the women
painted them with bright colors and patterns. Other wood carvers in the area
also started making their own kinds of animals. Now, Oaxaca is famous for this
special kind of wood art.
paints are not the only way to finish a wood object. In countries like Japan
and China there is a rich tradition of painting wooden bowls, boxes and other
objects with lacquer. The first kinds of lacquer were made from resin material
taken from special trees. Lacquer paint creates a very hard and smooth surface
over the wood and protects it from water. Japanese and Chinese lacquer work is
often red or black. Sometimes it can be decorated with pieces of silver or gold
metal to create an image.
sometimes wood can even decorate wood. Inlay is a way of decorating wood with a
pattern or image made out of small pieces of wood. The many small pieces of
wood can have different colors or patterns. Some inlay experts in seventeenth
century France and Spain added valuable materials like shiny mother-of-pearl or
tortoise shell to the detailed wood inlay.
the United States, the Shaker tradition of furniture making is known for its
simplicity of form. The Shakers were a religious community that came to the
United States in the eighteenth century from England. They practiced an intense
form of spiritual observance and believed strongly in the value of hard work
and keeping busy.
The Shakers developed their own style of
furniture. They designed it very carefully with the idea that making something
well was an act of prayer. They made
furniture that was as simple and useful as possible because they believed extra
details and designs were unnecessary and wrong. But their furniture in its total simplicity became famous for its
beauty. Chairs to sit on are probably
the most well known Shaker furniture. The very fine and thin wood pieces give these chairs a clean and
Phil Brown is an American artist who creates art with
wood in a different way. He lives on a
quiet street in Bethesda, Maryland, near Washington, D.C. In his workshop, he turns large pieces of
wood into fine containers. Let us meet this expert wood turner whose bowls we
talked about earlier and learn how he started his career.
PHIL BROWN: "I'm Phil Brown.
I'm a wood turner. I make bowls out of solid wood. The wood comes from our
local trees and I have a shop at my home where I do the work. I've been a wood
worker ever since I was a kid. And in the early seventies I wanted to get back
to doing some wood work and we saw lots of interesting work in Maine on some
trips there and I had a chance to get some apple wood from a friend …what are
you going to do with apple wood but maybe turn a bowl out of it. So I bought a
used lathe and a book about turning and gradually taught myself to turn a bowl."
In the living room of his home Phil Brown has a special
area where he shows his finished art. There are bowls of all shapes and sizes.
Some are deep and large with reddish brown colored wood. Others are small with
yellowish wood that has dark lines and shapes. Mister Brown can explain exactly
where and when he found each tree that he used to make a bowl. And he can show you what all the lines and
rings in the wood represent. They are like maps of the tree's life. Some lines
are caused by fungus organisms while others show the area where a branch of the
tree trunk used to be. But to really understand Mister Brown's wood turning
art, you have to visit his workshop downstairs.
workshop is filled with many tools and machine parts. On one wall there are
shelves filled with roughly cut wooden bowls that are drying out. Allowing the
wood to dry helps guarantee that it will not change shape later on. Before
"turning the bowl thin" Mister Brown puts a layer of epoxy paint
material over the roughly cut bowl. This hardens areas of the wood that might
be softer or contain fungus. Then, Mister Brown places the bowl on his lathe.
The lathe turns the wood quickly. Using a long metal
tool called a gouge, Mister Brown slowly cuts away at the wooden form. With
great skill he slowly keeps cutting away until the bowl has the right thinness
and form. Then, Mister Brown uses rough sandpaper to smooth the gouge marks in
the wood. As the wood becomes smoother, he uses finer and finer kinds of
sandpaper. He sometimes fills any holes or cracks with a mixture of epoxy glue,
sanding dust, and brown paint. Finished bowls are so smooth and perfect they do
not even feel like wood.
Brown shows his beautiful bowls at several fine craft stores and in art shows.
He even has a bowl at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art
Museum in Washington, D.C. Sometimes he sells works directly from his workshop.
His turned wood bowls cost hundreds of dollars. Many people have collections of his bowls in their homes.
Mister Brown says he is influenced by the work of
sculptors like Henry Moore and Isamu Noguchi. He says he likes to make bowls
that have smooth surfaces and that bring out the natural color of wood. His
finely made art is a celebration of the life of a tree and the endless
possibilities of wood.
This program was written and produced
by Dana Demange. I'm Shirley Griffith.
And I'm Steve
Ember. You can read and listen to this
program on our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for Explorations in VOA Special English.