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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, October 9, 2008
Three journeys of exploration in wood
By Philippa Stasiuk
ALTAMONT Three local artists use wood as their medium on journeys of exploration that take them down very different paths.
Their sculptures, bowls, and birds are so different as to make comparison a challenge, yet it is in their relationship with their craft where similarities become evident. All three display a profound satisfaction with their artistic process, and all three concede, almost verbatim, that their favorite piece of art is whatever they’re working on now.
Their work, along with other local artists, will be displayed on Oct. 16 as part of a fundraiser to benefit the Altamont Free Library.
Sculpture: Marjorie White Williams
Not knowing what I am in store for, I first visit Marjorie White Williams’s house on Maple Avenue to see her wood sculptures. Upon entering the kitchen, I soon discover that the entire house of this retired Albany Girls Academy teacher is her art. In every corner, there is evidence of her exploration of the limitless dimensions of herself and her family.
In the bay of her dining room window stand 16 Russian nesting dolls that she crafted out of laminated plywood. The first is less than an inch tall, with a painted abstract figure somewhere between a baby and a fetus. The last, standing at least three feet tall, is Williams as an older woman with imposing owl glasses and the angular cheeks of a woman in her fifties or sixties.
Williams picks out one in the middle with the face of a teenager and tells me that’s how she thinks she really looks, before laughing impishly. “If you’re crazy, you’re crazy and you do crazy things.”
Over the last few years, Williams has been suffering the debilitating affliction of memory loss and her prolific talent has been comparatively dormant. On our first visit, she forgets to tell me about the floor above the garage where most of her well-known pieces are housed
In the drafty and chilly space that I visit later with her husband Frank, I see “Lady Albany,” an eight-foot-tall woman with “The Egg” and one of the Empire state buildings in her belly, also done in cut laminated pieces of plywood glued intricately together.
Perhaps it is because I’m not up in the garage studio with her that I am more drawn to the intimate pieces inside her house, which elicit from her rich memories of her life as a mother and a wife. In the corner, almost lost behind a chair, sits a limestone sculpture she chiseled of her son Fred “loving the dog to pieces,” as she remembers he used to do.
For Williams, revisiting her artwork also brings back her years as a teacher. The most important art lesson she remembers teaching her students was, “communicating the value of abstraction.” She humbly asserts, “Those who can’t do art, teach it, which is what I did well.” I would believe it if her house wasn’t evidence to the contrary.
Her advice to budding artists? “Find something positive to say to any child trying to do art. Anyone who makes anything, even if it’s an attempt at being realistic but is pathetically not, it’s an art form.”
Bowls: Bob Bernardi
Williams loves working with wood because of the tools, the strength of the material, and the smell of wood. Bob Bernardi, a sculptor and wood-turner who spins wooden bowls on a lathe, loves it because it is tactile and visceral.
“It’s something I feel close to. It calls to me,” he says while turning over one of his bowls in his hands.
Visceral means that the feeling comes from basic emotions or instinct, so it is not surprising that Bernardi’s artistic process starts with nature. “I had known a lot about trees. I’m a gardener. I wanted to know what was the color of wood on the inside.”
He lays out the bowls on the dining room table. They are different shapes and sizes and the wide variety of color evidences the different trees from which they came. As he picks each one up, he can name the tree it came from and how he procured the limb.
One of the bowls, of a deep swirling brown color, is from a Russian olive, an exotic tree not native to the region. Bernardi remembers driving by a house in the area and staring at the tree, which had been knocked down in a recent storm.
He stopped at the house and rang the doorbell, introducing himself to the man who answered. Realizing that the tree and the house were about the same age, he asked the man if he’d planted the olive tree himself to which the man replied yes.
Bernardi told him about his bowls and, before chopping up his tree for firewood, the man obliged Bernardi with a few pieces, now cherished bowls in Bernardi’s collection.
Bernardi has been turning bowls for about a decade but speaks of it as a journey on which he has only begun. He credits reading Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way as his inspiration for going from a sometime woodcarver to his present commitment to his art. Cameron’s book is a how-to guide for people she calls blocked artists, who for any number of reasons are not creating the art they wish to be doing. Bernardi said reading it, “churned things up” within him and inspired him to start turning his bowls.
When asked what advice he would give to someone starting on an artistic journey, he immediately thought of his club, the Adirondack Wood Turners. There, he has found support, ideas, and camaraderie.
“Find people to share your art with. Ask questions, and practice,” was his advice.
Birds: Walt Leclair
Walt Leclair, a retired maintenance technician, has turned his house on Altamont Road into an aviary of wooden birds. A loon and a bluebird nest atop the television and a flock of others rest in their own shelf boxes in the dining room. His birds have kept him busy for 18 years.
As is the case with Bernardi, Leclair begins with a rough piece of wood, most of it from the basswood tree because it carves well and paints easily. After taking it to a band-saw mill, he dries the lumber himself and cuts it into individual pieces.
In his woodshop in the basement, he describes the process that begins with slicing the rough wood into a three-dimensional piece out of which he can start carving the shape of a bird. Since he wants them to look as realistic as possible, he calculates the exact measurements of the birds, often times using guidebooks and magazines called Chip Chats and Wild Fowl Carving. After exacting the shape, he uses a tiny burning tool to etch out every feather and marking on the birds’ bodies before finally painting them.
Leclair has been a hunter all his life and credits his love of hunting and the outdoors for his artistic inspiration. In his 79th year, he also values his art for the meaning it brings to his life.
“For me, art is good therapy,” he said. “There’s always another project I want to do and I don’t have enough time to do it all. It keeps me young.”
As for his advice for anyone beginning their artistic journey, Leclair’s answer echoes Bernardi’s: “When you get to the point that you know what you want to do, practice, practice, practice.”