When the rest of the world did not see turned wood as an art, Philadelphia’s Albert LeCoff thought otherwise. Actually, he has spent his whole life in that mindset, and he did not have to work many years before the craft exploded onto the art scene and evolved into a bon a fide movement. We can mostly thank Albert for that.
Down in Old City Philadelphia, you’ll find a wonderful nonprofit studio/art gallery called The Center for Art in Wood where Albert’s dream has landed. The 7,100 square foot gallery exhibits at least four large scale exhibitions a year, open to the public. You might not realize that this place is an international gem and we are privileged to have it. Not everybody knows about it, but they should.
The Center is a place to educate, promote, preserve and present art in wood in all its manifestations. Besides the downstairs gallery, the mezzanine houses an extensive library and the museum collection, which at last count amounted to about 1,000 pieces. Seminars and educational outreach are part of The Center’s offerings. Its crowning glory perhaps – the International Turning Exchange (ITE) -a very successful summer residency program, is another brainchild of LeCoff’s.
Formally the Wood Turning Center, the idea for a center originated in 1976 when LeCoff saw a need in the art world for a place where lathe turners could gather and exchange ideas and learn. He envisioned back then, an international art movement, determined to elevate the status of the field of wood turning, as a relative newcomer to the field of contemporary craft.
About this time, artists were beginning to turn elegant, thin walled hollow vessels and also assemble complex laminated resin-bonded blocks before turning on a lathe. These resulted in dynamic patterns. Fine Woodworking Magazine was launched and collectors began to attend The Center’s shows. Albert’s dream became the catalyst for catapulting the field of wood turning into the art arena and onto the national stage.
Albert did not stop at turned wood. The Center launched an innovative program called the International Turning Exchange (ITE), now in its 17th year. Over the course of two months, this annual program brings together a handful of not just turners, but also other artists, photojournalists and scholars as well. They live, work, and collaborate together in facilities at the University of the Arts (UArts) and result in forging new relationships and directions in their work. It is a life-changing experience, Albert shares, and is now known throughout the international art world. Artists from Australia, New Zealand, Korea, and Europe, have come together in the past to share with one another and our American wood artists. The program is entirely free to the artists, thanks to generous supporters, and they are encouraged to explore any unknown territory. One of the most extraordinary shows The Center offers is an exhibit honoring the fruits of their labors.
“I would be entirely satisfied if a summer ended with nothing but a pile of wood shavings on the floor- so long as the participants had forged new relationships and discovered new directions in their work,” says LeCoff.
One of the ITE artists, Daniel Forrest Hoffman, did just that, with a piece that is included in the permanent collection. A striking life-sized ram, whose coat is made of wood shavings, catches your eye in one of the collection galleries. This artist had only worked in clay and was a videographer prior to attending ITE, but he always wanted to work in wood. He eyed the piles of wood shavings on the floor and came up with the idea for the wooden sculpture.
Hoffman had to first learn how to make shavings, however, as he needed a lot and so came to master the lathe and hand plane to create his raw material. He learned about sewing; the ram’s coat of shavings is attached to fabric. Then dying came into the mix to create a subtle difference in colors. His fellow artists in residency shared their skills and helped him stretch and grow. This is the true spirit of the ITE and The Center.
Another striking piece in the permanent collection is a clock-faced man cabinet created by Po Shun Leong, in collaboration with the late Bob Stocksdale. This stems from an exhibit entitled, “Cabinets of Curiosity.” Albert put the call out to wood tuners and furniture makers to explore together the idea of what a cabinet full of curious object is. It was up to each artistic team to determine what that meant and to build it.
The artist of whimsical Time Standing Still, Po Shun Leong, is an architect and he created the piece to mimic a street scape. He went to famous wood turner, Bob Stocksdale and requested wood scraps from his shop floor to integrate into the cabinet. In the refuse pile, he also found a discarded clock which became the figure’s face. The body of the sculpture opens to reveal stacked shelving, and the left arm hinges out to expose hidden drawers.
The art of wood turning is unique in the respect that it wasn’t always taught in school shop classes. The contemporary movement grew from hobbyists so the process became very innovative and individual.
“These woodworkers did not know any rules,” Albert explains “and thus were not limited by them.”
The Center for Art in Wood’s collection will stretch your vision of first, what you think of as a bowl: thinness/thickness, size, material, construction, how it is cut (by hand/lathe), painted or natural, etc. all factors in; from the useful and functional to extraordinary and unique sculpture.
The collection is housed in a very interesting way, an example of community and resourcefulness that Albert and The Center thrives on. With no construction budget, the Carpenters’s woodworking apprentice school, the Carpenters Joint Apprentice Committee, made all twenty-six Collection display cabinets. The “poor-man’s” glass cabinets, designed by Jack Larimore, are ingeniously constructed as wood boxes with double walls of sliding shower doors on metal tracks, and locks for security. The consulting conservator Lou Krupnick said that they will only last 200-300 years and Albert can live with that!
Someone on a tour offered to donate the money for all the materials and to install the sliding glass doors for the collection cabinets. PA wood turner and cabinet maker Ron Sheehan, and friends, donated their labor to build all sixty-six archival drawers in the bases of the cases, where small works can be pulled out and viewed. Rockler Woodworking and Hardware donated all the hardware. New supporters can sponsor a cabinet and/or drawers for $2,500 and $250 apiece respectively, and see their name and dedication on a personalized plague on the cabinet or drawer.
The Center started a WOOD Wednesday program on the second Wednesday of every month; this is a free lecture by a series of professional speakers, and is inspired by The Center’s exhibitions and resources.
Albert has dedicated his entire life to the art of wood-turning and art in wood. “My wife claims I even turn in my sleep!” His twenty-year supporter and spouse, Tina, helps operate the excellent museum store where you can buy wooden objects from around the U.S. and the world.
We all should experience The Center for Art in Wood because it is capable of gracing our lives with so much beauty and all on a nonprofit basis. We can’t have too much beauty.
The Center for Art in Wood
141 N. 3rd Street Philadelphia, PA 19106
(215) 923-8000 phone
(A edited version of this story will appear in a future issue of PA Magazine).