On a sun-drenched street in the historic neighborhood of Old City stands The Center for Art in Wood. Cavernous and glass-windowed, you would be forgiven for mistaking it as an upscale gallery. Instead, the Center is a remarkably inclusive space, inviting artists and curious admirers from all over the world to discover the art of woodworking. Like most artistic institutions, this one was born out of a personal passion: originally founded as the Wood Turning Center in 1986, this nonprofit is the brainchild of Albert LeCoff, who organized a series of symposiums on the woodturning arts with his brother Alan in the late 1970s. What began as a hobby quickly became nothing less than his life’s work, and now LeCoff oversees an organization devoted to the understanding and appreciation of woodworking as a contemporary art. “Albert was very involved in woodturning and he started to feel that it needed to be elevated to an artform,” says Katie Sorenson, who is the Development Manager at the Center. “He’s really worked to foster and highlight artists, as well as educate the public on woodworking.”
Operating somewhere between gallery space, museum, and research center, the Center for Art in Wood presents four to five exhibitions a year, showcasing works that range from the functional to the sculptural. Everyday works of furniture stand next to contemporary sculptures made by artists and woodworkers from all over the world, highlighting wood as a material that is both practical and conceptual. Beyond rotating exhibits, the Center houses a permanent collection of over 1100 works, a research library on wood arts and a store that sells just about anything made from wood.
One of the Center’s most exciting opportunities is their Windgate ITE International Residency program. Every summer, the Center awards eight prestigious fellowships to one photojournalist, one scholar or educator, one student and five artists who work solely in wood or with wood in combination with other materials. The program is designed to nurture and support woodworking artists from all over the world in individual and collaborative work, as well as connect them with a community of woodworkers in a field that is usually outside of the mainstream fine arts. “We have a lot of artists that have never turned and they get a chance to discover the art,” says Katie, “I also find that, for a lot of artists that do already wood turn, they will add some detailing or carving to their work after after our program.”
Aside from his or her own work, the photojournalist documents the progress of their fellow residents on the Center’s blog. “In the blog you see this momentum flowing,” says Karen Schoenewaldt, who works as the Center’s Registrar, “They start on their projects and at some point they break off- start taking trips to Washington DC... it ignites them. They feed off each other and teach one another. You see them sharing knowledge.” The addition of one student in the mix is also important to the mission of the Center. “It’s an incredible opportunity for them to work alongside professional artists in their field, and get treated as an equal,” says Katie, “One time there was one student artist whose work was so accomplished that they decided to give her a professional artist’s spot.”
As for the spectrum of artists in the residency program, both Karen and Katie see a shift moving from an old boy’s network to a diverse community. “Last year every artist on our program was a woman,” says Katie, “They not only got along with each other but loved and respected one another. A lot of color was involved in their work… it was nice to see that they weren’t just using the wood just for the grain, that they were taking it to the next step.”
Shows at the Center can range from the political to the practical. An upcoming exhibition, titled “Smooth: Mangle Boards of Northern Europe and Contemporary Concepts” showcases a collection of mangle boards, flat, handled smoothing boards that were used in Northern Europe to iron linen throughout the 16th-19th centuries. Mangle boards are smooth on one side and elaborately decorated and carved on the back, and were often giving as courtship or betrothal gifts. “The show we have coming up takes something that was folk art and pushes it into the political,” says Karen, “When you’re looking at a mangle board, what you don’t see are the lives of the women who used them. One artist did a concept on the act of laundry, and how a husband and wife give and take from each other.“ In conjunction with this exhibition, which showcases works from the 16th-19th centuries, the Center invited twelve artists to produce new mangle boards. The project elicited a range of responses—from works that reflected the traditional motifs seen in this art form, to meditations on women’s work and the political upheaval. These works will be on view from April 21st through July 22nd.
The Center has also participated with other causes within the art world. “When the Muslim ban began, a few museums in the US took a stand by covering pieces made by immigrants,” says Karen, “We shrouded two pieces from our Wood Revisited show made by immigrants.”
Though all of the works on exhibition share the same material, the inspiration behind them can sometimes be unexpected. “This chair is inspired by the iconic scene of Marilyn Monroe in her white dress,” says Katie, guiding us to a beautiful futuristic plywood chair by Alexander White, “You can see that it kind of mimics the flow of the dress. He used a pressboard with two different types of wood- a dark side, here, and as you walk over, the lighter side is revealed”. And even though the Center’s mission is to showcase fine, beautiful wooden objects, it doesn’t necessarily mean that lesser-appreciated types of wood are excluded. “There are quite some artists that use plywood to elevate it from the lowly building material to a prized beautiful-looking wood,” says Katie.
“We had a loveseat made of plywood once, and it was gorgeous,” adds Karen, “Some types of wood don’t have the intrinsic problems you have with solid wood. The marine grades are used for boats, so a lot of artists have started to use that for their work”
Currently the Center’s operations is overseen by a small staff of six, keeping this little community as close and personal as possible. Community outreach is on the horizon, both in the art world and within the Philadelphia community. “Continuing to work with the artists that are here, and continuing this collaborative art space is important to us,” says Katie, “And possibly growing our community outreach. I think we’d like to, at some point, go into schools that don’t necessarily have access to [these resources] and talk about the fact that there is this artform still out there.”
The Center for Art in Wood is joining us in our efforts to plant trees around the Greater Philadelphia Region during the month of April. Shop any of their wooden pieces in their museum and web shop and they will join us in donating a portion of their proceeds to Plant One Million.
WORDS BY MAGALI ROMAN
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHRIS SETTY