Eight Weeks in the Turning Studio

Written by Kate Davidson on .

On January 11th, a new group of students gathered in our Turning Studio. They came from all over the country with different backgrounds and experiences, but with one unifying theme – to spend the next eight weeks immersed in the world of woodturning.

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Beth Ireland, our Lead Instructor, has taught the Turning Intensive at the Center since 2014. Every year is new, she says, with students building on the core curriculum and shaping the direction of the class. As a professional architectural turner and sculptor, Beth makes work that is practical, playful, and thoughtful. Her expertise brings real-world perspective from the industry to the classroom. This year, completing her own work after class hours, Beth illustrated her business practices while working on a reproduction of a turned and carved artichoke for a client. For her, blending the technical aspects of craft with the creativity of art is the perfect woodworking mix.

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Over the last two months the Turning Intensive students have absorbed Beth’s mission. They have spent their days learning everything from the basics of milling and sharpening to balusters, bowls, spindles, and stools.

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While acquiring this strong foundation in the practical turning skills required to make a living, students have also explored textures, colors, and shapes. They’ve turned, carved, made instruments, and found themselves constantly tackling Beth’s ever present question: What if? What if you cut it in half? What if you paint it? What if the sides curved out? What if you burn it or twist it?

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For many of the students this year, absorbing this open-ended question was their “aha moment,” when all of the practical and technical lessons in the core curriculum made sense. Daryl Gray, an operating room nurse from Pennsylvania, says she wrote down one particular note that stands out from the first day of class: “Be fearless.” In the past, when she approached a beautiful piece of wood she was “always so careful.” But now, “it’s okay to try again, mess it up, change your mind, just do it.”

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Scott Scheibly, a Navy retiree from Illinois, echoes that sentiment. He’s made more bowls in the last few weeks than in his whole life previously, and says that at first he struggled to experiment. “I made my first awesome cherry bowl ever – and now you want me to cut it up, paint, and reassemble it? That was shocking.”

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But every student says that the days of creating, building, testing, and revising have transformed their thinking. Whether they plan on making something practical and elegant or wild and innovative, the experience of trying new things (and yes, sometimes failing), has helped them to understand what they like and why.

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Stanford Siver, a retired psychologist who builds boats in Port Townsend, Washington, doesn’t have an art background or experience making technical drawings. He says it was a little scary taking risks at first, but through the curriculum he started looking at his own work differently. When he makes something he doesn’t like, he now understands what works and what doesn’t. As he puts it, he can see when a “bowl is really ugly, and there’s a reason for that.” He’s built on his shipwright skills and spent time this month exploring boat forms, after recognizing the shape of a ship in one of his early experiments. Each iteration is different, and each has taught him something new.

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Scott agreed with this explorative approach, saying he realizes that “Nothing here is final.”

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His favorite new techniques from the class are segmented turning and slicing bowls in half, which he and several other students are using for an after-hours experiment in making kalimbas (small thumb pianos).

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Daryl says that when she runs into a problem now, she automatically begins troubleshooting. “Why would that work or not work? You realize you’re doing that even before you think the question.”

This is a mindset that will last long after students pack up their tools and head back to their respective homes, ready to take on new work in the future. It’s a confidence that builds on the hand skills, techniques, and expertise they developed throughout the course.

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