Sunday, July 13, 2008
Wharton Esherick Museum
Yesterday, we toured the Wharton Esherick Museum, located in Paoli, PA. Esherick, known as "the dean of American craftsmen" was born in 1887 and began his artistic career as a painter. From there, he took up carving, woodcuts, sculpture, and furniture-making.
I knew nothing about Esherick prior to the tour, but learned that he was a major influence in the woodworking styles of Wendell Castle, Sam Maloof, and Art Carpenter.
Unfortunately, visitors are only able to take photos outside the complex. Images of his work and shots of the studio interior that are included in this post were found online and on postcards. But they are nothing compared to seeing the pieces housed in his studio, and the studio itself, in person.
I was awestruck. Seemingly every inch of the studio's interior had been touched by his hand. The first thing you notice is the crazy, curved, out-of square angles of the structures. Even the roof lines of his studio and lumber storage building were purposely made to look like caving-in barn roofs.
Inside are furniture pieces that defy traditional woodworking tenets, perhaps because he approached woodworking as an artist, with no formal woodworking training. One dining table's surface was built with three boards, none parallel to one another. Two figured planks had been sawn in half from one board, but rather than bookmatched, were flip-flopped, so each half of the crotchwood flame faced one another from opposite corners. Then the entire table top was cut into a kidney-shape.
There were lots of free-form, organic pieces, but also angular, art deco-inspired pieces. The wall panels were placed in ray patterns; the kitchen floor was made of irregular-shaped pieces of wood that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle; and the spiral staircase used an actual mastodon's tusk as a hand rail.
It was torture to not take photos. But our tour guide said a book is in the works, showcasing Esherick's pieces, and set for release in the fall of 2009.
Esherick forged all of the hardware in his studio; his favorite tools were his broad axe and band saw; he used an enormous variety of hardwoods; and his finishes of choice were tung oil & boiled linseed oil.
One piece, a large fold-down secretary, reminded me of Adirondack twig furniture. Instead of using actual twigs, however, he carved leaves and twig shapes over every surface. And this I had never seen before: the rails of the cabinet doors ended not at the stile, but continued further to form handcarved barrel hinges.
The museum tour was well worth the entrance fee (only $10). And navigating the too-small parking area and the fact that they don't accept credit or debit cards were minor inconveniences.
I left completely inspired. And you can't put a price on that.
Photos include his studio (the building with the stone foundation), the gift shop (the log cabin that formerly housed his lumber), and his workshop (the blue buildings, in which his daughter now lives, and which were not part of the tour).