Monday, April 18, 2011

Paint, Pattern & People: Exhibit

The best way I can describe the work in the gallery at Winterthur that displays the 18th-century southeastern Pennsylvania furniture from the Paint, Pattern & People book is this: the pieces simply glow.

The combination of the lively painted surfaces, gallery colors, wall hung paintings and deep, rich tones of the various woods make this collection a warm and vibrant experience.

There is nothing that compares to seeing these pieces in person. While the photography in the book is wonderful, a two-dimensional image cannot convey the full impact of the actual work.

Granted, this is my favorite time period and these are pieces from the area in the U.S. that I love most, but I'm quite sure that any woodworker can appreciate the craftsmanship and skill that built them.

The fact that you can get so close to the furniture that you can look beneath and behind some of them means discovering things such as the cross-wedged through-tenons in a Moravian chair seat; the points made by compasses as they scribed arcs for line and berry spice boxes; pencil lines that sketched the initial designs for painted chests; and table tops rubbed smooth and shiny by a thousand hands.

All the marks left on the furniture give us a window through which we can imagine the time when they were made and used. The worn corners on the feet of a chest-over-drawers brings to mind an image of a woman sweeping the wood floor beside it while children rough-house a bit too energetically in its vicinity.

By following the lines of a carved pediment on a high chest of drawers, we can envision the movement of the woodworker's hand as he slides a gouge along the rim. The slight inconsistencies in the flow of the curve confirms that it was made by hand; the subtle imperfections forever capture the marks of the craftsman who made them.

As woodworkers, we know what tools were used to make various cuts, and we instinctively "build" the piece as we study the tool marks. So this exhibit becomes an interactive one for us.

One thing that struck me about many of the pieces is the attention to detail, even in the smallest elements. A tiny door within the gallery of a writing desk displays delicate, yet complex moulding. A small box showcases row upon row of detailed inlay made from hundreds of pieces of contrasting wood.

Even the iron work is artistic. While these country craftsmen were influenced by their big city counterparts and brought with them styles of ornament from the countries from which they emigrated, it seems evident that they applied their own creativity to the mix, making each piece one-of-a-kind.

The items in this collection are the very finest I've seen from this era and region. The colors are so bright as to look newly-painted, both on the furniture and in the framed illustrations of the region.

For centuries, these pieces absorbed and reflected the lives of the people who made and owned them. Perhaps that's why they seem to have so much personality and soul.

Our projects are part of us. The things we build today will document details of our lives and leave future woodworkers to wonder about us. We are part of a continuum.  And these 18th-century pieces remind us to build something worthy of bearing witness to our history.

Please note that photography is not permitted in this exhibit. I'd like to thank the Winterthur Museum for allowing me to photograph these marvelous pieces.