Designing Bowls, History of a Slow Learner…

I’ve had no formal art or design training. I was vain enough not to want to make something ugly, so I was pretty cautious for the first 5-6 years. If I’d read Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking (and if it had been written back then!) I would have saved some time and learned faster.

In bowl turning I concentrated on making a simple curve, tighter on one side, more relaxed on the other end, but always a curve, no flat sections. Really, I spent years at this, much of the time with the lathe stopped, and me looking at the bowl, trying to see where to improve the curve. Sometimes I’d get it right, and then the proportions of the next hunk of wood would call for a variation.

Years later, reading the book Chaos: Making a New Science, I found that these curves were in fact solutions in graph form to fractal equations. We evolved and live among fractal forms, so there’s a reason we find these curves beautiful.

The edge of the bowl merits some attention. I admired Bob Stockdale’s salad bowls, with their clean curves and matching rims, where the interior made a tight curve to end abruptly at the outer edge, where just the sharpness was softened. I was given a neighbor’s long treasured wedding present to polish up, and saw this in the wood, as it were, and understood how elements of a form should harmonize.

Having that principle in mind, when I began making closed forms, tight ovoids with small openings, making a tiny cove in the rim reflected the outer curve was an easy solution.

I used to break bowls by going through 4/5 of the way down, working on the inside, and it took a while to get the discipline to stop and measure, and to keep a consistent wall thickness, with only a small increase by the base for stability. If the bowls were footed, I’d carve out the foot to keep only a small thickness differential – as that is what leads to cracking.

Listening to the sound while turning a thin bowl tells you when to ease up. And a note to the beginners: learn to use a bowl gouge for thin bowls. I like a ¼” long and strong, Glaser if I can get it, and grind the sides back, and ease it into the wood.

For the bottom, though, the ½ or 5/8” round nose scraper is the tool. I still recall the moment I managed to make the inside bottom look like the inside of a basketball, with no dimple or pimple. Demoing for beginners, this is always what they want to learn, so here goes. Adjust the tool rest so that with the handle raised a bit, the tool edge is just under the center horizon of the bowl. After truing it up and getting close to the desired thickness, ease the tool right under the center, and gently raise it up to level, and then ease it away to the left to blend the curve. And practice!

Next step was to reverse the curve, making S shapes. Japanese rice bowls are a kind of standard for that, and I fooled around with exaggerating the rim until the inside and outside were confused.

Then enclosed forms, rather like what John Jordan and David Ellsworth were doing. This led to variations on pre-colombian pottery, which I’m still doing.

Having some constraints makes design easier. I worked mainly with Cocobolo, mostly with the bottom of the bowl being from the center of the log, giving a natural edge option. Sometimes the sapwood was dull or rotten, sometimes there would be a hole (sometimes with dark honey!) and other times there would be nice spalting.

Over time, you evolve a series of design solutions to the variations you find in each chunk of wood. I always wanted to turn spontaneous, fluid shapes, like you find in the classic Tea Ceremony pottery. Some of these are now National treasures of Japan, but they were made at top speed in high volume, by small children. Ego did not enter into it!

Only after I had evolved a series of shape solutions that I felt at home with, could I begin to approach that kind of work, and I did it by tricking myself.

I was turning green wood thick, with a year of so of drying after roughing out the form, which leaves a fair amount of room for shape changes in the finish turning stage. So I would tell myself, “Well, I can always modify it later.” But I rarely do, because the lack of second-guessing and worry let me make a shape that originates in a place without fear or critics. The book Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking goes into this method.

Ego has no place in good work and art; it throws sand in the gears, and becomes about the Great One, and not the piece itself. I’ll close this with an illustration:

I had some production work which soon bored me, so I looked about the shop (I was designing furniture all this time as well) and called the nearest guy over, and spent a couple of hours showing him how to turn. In two or three days he was doing a fine job, and I went off on a trip. When I got back, I found that he had also done some decent bowls in one of my styles, which certainly filled me with mixed emotions! After all, it took me years to get to where he was in a month. But I thought it was neat that he had learned so fast.

That guy quit eventually, and I called over another worker, and this time deliberately gave him only a half hour of training, mostly on safety, and left him to it, with much the same result. When yet another time five minutes did the trick, I finally asked the guy how he had learned so fast. He said that he had been in my shop for two years, and saw me turning, and picked up the idea by exposure. Unsaid was the thought I’m sure was present…”Hey, if HE can do it, ANYONE can…”

During all this, I had had several American apprentices, who learned much slower. The key difference was that I was enjoying being the Artist expounding, while my workers were remarkably unimpressed by me! Ego gets in the way!

Now I was not without ambition from the start. I thought it unlikely that I would become by anyone’s standard the best of my field, but I thought I could aspire to be among the top ten. Well, as it happened, I was invited to show at a Portland gallery along with eight or nine turners that I thought were among the best, and was thrilled. The show got one review, with the most positive comment being that some of the pieces were mildly interesting! And nothing sold!

Now I had noticed that a lot of turning strove for originality at all costs that often made for work I found ugly, but sometimes found favor among collectors. After this experience, though, I decided to ignore the existence of collectors, and to stick with doing what I understood and liked. Not being all that unique myself, it turned out (sorry!) that there were other people out there that like the turnings and bought them. I was especially happy when people who had never bought a craft piece before bought one of mine. And I still am!

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