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Conversations with Wood: Selections from the Waterbury Collection opens at Yale University Art Gallery
Michael Hosaluk, Family, 1998. Maple with acrylic paint, largest piece l. 11 in. (27.9 cm). Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Ruth and David Waterbury, b.a. 1958, and Marcus Waterbury in honor of Richard Levin, ph.d. 1974, for outstanding leadership as president of Yale University, 1993–2013.

NEW HAVEN, CT.- The field of wood art, once called wood turning, has changed significantly over the past twenty-five years. Its first practitioners used a lathe to turn the wood while the artist shaped it. Since then, wood artists have created increasingly diverse examples of their craft, often taking a sculptural approach and using off-lathe methods such as carving, burning, piercing, and painting to make unique objects.

Minneapolis collectors Ruth and David Waterbury, b.a. 1958, have been enthusiastic proponents of wood art since the mid-1980s. In building one of the best collections in the country, they have given support to many artists, often forging enduring relationships in the process. Conversations with Wood: Selections from the Waterbury Collection shows the breadth of the Waterburys’ collecting activity. These seventy-eight works, by over seventy artists, range from exquisite turned bowls to objects highlighting irregularities in the wood to chain saw–carved sculpture. While featuring many of the field’s top artists, such as Christian Burchard, David Ellsworth, Michelle Holzapfel, William Hunter, Ron Kent, Mark Lindquist, and Michael Mode, the exhibition also reflects the wide spectrum of artistic vision and scale characterizing wood art today. Both the exhibition and the accompanying publication, Conversations with Wood: The Collection of Ruth and David Waterbury, present the artists’ own comments on their work.

Illuminating and Sharing the Collection
The collecting experience came full circle for Ruth and David Waterbury when the artists responded to their request for comments on the works in their collection. Given this chance to look back, sometimes many years later, artists explained how a piece fit into their artistic development, or described the technical challenges it presented, or even noted how and where they came upon the piece of wood. The Waterburys found these enlightening comments to be as individual as the artists themselves: “Some are curatorial, some historical or biographical, and some intensely personal. We treasure them all.”

Over the years, the Waterburys have generously opened their doors to visitors, spreading the word about contemporary craft in general and wood art in particular. In bringing together the objects and the artists’ voices in this exhibition, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Yale University Art Gallery contribute to these educational endeavors, so important to both the collectors and the museums. And this sharing of knowledge and objects will continue. Planning for the future of the pieces they love so well, the Waterburys have already begun donating parts of their collection to museums.

Believing that museums, like individuals, “should build their own collections, reflecting institutional tastes and personality,” they wish to share their collection broadly: “We try by our gifts to encourage and support the building of craft collections wherever we find the interest and scholarship to support such a collection.” Both in collecting and in donating their wood art, the Waterburys have taken the long view.

Building a Collection, Building the Field
The more wood we own, it seems, the more likely we are to fall in love with another piece—because it differs slightly in design or concept from something we already own, or sometimes because it is a simply spectacular piece of wood with figure and color shown to the best imaginable advantage. --Ruth and David Waterbury

How did the Waterburys build such a large and rich collection—over five hundred pieces of beautiful and intriguing wood art? The collectors hasten to say that “the overabundance didn’t happen all at once and certainly not in any organized or disciplined way.” On a 1984 visit to Hawaii they chanced on a show of wood art, fell for and purchased a translucent piece by Ron Kent, and met the artist. They then found themselves drawn ever further into the world of wood turning, attending demonstrations sponsored by the Minnesota Woodturners Association and purchasing from local galleries.

The Art of Turned-Wood Bowls, a national exhibition of work from the early and important wood collection of Edward Jacobson, had a profound influence on the Waterburys and other emerging collectors of wood art. The show opened in 1985 and traveled for several years. Viewing it in 1988, the Waterburys were inspired to meet more artists and acquire their works. Fortunately, they came in contact with two resources for the collecting of contemporary wood art: the Center for Art in Wood (formerly the Wood Turning Center), in Philadelphia, and the American Association of Woodturners (AAW), based in St. Paul, both founded in 1986. The AAW’s Instant Galleries, at which artists exhibit work for sale, are held as part of the AAW’s annual symposia and have been a particularly exciting source for the Waterburys.

In addition to buying from artists—sometimes directly off the lathe after a demonstration—the Waterburys have purchased from national and international galleries and large and small craft shows. In less than ten years, they had found many like-minded wood enthusiasts and in 1997 became founding members of the dynamic support organization Collectors of Wood Art. Although they have collected, in depth, works by a number of favorite artists, their curiosity has led them to simultaneously look broadly, investigating as many artists and styles as possible. Collecting with enthusiasm and encouragement for artists, they have proven themselves vital supporters of the wood art field.

Conversations with the Artists
The Waterburys kept good records of their collection, even photographing the artists holding their pieces whenever possible. By 2006, however, the prospect of eventually donating major parts of their collection prompted them to find a way to lessen their anticipated “separation anxiety.” So they hired a Twin Cities photographer, Robert Fogt, to document each object. After two years, Fogt had finished the project, and the Waterburys realized that the photos could serve as the basis for a book: Conversations with Wood: The Collection of Ruth and David Waterbury, which accompanies this exhibition. But the photos could also serve another educational purpose.

The Waterburys had the idea of sending the photos to the artists, along with a letter asking for memories of the works pictured; for example, “a story about the piece, its creation, the material, or any significance it holds for them, perhaps in the context of the larger body of their work.” Certain artists had become close friends of the Waterburys, but others were relatively unknown to them. By consulting the Center for Art in Wood, craft galleries, and other artists, they compiled a master list of artists to contact. In 2009 the Waterburys wrote to all the living artists who would be represented in their book. To their delight, the responses were universally affirmative. The artists’ comments appear next to their works both in the book and in this exhibition, preserving and presenting the hundreds of “conversations with wood” gathered by the Waterburys as unique documentation of this important collection.

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May 19, 2013

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