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Shaping the Vessel: Woodwork as Art at Gantt Show

by Joshua Peters

July 27, 2016

The same lathe that turned the simple salad bowl that sits atop your kitchen shelf or the banister that helps you upstairs has the potential to turn out vessels that will change your perception of what is possible with wood. It just takes a craftsperson who can visualize their work within their medium. In one of the Harvey Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture's three new exhibitions, Shaping the Vessel: Mascoll + Samuel, curator, artist and educator Charles Farrar seeks to highlight two such craftspeople and the history of woodworking that has culminated in their work.

Farrar not only displays the master craft of these two artists—John Mascoll, a self-taught woodworking artist, and Avelino Samuel, who has an MS in Industrial Design—but also the history and legacy of wood art in African culture. Placed centrally in the gallery is a fully constructed manual lathe, operated by stomping on a large wooden pedal that actuates a large bow string that then spins the wood the craftsperson would be working from. Farrar deliberately references craftspeople dating back to ancient Egypt, whose utilitarian and sacred turned wood may have been fashioned with a lathe similar to the one in the exhibition space.

In Shaping the Vessel: Mascoll + Samuel, Farrar focuses on the two artist's mastery of a craft through 20 immaculate pieces of turned wood. The lathe allows the artists a sculptural control over the form and execution of each of the vessels, and the results are truly awe inspiring. Shaping the Vessel elevates the woodturning medium with truly singular design aesthetics. Mascoll and Samuel render works of art that are pristine in their execution and captivating in their purity.

Mascoll learned his craft on a whim after purchasing an all-in-one table saw, lathe and drill press in 1982. Since then, channeling his competitive nature from a history in athletics, he has honed his craft to a regal exactness. His works seek to highlight the natural grace in a piece of wood, accentuating complex patterns and gnarls in the wood's grain. His forms are extreme and simple—they range from tall, slender almost vase-like urns to rounder, stouter vessels, all with extremely delicate finial work and a glassy smooth surface treatment that turns the wood into what looks like ethereal marble. The effect is most apparent in his piece Ebonized Chinaberry Vessel, which features a deep-black stain that practically transforms the wooden form into precious stone. The egg-shaped vessel rounds off at the shoulders and works its way down to almost a point at the base, and features a wide, slender finial on the top handle. The vertical streaks in the wood's grain imbue the piece with silvery waves across its shiny surface, and fleck it with tiny pockets and gaps that warp and elongate between the rings from the lathing process.

Samuel's work is slightly less restrained than his exhibition partner's, but no less beautiful. A native of the island of St. John, Samuel grew up carving wooden tools and toys, afro picks and fighting staffs, bows and masks. After stints at North Carolina A&T and East Michigan University, Samuel finished his education and returned to St. John to teach woodworking at his primary school alma mater.

His works are planned very much like the work of a traditional sculptor, with extensive sketches. Samuel looks for the beauty in the imperfections of the woods that he finds on the island. His exhibited works range in complexity from the sublime and understated Offering Bowl to the fantastic Mahogany Spiral, which features a conch shell-like form, with smooth, rolling concentric spirals that meet at the vessel's opening. The surface of Mahogany Spiral features perfectly uniform dash marks burned into the exterior, adding emphatic visual interest and texture to the piece.

Samuel isn't afraid to carve in his own surface textures after a piece leaves the lathe, and many of his works feature alternating moments of beautiful pristine smoothness and sections of scaled, burned or carved texture. Many of Samuel's works, like Mascoll's, feature extremely delicate finial touches, some crowned with slender towering finials turned with exacting measure on the lathe.

The work of these two artists is a testament to the hours of patience at the lathe that went into each of the 20 flawless works. Shaping the Vessel: Mascoll + Samuel is a truly rare opportunity to experience a masterwork level of craft. Mascoll and Samuel surprise and delight an audience with work that is both regal and unassailable in its presentation, and stunning and wondrous in its aesthetics. 

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Tags: woodworking, lathe, St. John, Harvey Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, vessel, Charles Farrar, John Mascoll, Avelino Samuel

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