An Afternoon at the Smart Museum

ae_deskA legion of dark-haired, jeans-clad, slender teenaged people with attentive attitudes walked past me as I stood over the “Touch Table,” pulling apart and re-attaching objects using miter, dovetail and lap joints.

A few of the young visitors from Nigata, Japan, took my place around the “Touch Table” after I moved on, and, laughing, attached the objects in unintended ways. Meanwhile, I listened to a video of woodworker Michael Singer explaining his technique for joining irregular shapes while I perused a case of tools displayed below. An unfinished chair, a prototype by Om Anand, held a small sign explaining what a prototype is, challenging the viewer to find the finished chair and to notice the changes.

Here at the entrance to “Studio Made: Santa Cruz Woodworkers,” the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History at the McPherson Center flies its colors as a participative museum. This entry wall not only carries the name of the show but also prepares viewers to appreciate the work within.

Within is a collection of studio furniture and functional art of surprising breadth of individualistic design, made with impeccable craftsmanship by ten members of the Santa Cruz Woodworkers.  On a wall panel, curator Susan Hillhouse writes that “Woodworking is a spiritual practice” and posits this as the difference between mass-produced works and such works as are here exhibited, works that reflect the “clarity and soul” of the artist.

Evidently, Jefferson Shallenberger is a fearless and sensual soul, whose piece de resistance is his “Red Desk,” a filigree of graceful curves joining in impossible mobius relationships to support the sweep of three red woods outlined in white inlay that form the surface of a piece that would be at home in Versailles.

Nearby, Roger Heitzman’s “Nouvella” desk and chair pushes the envelope in a modernist design; the lines of his blonde chair seemingly trace the forces that buttress the human form it’s destined to support. Beyond, in works that bring to mind the groundbreaking designs of George Nakashima, Om Anand’s eloquent minimalist tables and cabinets glorify the wood itself, often integrating an un-trimmed edge as if to say “tree—remember, this is a tree!”

Michael Singer exults in the psychedelic grain of spalted maple to make his “Chiffonier” into a work of true genius. With a wry approach, Ron Cook offers a medieval-style installation of table, stools, chandelier, goblets and chessboard in front of a wall-full of musical instruments—harp, organ, fiddle, dulcimer, each musically functional and exquisite. Throughout the exhibition, scannable QR codes displayed beside the works allow smartphone users to access the artist’s website or, in this case, hear the instruments being played. Santa Cruz just got smarter.

Studio Made: Santa Cruz Woodworkers continues at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History at the McPherson Center through Nov. 13.

Maureen Davidson writes about the arts as The Exhibitionist. This column and her radio spot and blog at KUSP.org are funded in part by a grant from the Cultural Council of Santa Cruz County.

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