Art for use

You could put it on a pedestal and admire it. You might wear it. Or put flowers in it. Or cover your bed with it. Whether it be an enormous wooden bowl, a piece of jewelry, a handthrown pot, or a handmade quilt, it is included in "Art for Use," an exhibition of 100 pieces made by 71 American craftsmen at the American Craft Museum, 44 West 53rd Street, through May 25.

The show was commissioned by the National Fine Arts Committee of the XIII Winter Olympics, and more than 20,000 visitors saw the finely crafted but functional items at Lake Placid, N.Y. Furniture and clothing are also included in the many "usable forms" of the exhibition.

Museum director Paul Smith, who selected the objects for the show, has said he not only wanted to show visitors from abroad the vitality and beauty of American-made crafts, but to choose simple and practical things to which they could easily relate.

Many of the items lead double lives. Linda Mendelson's colorful patchwork "rainbow poncho," for instance, becomes a fabric wall hanging when it isn't being worn. Or Judith Wilbour Nelson's handwoven kimono fits over a maple armature so its shape and texture can be enjoyed as "soft sculpture" when it is not being used. Wenda F. Von Weise's quilts, featuring a unique process of screenprinted photo imagery, can be used as bed covers or wall hangings. And the stoneware, earthenware, and wooden bowls can all be used as containers as well as enjoyed as pleasing shapes.

Ed Moulthrop's wooden bowls indicate what can happen when a skilled and inventive craftsman begins to refine his product. His huge bowls now emerge as hollow sculptures of exquisite beauty. Mr. Moulthrop, whose workshop is one wing of his house in Atlanta, Ga., came to New York for the opening of the exhibition, which includes two of his huge wooden bowls.

Mr. Moulthrop and his bowls have made a hit in Manhattan.

His long-time fascination with wood began when he whittled wood with a pocketknife during his boyhood in Cleveland, he says. At age 15 he saw an ad in Popular Mechanics for a lathe and earned the money to pay for it by delivering magazines. It is now 47 years later, and Mr. Mouthrop is still turning out bowls on a lathe. Now his lathes are of his own invention and enable him to work with great power and precision.

He worked as an architect for years and pursued his woodturning on the side. Twenty years ago he sold out his first one-man gallery show, and seven years ago left architecture altogether to devote full time to turning bowls.

He uses cross-sections of logs of such Southern trees as tulip magnolia, wild cherry, sweet gum, persimmon, sycamore, dogwood, orangewood, and walnut. For a 36-inch wide bowl, he must start with a chunk of log 40 inches in diameter, often weighing 1,000 pounds. He rough turns his bowls from green wood and then cures them for several months in a polyethylene glycol process to dimensionally stabilize the wood. He then dries the bowls for weeks or months before final turning, sanding, and finishing them to a highly buffed sheen.

After years of experimentation, the craftsman finally perfected those turning , curing, and finishing processes which enabled him to turn bowls to a quarter of an inch thinness and buff them to a high durable gloss. He does not oil those bowls, but gives them a varnish like finish that is easy to maintain and does not show fingermarks.

Mr. Moulthrop says it took him at least 10 years to learn all the techniques that enabled him to produce the outsized bowls. "I made mistakes, mistakes, mistakes," he says, "and I lost a lot of bowls in the process." But those huge pieces of wood continued to challenge him, and he persevered until he learned how to master them. He knows of no one else today who is making bowls that are 28, 33, and 36 inches in diameter.

Customers who buy them place the largest bowls on pedestals or on sideboards and the smaller ones on mantels and tables.

The biggest size sells for $4,500 though he still makes salad bowls that sell for $120. Because of the enormous amount of hand labor involved, the craftsman can turn out only about 250 bowls a year. Although he uses a dozen basic shapes , he seems to like best the hollow sphere, the lower and flatter doughnut shape, and the lotus bud form. The forms are simple.

"I don't design beauty," he explains. "I just uncover it. I reveal the swirls, shadings, and grains that nature has placed within each log." His bowls are in several museum collections and are sold through four galleries, including the Signature Shop in Atlanta and the Elements Gallery in New York.

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