By Gina Malone
A boyhood in Iowa and Colorado, freedom to play with tools and a strong dedication to his art have contributed to David Ellsworth’s reputation as one of the world’s premier designers of turned wood vessel forms and a teacher willing to share with others what he has learned. The founder of the American Association of Woodturners, Ellsworth has written numerous articles, created the Ellsworth School of Woodturning and produced work that has been included in the permanent collections of 43 museums, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
“Iowa provided all the classic ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ foundations for life,” Ellsworth says, “with the addition of a strong foundation for art all the way through grade school.” He considers Colorado more influential to his growing- up, however. His family spent summers there, eventually moving to Boulder when he was 14. “Looking back, I realize that I was the ‘maker’ of all the toys (weapons) we boys played with in the mountains: bows and arrows, spears, tomahawks, whips, slings and, yes, guns.”
His earliest materials came from scraps of ponderosa pine his father was using to build the family cabin. Playthings were a hammer, a can of bent nails and a pine stump. “From these, I learned about eye-hand coordination, the direct relationship between energy and applied force—and pain. Valuable lessons for life that I continue to use virtually every day in my artwork.”
At 14, in woodshop class, he worked with a lathe, learning to center his attention on the wood. “Shaping a spinning piece of wood is not unlike throwing clay or blowing glass,” he says. “It focuses one’s entire being on the task at hand and, combined with the wonderful odors of various woods, it was an instant match.”
After high school, he spent three years in the military, three semesters at Washington University studying architecture, four years studying fine arts at the New School for Social Research in New York City and three years finishing his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in sculpture and drawing at the University of Colorado. When he could not find a university teaching job, he interviewed for a position starting up a woodworking program at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village, CO.
Ceramist Paul Soldner, the center’s director, was a name known to Ellsworth. “It was through him that I became aware of constructivist learning methods where students and teachers worked on a level plane.” The two lessons he took away from his year there, Ellsworth says, are to build your own working studio and to develop an item that is “well-designed, functional and priced to sell.”
Once he moved backed to Boulder in 1975, he used a room in a friend’s barn as a studio and there he perfected his production item: a three-piece set of salt, pepper and sugar shakers that retailed at $18. Over the next two-and- a-half years, he made about 5,000 of the sets, selling them at craft shows and galleries throughout the West.
During this time, he began the search for what he wanted to create. The hollow vessels he was already making combined with his early inspiration from Native American ceramic pots gave him the answer. “It was my curiosity in trying to figure out how to hollow out a solid form in wood that led to making bent turning tools that allowed me to work the interior of wooden vessel forms I am known for today,” he says. There began an intensive time of creation in a garage studio near his family’s old cabin in Colorado. “Sixteen- to eighteen-hour days became the norm and the foundation of my work ethic.”
His method involves putting a piece of wood on the lathe and cutting away all the parts that he does not want. “Through numerous refinements, this ultimately leads to a form that I do want.” A modified single bowl gouge is used for the initial cutting and he then switches to homemade bent tools that allow him to excavate and refine the interior surface. An acute sense of feel while working inside the hollow forms replaces vision as he proceeds.
With technique perfected over many years, it is design that challenges him still. “A well-designed object of any kind or medium is what takes it beyond ‘pretty’ or ‘cute’ and brings it to a level of what I refer to as being art-full. Good design, whether it’s a utilitarian object or one-of- a-kind, allows tiny objects to appear monumental and all objects to sustain their visual strength forever.”
David Ellsworth’s studio is located at 208 Ox Creek Road in Weaverville. Find his work locally at Momentum Gallery. To learn more, visit EllsworthStudios.com.