Friday, November 20, 2015

"Wet wood" is favorite medium for Helga Winter

Artist Helga Winter speaking at the Nov. 14 CQA meeting
"I like to work on the lathe with wood that's green enough to spray me in the face," said Helga Winter, wood turner, as she showed some of her pieces at the November 14 meeting of Contemporary QuiltArt Association (CQA). In a departure from standard wood-working techniques, where fully dried/aged wood is used for its stability, the Pt. Townsend, WA artist incorporates into her design ideas the changes and distortions that occur when green wood dries and resumes its natural shape.
Some of  Winter's turned bowls and "spheroid" shapes, after use of paints and/or dyes

Winter came to her wood-turning focus in a roundabout way. Born in a small town in Germany, she was exposed to sewing, knitting and fiber crafts in her home but didn't see this as her own creative path. She came to the U.S. as young person, studied Education at the University of  Texas at Austin, and received a graduate degree in Special Education from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN.

During her graduate studies she did include one art class, and found that she loved it. It was at this time that she happened into a woodworking shop and began collecting wood scraps for projects with her special-ed students. On visits to the shop, she became fascinated with the work being done and, with great persistence, managed to get the shop owner to allow her to apprentice as a furniture maker. Winter eventually tried her hand at wood turning and became adept enough to acquire some grants in 1982. The materials she was using at this time were all hardwoods, native to the region.
These spheroid wood shapes are highly embellished

Winter moved to Pt. Townsend in 1987 and soon became acquainted with the native Madrone trees--a softwood variety quite different from the furniture stocks she had been used to. She learned that the Madrone was "ornery," in that no matter what changes she imposed, the worked wood always wanted to "take its shape back." She noted that in time "you learn to read the tree: crotches, where limbs join the trunk, are always good to use as they are strong."

Winter uses a chain saw to cut a "blank" from a donated Madrone tree.
A Madrone "blank" readied for the lathe
The metal fitting  on the bottom of the blank readies it for mounting on the lathe.
Asked how she sourced "fresh" trees for her work, Winter assured the audience that she didn't cut them down...rather, as her reputation has spread in the area, she often finds "donations" of fresh tree chunks in her driveway, or people will call her with news of a tree that's either fallen or being removed. (She will return the favor by making a piece for the donor!)

A "slimmed-down" blank ready to be turned into a bowl
Outside of the future bowl. A finished little "foot" will be shaped later.
Drying time for the turned pieces will vary with the season in which the tree "fell," with autumn wood being relatively dry and spring wood being relatively wet, and also vary with the thickness of the piece. A one-inch-thick piece can take a year to dry, whereas a thin bowl can dry in a couple of weeks. Winter will reverse each piece top for bottom every day to keep the remaining moisture from all going to the foot of the piece. She regularly achieves bowls so thin that light can be seen through the sides: "I do this by lathing slowly!"
Above and below: the setup for turning the inside of the bowl

Finished inside of the bowl
Turning the foot
Above: the finished bowl, off the lathe. Below: the same bowl after it's completely dry. Note the change in shape characteristic of  Madrone!

Madrone turns brown as it dries, so Winter completes her pieces by embellishing with paints or dyes or, often, pigmented wax, so that the finished piece may look as if it's pottery or glass instead of wood, thus drawing the viewer in for a closer look. Whereas paint can obscure the wood's grain, dyes will let the grain show through. Some of her pieces are spheroid in shape rather than bowls; these are created as two halves and glued together.

Blue dye colors the inside of this bowl. The outside is encaustic wax in translucent colors applied with "hot brushes," showing the various wax layers.

Winter will use an acrylic gesso to collage pieces of map on finished bowls, along with paints and dyes as embellishments.

(Above and below) Various layers of dyes, waxes and paint completely disguise the wood origins of these bowls.

Spheroids (above and below) are formed of two pieces glued together. Acrylic gesso is used to transfer portions of maps on these two pieces.

Here the red color came from paper than was "transferred" to the bowl.
Winter's latest artistic works incorporate not wood itself, but a wood product--paper, specifically  pages torn from books.  ("These are discards from a local bookstore," she added quickly. "I don't dismantle usable books!") After removing a book's binding, she will rip the pages into strips of varying widths.

Dismantled books provide stacks of paper of different widths.
Winter tears the pages into strips of varying widths, using a hacksaw blade mounted on a piece of wood.
 For a series of wall pieces, she has reassembled the strips by sewing, then mounting on board,  and added colored wax to create pieces that bear only a slight resemblance to their origin. "There's no significance to the words on the paper strips," Winter said.

Here, the torn pages were staggered and sewn together in 5-page "signatures,"  wax added, and the resulting piece mounted on board.
A more "measured" mounting of torn pages, with colored wax added.
Here, the sewing "strings" form a visual element in the board-mounted, waxed pages.
Another series involving the torn pages are open-front boxes that, depending on the size, can be wall-mounted or set on tables. Here, she rolls the torn strips into tubes and dips one edge into either clear or colored wax. She then folds the tubes into sharp angles and "meshes" them into the box shapes, creating an attractive pattern of shape and color.
The elements inside the boxes are "tubes" [below] formed from torn book pages with colored wax added. The tubes, in turn, are folded into angular shapes and fitted into the boxes.
This piece, full of folded, waxed tubes, measures 24 by 24 inches.

Winter's works are on display in a number of galleries in the Pacific Northwest. For more about her works and pictures of her extensive series of bowls, go to