Contemporary Woodturning’s Moments That Mattered

Posted on 8/31/2011 9:22:41 AM

When the American Association of Woodturners decided to put together a book to mark its twenty-fifth anniversary, it tapped a handful of the field’s stalwarts for ideas.

Among them was IUP Art faculty member Steve Loar, whose concept “significant moments in the woodturning field” ended up driving much of the book’s format and content. Woodturning Today: A Dramatic Evolution was released in June 2011.

Right Person for the Job

Loar was a natural to be involved with the book. During his more than thirty years of woodturning and contemporary furniture making, he was also a follower of the field. He connected with his counterparts and collected images of their work to use as a resource for his teaching.

'Woodturning Today: A Dramatic Evolution' book cover

In addition to his essays, Loar contributed to the book about eighty photos from that collection. Having experienced those “significant moments” firsthand, he had a wealth of anecdotal information to draw from but needed to verify some facts.

“It allowed me to reconnect with a number of colleagues who had done very important work, some of it quite early, and who may not even be active in the field now,” Loar said. “Some important people have passed away, and mine were the only slides of their work we know of.”

Further qualifying him for this editorial role was that Loar had already researched many issues in contemporary woodturning—for numerous conference presentations and published commentaries throughout his career.

Contemporary Woodturning’s Rise and Stall

“A blur” is how Loar described the evolution of woodturning over the last half-century in his essay “So Far, So Fast” in the AAW anniversary book. Through the early 1970s, turning was based in utility and often industry, with patterns dictating style. It was taught, often vocationally, in secondary schools and by master to apprentice and father to son.

Bowl for the Coastal Tribes, 1985, by Steve Loar, one of the first works involving a suspended, or raised, vessel

Traditions that emerged in the 1980s had little concern with utility or function and focused instead on tools and technique. How thin a turner can make the wood has dictated the bulk of the field’s work over the past twenty-five years, according to Loar. Although many of contemporary woodturning’s early innovators were self-taught, thousands since have found guidance through workshops, which are common in the field.

After a break-neck rise, woodturning seems to have slowed in ingenuity and innovation and now rests on a plateau, Loar said, a state that has led some to proclaim the death of the field.

While not so dire in his assessment, Loar sees a number of challenges to the future of turning: the elimination of industrial arts programs at secondary schools, the aging field of practitioners, and the continuing fascination with tools and techniques rather than concepts, ideas, and statements—often the case with hobbyists who lack formal education in art and design.

Given those challenges, Loar questions whether the strength of the field—as evidenced by an AAW membership of more than fourteen thousand—can be maintained. He hopes that new educational opportunities will emerge as a catalyst for moving woodturning off its plateau.

Steve Loar talks with a student in the Center for Turning and Furniture Design facilities in Sprowls Hall

Now in his thirty-second year of teaching, Loar has had many students follow in his footsteps and embrace his teaching philosophies and concerns. That process continues in his role as director of the Center for Turning and Furniture Design at IUP. Within this woodworking program is a business component called CenterWorks, which allows students to work on projects for commission. This work has included the processing of fallen or removed campus trees and giving them new life as usable lumber. (Learn more about this aspect of the program in the online feature “Green Design: Harvest to Use.”)

Significant Moments in Woodturning

Setting the stage in the AAW anniversary book for Loar’s photo gallery of selected artwork representing critical moments in woodturning was his other major essay, “Themes: Decoding Contemporary Woodturning.”

Helplessly Hoping II, 1996, an early collaborative piece by Steve Loar

“I sought to identify works that changed our perceptions of what was possible,” he said. “From them often emerged whole genres of creations by others.”

Determining what was most significant among his peers’ work was a “harrowing task,” Loar said. “As an art critic, I had the choice of inclusion—or not. This book is the culmination of me as an intellectual force in the field, as well as an artist.”

Loar is no stranger to innovation in woodturning. He was one of the first to use sandblasting, experiment with color, and suspend the vessel, or put it on legs. His Bowl for the Coastal Tribes, which he made in 1985, was the earliest piece in an American Woodturner photo gallery of suspended vessels featured in the December 2010 issue.

In 1996, the AAW recognized Loar as one of fifteen people who had made the greatest impact on the contemporary woodturning field through their work and sharing of expertise.

Loar was also one of the innovators of collaboration—the use of castoffs, or unfinished pieces by other turners, to create new works—now a mainstay of the field. Among his best known collaborative pieces is Helplessly Hoping II, which he created in 1996 using an upside-down bowl and other castoffs from other turners.

Steve Loar's 'What's Love Got to Do with It?' 1990, inspired by the Tina Turner song

Loar’s ability to evolve has fueled his longevity in woodturning. His Young Ludwig: Dreaming of the Fifth was featured in the recently published Wood Art Today 2, a juried overview of the wood field as a whole. He also had a piece in the original Wood Art Today, published ten years earlier, making him one of the few artists to make appearances in both.

And, Loar is still working to “keep the revolution going.” His current projects include a piece inspired by the 2010 oil-rig catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, and, in an even greater diversion, experiments with turning wood versions of lingams—lozenge-shaped stones revered as sacred icons in India. Translating these simple forms into turned wood without projecting his ego has proven difficult for the turner known for his theatrical, often rock-and-roll-inspired works.

“My work has been loud and colorful—it’s been like a flashing neon sign,” he said. “The lingams go to another extreme—a quiet, perfect as possible form.”

Loar is curious to see if he can engage people on this other level.

“Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they are blind,” Loar once wrote, quoting zoologist Marston Bates in reference to the passion and “spirit of inquiry” that engendered woodturning’s meteoric rise. For Loar, the research continues.

2007: This cherry stool was a class project by Stephen Nachreiner, who received his bachelor’s degree from IUP in 2008. It appeared in “Woodturning Today.”
2006: “Rhetoric” is a commentary by Michael Stadler, who received a B.F.A. in 2003 and an M.F.A. in 2009 from IUP. The rotating of the string between lathe and chairs is reminiscent of a woodturning demonstration. It appeared in “Woodturning Today.”
2005: “River Geode,” Steve Loar and Robyn Horn. Primavera, cocobolo, maple, fish bone, and a gold pearl pin.
2000: “Chartres Revisited,” Steve Loar, with Mark Sfirri and Frank Sudol. Walnut, birch, walnut burl, spalted elm, satinwood, Plexiglas, corian, purpleheart, and veneered struct tube.
1996: “Helplessly Hoping II,” Steve Loar, with Mark Sfirri, Clay Foster, and Chesley Kingsley. Curly maple, birch, oak, redwood burl, and cow bone. It appeared in “Woodturning Today.”
1994: “Composition in Black, White, and Red; The Indiscretion,” also known as “The Geisha,” Steve Loar, with Stoney Lamar. Red maple, elm, pine, walnut, sycamore, corian, and mixed media.
1993: “Crow Pond” is by Neil Donovan, who received a master’s from IUP in 1983, and John Vahanian. Basswood, cherry, ebony, colored pencil, and paint. It appeared in “Woodturning Today.” Donovan is now director of the Crawford County Career and Technical Center in Meadville, Pa.
Close-up detail of “Crow Pond” by Neil Donovan.
1991: “Love’s Recovery,” Steve Loar, inspired by song by the Indigo Girls. Walnut burl, curly maple, birch dowels, beads, pins, paint, and dye.
1991: “You’re Only Human/Second Wind,” Steve Loar, inspired by song by Billy Joel. Maple burl, honeysuckle root, zebrawood, birch dowels and beads, sea shells, pins, paint, dye.
Close-up detail of “You’re Only Human/Second Wind.”
1990: “Memories of East Texas,” Steve Loar, inspired by song by Michelle Shocked. Maple, dogwood, oak, birch dowels and beads, paint, dye.
1990: “Freedom Overspill/Back in the High Life Again,” Steve Loar, inspired by song by Steve Winwood. Maple, walnut, beech, sycamore, birch dowels and beads, string, paint, dye.
1990: “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” Steve Loar, inspired by song by Tina Turner. Pine, ash, birch dowels and beads, paint, dye.
1985: “Bowl for the Coastal Tribes,” Steve Loar. Spalted maple, dyed veneered plywood, paint. It appeared in “Woodturning Today.”
2011: “Arc and Chord Engineer’s Field Bench” by Neil Donovan, 1983 IUP master’s recipient.
“Don't Stand So Close to Me” by Steve Loar
“Expecting to Fly” by Steve Loar
“Take a Bow” by Steve Loar


About Steve Loar

Steve Loar

Loar is an associate professor of art and director of the Center for Turning and Furniture Design at IUP.

He received a Bachelor of Science in studio art from Murray State University in 1972 and a Master of Arts in design studio from Northern Illinois University in 1975.

At IUP, Loar teaches Foundations/Three-Dimensional Design, has developed an independent study that allows select students to explore the demands of college teaching, and has led several study-abroad experiences that have included studio art. Among those are his One Island initiatives, which have investigated castoff plastic on Andros Island, Bahamas, and in Perth, Scotland. The Andros project involved cleaning up a beach and using the recovered materials to create art. (Learn more about the Andros trip in the online feature “Green Design: Recycling the Beach.”)