Utah is known for its rich interest in the arts: When it comes to Shakespeare, family theater, storytelling or music, the passionate pockets of supports are obvious. But the state is also home to a community of another kind of artists: woodturning.
The art form of woodturning differs from other forms of carving: Rather than use a spinning blade to cut through a piece of wood, woodturning involves attaching the wood itself to a lathe, which then spins the wood.
The artist then holds the loose blade against the spinning wood, turning it into any number of objects — and making wood shavings fly everywhere.
“Shavings are flying over your head,” said woodturner Matthew Deighton. “It feels very chaotic and yet very peaceful at the same time.”
The results from such work range from the obvious — bowls and plates — to objects that almost defy belief that they could be made with such a method.
“Unlike a table saw where it makes straight cuts, or a router that depends on the shape of the blade to make certain shapes in the wood, woodturning is different in that it’s not so much the shape of the blade but how you use the blade,” Deighton said. “You can actually twist the blade and move it in and out to make the different shapes, so it’s much more free-flowing and much more at the discretion of the turner.”
A variety of objects made from woodturning will be on display at the Utah Woodturning Symposium, returning this weekend to the UCCU Center in Orem. Artists, fans and newcomers to the art form will convene for classes, demonstrations and socializing with other members of their unique artistic tribe.
The symposium is a paid event, offering classes and lectures, but a gallery will be free to the public throughout, as well as a section of the program called “Area 9,” which has demonstrations throughout the day that anyone can watch for free.
The gallery is open Thursday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 2:45 p.m.
It was during such a symposium that Deighton first understood the capacity of the art form.
“I was blown away,” he said. “There were things like cowboy hats that looked like cowboy hats, all the way to things where I would look at (it) and say, ... ‘It’s so perfect that you had to program a machine to make that.’ But (the artist) would say, ‘No, no, I made that on the lathe, just with my tools at home.’ And I was just blown away by all the different things that you could do with it.”
Kirk DeHeer, a woodturner and a board member of the symposium, teaches classes on woodturning at the place where he works, Craft Supplies USA. The company was founded by DeHeer’s mentor, Dale L. Nish, who also founded the symposium.
DeHeer learned about Nish at the Provo Library, where he went to learn more about the craft, and he found a book written by Nish. He didn’t realize Nish also worked in Provo at first.
“He wrote his books in the 1970s, he was teaching classes at BYU on craft,” DeHeer said. “He was teaching Industrial Education instructors. ... Because of his interest, and basically without Dale producing the books, I don’t think it would be where it is today as an art form. The Utah symposium is the oldest consistently running woodturning symposium in the world, which is something special in and of itself, but that’s all because of Dale.”
For DeHeer, the art form occupies a large place in his life.
“There’s really something that’s almost magical or zen-like when you start seeing shavings come off of a tool, and you’re creating something from a piece of wood or other materials,” he said. “It’s almost mesmerizing just to see the shavings coming off the tools.”
Even though it now uses electric power tools, woodturning has been around for thousands of years. Before electricity, lathes operated with a foot pedal, Deighton said.
“Back in the day it was mainly used for turning bowls and spindles, so any time you see spindles on a chair or a staircase, wooden bowls, any of that kind of stuff, it was made by woodturning,” he said. “It’s (now) much more artistic than it has been in the past. You can still make bowls and things that people use, but a lot of it is much more display and artistic than ever before.”
Another aspect of woodturning that adds to the emotional value of the craft comes from the wood itself. Much of the wood used is from salvaged wood from trees that fall and would otherwise go to waste, Deighton said.
“Some of the most meaningful things people will turn comes from trees that have emotional importance to people,” he said. “ ‘This was a tree from my grandmother’s property that has now fallen down and is dead. We were just going to haul it away,’ but now they turn a really nice bowl and they give it to a family member and they say, ‘This is a bowl from Grandma’s tree that you remember climbing in. This is the one that you had your fort in growing up,’ or whatever. And it allows it to have a second life.”