Wendell Castle by Karen Lee Lewis
–He believes “art is a form of redemption, a transfiguration of the commonplace."
When you see a fish you don’t think of its scales, do you? You think of its speed, its floating, flashing body seen through the water... If I made fins and eyes and scales, I would arrest its movement, give a pattern or shape of reality. I want just the flash of its spirit.”
Wendell Castle has built a name for himself out of wood—a name that has become synonymous with the words organic and idiosyncratic. He designs art furniture (or is it furniture as art?) in his astonishing 15,000 square foot studio in Scottsville, NY. He is surrounded by a dedicated team of contributing artisan cabinet makers, finishers, sculptors and metal workers. Castle’s voice resonates visibly through his use of Douglas Fir, White Oak, Mahogany, Poplar, and Rosewood, Cherry, Walnut, and Bird’s Eye Maple, and the more exotically named Malaysian Jelutong, Moabi veneer or Macassar ebony.
Castle believes that he has inspired us to look at furniture in “an entirely different way.” His “idea of hybrid activity somewhere between sculpture and furniture, with each vocabulary being brought together, was a new idea.” He has always crafted furniture “with the human body in mind.” His designs exude youthful energy, and a wry yet whimsical sense of humor. His pieces, whether clocks, pedestals, sofas or chairs, amuse and inform, counsel and explore, with names like: “On the Tip of My Tongue”, “The Burden”, “Don’t be Downhearted”, and “I Know the Way.”
A Kansas native, Castle studied Sculpture and Industrial Design in the early 1960’s at the University of Kansas, helping his fraternity win trophies for their homecoming floats. He has since been awarded a host of prestigious awards, grants, honors and exhibitions and his work is included in major museum permanent collections. He has taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology, The State University of New York at Brockport and even created his own school for craftsman. He has written papers on children’s art and how it’s influenced modern art, plagiarism and the arts, and the art of the insane. Currently Castle is Artist-in-Residence at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Grant Holcomb, Director of the Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Rochester calls Castle a “living cultural treasure.”
Castle has created a life that is dedicated to the uncompromising demands of freedom. His life is the epitome of art as movement. You might find him picking up his wife, sculptor Nancy Jurs, at her studio in a nearby train station, in a Porsche 911, cowboy boot to the gas pedal. They may be heading to the club to play tennis, or they might be traveling to Paris to visit their daughter, an editor for Taschen Press’s film and photographic division. As he notes in his “10 adopted rules of thumb”—The dog that stays on the porch will find no bones.
Castle has been quoted as saying, “Frequently I ask myself, “What if?” He believes “art is a form of redemption, a transfiguration of the commonplace.” There is nothing common about Wendell Castle’s designs. Looking back at his prodigious body of work he says, “I hope it’s fun. I was lucky. I hit on some good things very early on and I just keep wanting to expand on that.”
Traffic interviewed the soft-spoken Wendell Castle in his studio as he prepares for an upcoming show in Boca Raton that will focus on sculptural chairs.
Seeing is Communicating
— I don’t think my hands are any more sensitive than anybody else’s—but I know what I’m feeling—wood has a grain and so does stone for that matter, and it has a light reflecting quality because there are pores in the wood, depending on which way you’re looking… there can be illusions.
— I sort of enjoy fooling people—a little trick of the eye—even if things balance in a way that seems odd. Maybe it seems like it should fall over but it doesn’t, should open here, but it doesn’t.
— It gets down to the seeing—the difference is you see a drawing which is two dimensional and imagine it three dimensional. You also have to be able to imagine it from all other views, not just the one that’s in the drawing.
— I actually see better with a pencil in my hand.
— Too often drawing can be just like a creative exercise. There’s nothing wrong with that but it doesn’t teach you to see… as I see. In critiques of a drawing a student will show you something, an idea they’re developing, and if it’s drawn poorly your comments are meaningless, you can’t have a communication. So in the studio we communicate by drawing. “What about this?” Back and forth. If you use words it’s not as good. If you can use what designers refer to as “rapid viz,” which is being able to draw rapidly in perspective, that’s a great skill to communicate.
— I studied sculpture, and so I didn’t have a clue how to make furniture. I didn’t know how to make joints. I just needed to know how to glue two boards together. I just glued a pile of boards together and carved it.
— I learned by trial and error, so I developed an entirely new way of working. That is probably my biggest contribution, a new way of working.
— You build up the shape by imagining cross sections through the piece, so that you can create the form out of wood that is more or less the shape you want. Therefore you can control the grain. Even if you could get a block of wood big enough to carve that chair out of, you’d never be able to dry it.
— I try to ignore the layers. I don’t want the layers to distract me from the form. They’re a means to an end.
The Influence of Time
— I’m not making social comments but I think that the work, in a way, reflects its time. In times when the economy is buoyant and sales are easy to make, then the pieces can be wilder and more expansive. Those two go together. If you’re going to make it wilder then it’s going to be more expensive because it’s going to take more work. At times when the economy is not so good then you have to cool it down a bit and make some things that you don’t expect to get so much out of.
— If you look at the 60’s, the free organic things, the patterns you used to see, that’s all coming back now. You see so many painters that are doing lots of things with intricate patterns in them, and there is a return of the 60’s feeling, maybe even the anti-war sentiment. It shows up in the most indirect way.
— In the 80’s there was a time when it was thought that value was seen in work when there were precious materials and extraordinary workmanship, that that was something to be sought after. Now I wouldn’t say that’s the case. I don’t think preciousness has anything to do with anything, and the skill has little to do with it… Right now anything goes. No right or wrong in the use of materials. The public doesn’t really know what they’re looking at anyway, for the most part. It isn’t necessarily a problem.
— Today design is much more highly regarded than it was in the 80’s. Nowadays you see a number of fine artists who have fine reputations as painters, sculptors, doing some utilitarian things, whether it’s designing a fabric, or a vessel, or a chair. Donald Judd did a lot of furniture. It isn’t seen as if they are prostituting themselves in the market place.
— In school there was no talking about making pieces that you could sell. Any business aspect was never mentioned. You just made art, and you didn’t think about the economics—the hours spent, the material costs—the prices that you put on things didn’t have any meaning.
— I put great big prices on it. I had no idea if they’d sell or not. I was never particularly interested in that aspect. I had a teaching job. Whether I sold a single piece wasn’t so terribly important. I think I had a good approach. I put prices way higher than anybody else at the time. I was thinking of my work as sculpture, pricing the work as if it was sculpture. Furniture makers thought it was a terrible use of material. Some of them were saying “It’s going to fall apart” or “It can’t work that way.” I’m an outsider in that community. I’m not universally accepted, although they’ve given me some awards. They gave them to me because they sort of had to. I don’t think they like me.
— I was basically making unsaleable pieces, but that was the best thing I could do.
— I’ve known all along and resisted in some cases recently, that what I can sell the best, and what has the best value when it comes up at auction, are the pieces that are organic, laminated, carved pieces.
— Design that comes up on the market (at auction), certain things are very highly collectable, almost on a plane with fine arts. A Carlo Mollino table sold last summer for 3.8 million dollars; most people don’t know who Carlo Mollino is.
— I have had over the years a number of people who have commissioned a lot. In the 90’s I had a person who was commissioning literally hundreds of pieces. Peter Joseph, he pretty much furnished two houses, big places, plus bought some things just on speculation that he put in a warehouse.
— I have one now that is buying dozens, a private client in Miami that is a big time art collector. He looks at it both ways; some of the pieces he wants to be functional and not to speak in a terribly loud voice, and some of the other pieces are less functional and do speak sort of loudly about themselves.
— Within my work I don’t think that’s ever happened, but it terms of what happens to my work… The ability to sell it, or having a gallery owner die and my gallery close when I’m scheduled to do this or that and it’s cancelled. After 9/11 sales were really off. People who had ordered things said, “Well, I’m going to wait off on that” and some of them came back again, and some of them didn’t.
— Constrictions that I’ve assigned myself, such as; I wanted to keep the object and the table very simple, the table should appear almost as if I didn’t design it, and that it has a kind of vocabulary that could be anyone’s vocabulary, and the sculptural objects would deal a good deal with surface, color and texture. Keep them simple with minimal function.
A Central Motif—The Six Fingered Hand
— Someone who has six fingers is considered, in more ancient societies, to have magical powers. Anne Boleyn had six fingers. The person, the French swordsman, that was brought over to behead her actually cut off her hand and saved it. In more rural places in the south it is thought to have special powers. To me it has extra interest, and the fact that it disturbs people, if they notice. It’s interesting how many people don’t count the fingers and notice that there are six.
— If you change the one [design] you’re working on you would never know if the first idea was the good one, or the second… A lot of people constantly get derailed and change things. I really like to believe that my original idea had some integrity, and there was some reason I picked it. Something a little magical happened that you don’t understand. You picked it for some unknown reason that was a good one. So don’t change it, but when you see other ways to go, make note of them. I think the work speaks to you.
— I try not to get too caught up in all the disaster stuff, the huge amount of natural disasters and an unfortunate war. I try to keep it a bit distant. It’d be easy to get caught up in all kinds of things, whether it’s being part of the anti-war movement or not liking the way the school board’s handling things. I try to keep focused on my work.
It’s in the Making
— I enjoy making things. It wouldn’t necessarily have to be furniture. I probably would have been just as happy making something else whether it would have been making hot rods or jewelry.
— So far age hasn’t impacted anything. I haven’t slowed down any. I work the same as I always have. I don’t plan on slowing down.
Most Cherished Award
— One that is probably the most fun is one nobody’s ever heard of—“The Golden Plate Award.” That was really cool. You don’t get any money. Tons of Nobel Prize winners get this. Every year they give 20 to 30 of these out at a weekend conference held in some interesting place with a lot of interesting people. You have to be nominated by somebody who got it. I was nominated by Jim Henson. I get the most distinguished company there.
Award Inscription: The Golden Plate Awarded to America’s Captains of Achievement in the Great Fields of Endeavor, 1988, Nashville TN