BY KEVIN WALLANCE
Terry Martin is a craftsman and sculptor, writer and critic, teacher and student in the field of wood art. He is a man who constantly changes hats, doing what he can to document and promote a field in which he is also a player. It is not an easy route to take, particularly since he lives in Australia, some distance from where he is often published, exhibited, or invited to talk and teach at wood art forums around the world. Because he so much enjoys being part of the international scene, Terry Martin is also a world traveler. “It’s a wonderfully unlikely outcome of the woodturning renaissance,” he says, considering the good times he’s had. “There are years when I go several times around the world, stopping in different countries and staying with friends.” Martin finds that there is no pleasure to compare with finding common ground that spans cultures.
Having devoted much of his life to learning languages, he has enjoyed introducing himself to Japanese woodturners in their own language, demonstrating in Austria while bantering with the crowd in German and telling bad jokes in French while teaching in the workshop of his good friend Jean-François Escoulen.
Terry Martin has always been restless and has had a wide range of careers, from stage managing the Royal Ballet in London to mineral exploration in the jungles of New Guinea. Twenty years ago, when he returned from his travels to settle in his native Australia, his increasing concern over urban sprawl and the heedless destruction of old-growth forests led him to begin planting seedlings on weekends. In the early 1980s he discovered woodturning, which was in the midst of tremendous growth and change. It was a field that offered enough variety and excitement to capture his imagination.
Like many who work on the lathe, Martin’s initial interest was in creating bowls and hollow forms. His approach was simple—to create a good line and to reveal the distinct qualities of the wood. Recent works, such as his “Untitled Vessel” in jarrah burl, still demonstrate this approach, with beautifully finished exteriors juxtaposed with the tool marks within and attention to detail in the carved foot. Yet, this sort of simplicity has not been common in his work over the last decade. Having reached the point where he could make several good bowls in a day, Martin quickly became bored and began to investigate other approaches. His eventual move to more sculptural work was a result of both his own desire for challenge and growth, and the influence of cutting-edge work being created by other wood artists in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The transition to sculptural work seemed to take him by surprise. “I had never suspected that I had a good 3-D imagination and I was very surprised at how easily the ideas flowed,” he says. “I have never had any shortage of ideas, and it took me a while to realize that is just what most people have problems with.”
“Terry Martin follows the beat of his own drum with the unique approach and vision he has for sculptural works in wood,” explains Ray Leier of del Mano Gallery, which represents the artist in Los Angeles. “Combining lathe turning with hand carving, his pieces reflect his constant desire to break new ground. Both his ‘Splash’ series and his ‘Cyclops’ series show that he is not content to produce another vessel form. Each piece he creates speaks loudly of his quest for diversity. Known equally as well for his writing as he is for his work in wood, Terry Martin has been an international spokesman for this burgeoning field.”
“Huon Dream #1” was one of Martin’s early attempts to escape “the tyranny of the circular form.” It is also an example of his use of texture in the carved area of the work to create contrast, as well as a seamless blending of the carved and turned areas. For the artist, it is also “…one in the eye for the perfectionists who believe all turned work has to be perfectly sanded,” although the effect takes considerably more work than sanding would. “I use a rotary burr and, to assure smooth facets, I have to keep in mind the direction of the grain with every cut,” he explains. “Also, every facet has to blend with the others in size, depth, and frequency, and this takes time.”
Parallel to this period of transition for Martin, there has been an on-going debate about the new directions woodturning has taken. He feels this has little to do with the craft itself and a great deal to do with personality types. “Certain types of people are attracted to certain activities,” he explains. “It takes a particular type to stand at a lathe and copy all day, never producing a new idea. Thank goodness there are such people, but it’s not for me.” Although Martin loves to break boundaries and defy tradition, this by no means implies that he is disrespectful of it. In fact, he loves researching and writing historical articles on turning, and appreciates the skills of the old masters. Yet he doesn’t believe that, just because it was done a particular way in the past, it should always be so, and he feels sad about the fact that the debate still continues. “I have never met an ‘artistic’ turner who did not respect the skills of the old masters,” he says, “but I have met many self-proclaimed ‘traditional’ turners who express contempt for wood art. I think it says a lot about their personality and very little about wood art.”
Terry Martin has taken to expanding the language of the vessel form with multi-media and sculptural approaches. Following the dictum that one should make the most of accidental possibilities, he used red paint to outline a fracture that appeared while blowtorching a vessel to create “Hot Lips.” In “Sum and Substance” he utilized bronze, a prized medium in the fine arts, to create a statement about revealing and exposing the heart of the vessel and the tree. His “Vessel in a Box” marked a transition into making the vessel part of a larger sculptural statement in which the form is both enclosed and revealed, trapped and celebrated.
Having fully embraced the new aesthetic of wood art, Martin says that he felt a true sense of liberation. “Once you make the decision that a piece is not meant to be used, all the restraints of function are removed, so why not be as adventurous as you want? It is the letting-go that makes the difference. It did not just happen to me, but to woodturning as a whole. I was initially just swept along and then started swimming my own stroke.”
While the creative experience is quite different, Martin finds making vessel forms and sculptural work equally rewarding. In the case of the vessels, he is able to make use of his well-practiced technical mastery and aesthetic. The sculptural work, however, requires more of him—there is more exploration and challenge. “I am less often satisfied with my sculptural work, which shows I am on less secure ground,” he explains. “I like that, as I know I am still growing.”
Often working in series, Terry Martin has spent years exploring the “Cyclops” as a sculptural form. Growing out of the idea of a purely non-functional vessel, or what he describes as a “vessel for light and air,” the remnants of the container take the place of the beast’s eye at the center of the work. The enclosed area is turned through, so that the sense of containment now becomes one of passage. In the case of “Cyclops #1,” the piece suggests a creature, while in “Caged Cyclops,” passage is offered through tangled, complex surroundings. The “Emerging Cyclops” suggests a vessel form being revealed within a chunk of wood. It also shows how the series was born out of ideas of the vessel, mass, and a more sculptural perspective.
“Just Do It Cyclops” in red gum is an exercise in lifting the central form up as lightly as possible and is perhaps the best piece in the series. “Hokucyclops” is an excellent example of the ways Martin draws from a wide range of interests in creating a work. The title of the piece makes reference to Hokusai, a Japanese woodblock printmaker. The image is drawn from one of Hokusai’s most famous works, in which a frantically rowing fisherman is overwhelmed by a giant curling wave, which frames a serene view of Mt. Fuji in the distance. As Martin enjoys word games, he was delighted that the “sai” in the artists name is pronounced in the same manner as the “cy” in cyclops, leading to the title “Hokucyclops.”
Martin realizes that his work is quite unlike much of what is being done in the field of woodturning, and doesn’t feel the need to justify his work to anyone. “If they don’t like it, they don’t have to buy it,” he says. “In fact, I just want to enjoy what I do, so a lot of my pieces are about fun.” He particularly enjoys challenging preconceptions through his work. This spirit is exemplified by Martin’s “A Matched Pair of Drinking Vessels,” which pokes fun at the rules some woodturning competitions are built around. He submitted them to a competition to test the reaction of the jurors. As he’d expected, they were rejected and when Martin inquired why, was told, “because they are not finished.” He feels this complete misunderstanding of what he was doing highlighted the difference between the wood art field and the more traditional way of thinking.
The artist’s sense of humor is also apparent in the piece titled “Mother Cut Your Toenails….” Martin enjoys watching people try to make sense of it, because there is no sense. The piece is just about having fun. “My father had a lot of phrases which he would burst out with when he was upset. I have no idea where they came from, but one was ‘Mother cut your toenails, they’re tearing all the sheets!’ What a hoot!” So, in reversal of the usual order, Martin decided to start with the title and then create the piece. For years he searched for an idea until Betty Scarpino gave him a wonderful block of walnut during his residency at the Wood Turning Center’s 1999 International Turning Exchange. He’d had an image in his mind for some time—a vegetable-like creature, creepy and twining—the kind of turned and carved piece that is the antithesis of traditional turned work. Because of the odd title, he carved a big toe on it and added a realistic toenail “just for fun.”
Martin’s humor and preference for unusual titles is also apparent in “Sweet Androgyne.” Artists often create vessels with legs, so Martin decided it would be interesting to put real legs on a piece. The challenge came when he realized that, when creating a lower body, one must also create a crotch. “I’d never even carved real legs before,” he explains, “so I was not sure I could do genitals. Finally I decided to leave out the genitals and called it ‘Sweet Androgyne.’” The old barbershop-quartet song ‘Sweet Adaline’ came to mind and provided the inspiration for the title.
A work such as “Hold Me, Enfold Me” communicates on many levels and Martin feels that it is the best piece he’s ever made. It is about revealing and uncovering what is in the tree, while at the same time protecting the environment. Martin enjoys creating pieces that raise questions regarding the process and, technically, this piece is about defying the lathe. The central vessel has obviously been turned, but how this was achieved is not evident. Surprisingly, most of the rest was also turned. When asked how, the artist says, “I never explain, but I enjoy provoking speculation. I get a buzz thinking of people trying to work it out.”
It’s possible to learn a great deal about an artist by considering who they most respect among their contemporaries and why. From the beginning, Martin found makers in the wood field eager to share their ideas and techniques. It was Lindsay Dunn, a prodigiously skilled Australian turner who he met in the early 1980s, who showed him that he could do almost anything in wood. Martin credits Dunn with inspiring him to become a professional turner. But the words of John Wooller, another Australian wood artist, rang most truly for the rebel in Martin: “When you are new in anything, hopefully you rapidly repeat everything that’s been done in previous centuries and then you go your own way.”
For Terry Martin, Mike Hosaluk is one of the greats because he is constantly exploring his medium and always inspiring others. “Mike showed me that it is okay to break all the rules and still create great work,” he says. Martin has always respected David Ellsworth, not only for his inspirational work, but “because he saw the potential of the medium so long ago.” Michael Peterson has also earned his respect as a true sculptor who “cherishes every piece.” “There is quite a list of people I admire,” Martin says, “but I am as much influenced by personality as what people make. I like the people who laugh and who enjoy a good drink with their friends. I suppose wood art is as much about attitude as it is about art, and the best artists are rebels.”
The other thread of Martin’s work is the enormous amount of writing he has done. In 1995, he produced his book Wood Dreaming about the woodturning movement in Australia. The book, which is now out-of-print and highly sought-after, introduced the incredible breadth of work that was being created there. Australia is a large country with the population thinly spread, so researching it required criss-crossing the country, visiting artists in remote forests, small farm towns, and major cities. In the process, as has been his experience in all of his travels, he made friends and found people creating bold new work in wood.
As a photographer, author, and editor, Martin is one of the figures responsible for documenting and promoting the field. He has written almost two hundred articles for magazines and journals in seven countries and is often called upon to act as a critic, a role he finds particularly challenging. “I am often less than satisfied with my own art, so who am I to comment on others’ work?” he asks. “Often I want to puncture pretentiousness, but I find myself holding back for fear that I might be thought pretentious in my own art. If I could convince people that in my own art I am usually just having fun, then I would feel more able to critique other work.” He explains further: “I see so much self-indulgence and pomposity, that I itch to tell it as it is. But part of the joy of the wood art field is that we all share so well, so I prefer to join in the positive side. I end up only writing about people I like and respect, which is easier anyway.”
Martin has always been strongly influenced by the trees themselves and recalls a conversation with another Australian wood artist, John Woollard, who held up a piece of planed, squared timber and said: “Look at this. All the surface is gone. All the aspects of treeness are gone!” It was a phrase that hit home for Martin, who tries to put some amount of “treeness” in every piece he makes. “I think trees are the most dignified living creatures on earth,” offers Martin, “yet many people still treat them with contempt.” He is convinced that it is possible to use wood without waste. “A wood artist will use less wood in a lifetime than a major newspaper will use in a day.”
Terry Martin finds various ways to include “treeness” in a work. “Mallee Dream” is an early piece in which the natural beauty of the burl was left largely intact and used to elevate the bowl turned at its center. Another early piece, “Huon Dream,” reflects the artist’s interest in bringing out what is already contained in the wood. In this case, part of the original block was left intact and is again used to elevate the form. As is the case with much of Martin’s work, it also presents a mystery, as the vessel within was turned while remaining attached to the wood block.
This idea is closely related to the work of Aboriginal woodworkers, who he also greatly admires. Viewing the collections of Aboriginal art in Australian museums and visiting Aboriginal artists still working in the central Australian deserts, Martin was amazed by sensitivity, skill, and knowledge of the wood in their woodcraft. More importantly, he found that the wide range of artifacts, such as bowls, spears, and ceremonial objects, clearly spoke of the tree. It was this spirit that drove him to travel through Australia researching his book, and the idea continues to inform his work.
The artist’s love of trees is perhaps most evident in his recent series of figurative pieces, in which the form reflects its source. “Temple” represents his idea that Jarrah forests are natural temples, with the rough exterior of the burl used to represent the forest canopy. In “Bonsai,” the sapwood is used to form the lighter colored leaves, to dramatic effect. In both of these pieces the usual working process is reversed. Normally, wood is worked from the outside towards the inner parts, but for these pieces the artist had to work from the inside towards the natural exterior, stopping when only a fragile shell was left.
It is difficult to say for certain where Martin’s restlessness and varied interests will take him next, though I hope he will continue exploring and expanding the field of wood art. Entering the field during an exciting period of growth, he has become part of its continuing change and expansion. He is an advocate of many approaches to wood art, but most importantly he speaks for the material itself. Terry Martin has a childhood memory of a favorite place in a hollow at the top of a lightning-blasted tree. From there he would survey his world, pretending he was lost in a sea of trees. Now, working in wood, he has found a place which offers similar joy and an equally vast horizon. From this vantage point Martin clearly sees the potential which wood art offers, and enjoys helping others share his view. “Come up here,” he seems to be saying. “Look at what I can see!”
Kevin Wallace is an independent curator, consultant, and writer in the field of craft art.
This article originally appeared in the April 2003 Issue of Woodwork magazine.