The Indomitable Wendell Castle
Copyright Vladimir Kagan October 24, 2015
If there is one person who’s work I have admired all of my life, who’s work stands out as art transmuted magically into furniture, who has been true to his muse and at age 83 still creates monumental works, it’s Wendell Castle.
A reunion of old friends: Nancy Jurs, Wendell's wife, Vladi and Wendell Castle at the opening reception for Wendell's Retrospective show at the Museum of Art and Design (MAD Museum)
Wendell Castle is not a furniture maker; he is a sculptor creating vessels for sitting. He is not motivated by a need for comfort. It is what separates his art from us mortals who make furniture. We are driven by rules: seat height, seat depth, lumbar support, and feasibility – strictures that do not bind Wendell.
Wendell is currently being honored with a major retrospective of his work at the Museum of Art & Design (MAD) in New York City. It is befitting that some fifty years earlier Wendell had his first show at this same museum, formerly The America Craft Museum. What goes around – comes around.
Wendell Castle grew up on a farm in Emporia, Kansas. We don’t quite know what motivated him to venture from the bucolic life of raising cows to a love affair with wood and sculpture. But the world he inhabits today is a more beautiful place for it.
A sculpture by Wendell Castle created out of discarded gunstocks
A scribe chair, vaguely resembling a piece of furniture, is another early work created with gunstock elements
This is the Wendell Castle we all recognize, an organic stool on four legs. Ironically Wendell carved this stool upside down, starting with the legs, he had no idea of it eventually becoming a seat!
In 1958, Wendell Castle received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in industrial design, and in 1961, a Master of Fine Arts, both from the University of Kansas. From 1962-1969, he taught at Rochester Institute of Technology, School for American Craftsmen, in Rochester, NY, and is now an Artist in Residence. In 1980, he opened the Wendell Castle School in Scottsville, NY, not far from Rochester, where he became a shining star. His classes nurtured generations of creative woodworkers that have spread his gospel worldwide, but there is only one Wendell Castle.
By the mid-sixties, Wendell's signature handwriting was well established. He glued-up huge slabs of wood and called them Stack Laminations, which he deftly attacked with his chainsaw to create the furniture illustrated above.
Eager to try his hand at new technology, In the 70's Wendell developed a collection of fiberglass furniture named the Molar Group. This sensuous chair was the masterpiece of the collection.
The Museum's caption about his fiberglass work
In a beautiful documentary film, Wendell demonstrates that he is still the master of using his tools including rasps, chisels and chainsaws.
An artist with a huge vision, in the 21st Century Wendell discarded his traditional tools of creativity. Gone are his ubiquitous chain saw, chisels, rasps and spoke-shavers. They have been replaced with the industry’s latest technology: precision scanners, sophisticated 3D printers and C&C carving machines, tools more apt to be found in a Ferrari model shop than in a sculptor’s atelier. Wendell transformed his studio into a high-tech laboratory. With this new technology Wendell’s work has exploded to new flights of imagination.
Today, Wendell carves precise miniature models he then scans into his computers for his machines to replicate into larger-than-life sculpture-furniture
One of the exhibits graphically illustrates the stack build-up of his furniture. Wendell is a VERY precise worker!
The NEW Wendell Castle designs are carved on his high-tech C&C carving machine. This technology has liberated Wendell from the workbench to explore the stratosphere.
The MAD’s comprehensive show illustrates the transition from his early sculpture using discarded gunstocks to create his skeletal shapes vaguely resembling furniture. By the early sixties, Wendell experimented with stack-laminated wood and using his primary tool, a chainsaw, deftly wielded it to create bold, arboreal shapes that morphed into chairs, tables, desks and sofas. In the seventies, Wendell explored fiberglass to create sinuous tactile curves of color that became chairs and stools.
Wendell is never a man to stand still and the second floor of this retrospective is devoted almost entirely to his monumental creations on the C&C carving machine.
This show has just opened. If you are planning a visit to New York, Wendell Castle’s retrospective is a must.