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story.lead_photo.caption Woodworker Greg Thomas begins the process of turning a bowl from a piece of cherry Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, while working in his workshop at his home near Elkins. Visit nwaonline.com/200819Daily/ for today's photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)

ROGERS -- The Natural State inspires creation for Northwest Arkansas' professional artists.

Artists can't help but be influenced by their surroundings, said Jim Young, a potter from Rogers.

Young's 1,400-square-foot studio encompasses the lower level of his home, he said, where he has a 5-mile view across Beaver Lake.

"We look at mountains and water," he said. "That ends up showing up in the palette of glazes."

Arkansas is home to 9,000 miles of streams and rivers, about 19 million acres of forests and minerals ranging from diamonds to clay, according to the Bessie Moore Center for Economic Education at the University of Arkansas.

Northwest Arkansas is ripe with material to create with, said Greg Thomas, a wood turner from Elkins. He said he's just as apt to stumble across wood in nature as he is walking down the street.

"I have literally stopped joggers on the street and said, 'Will you help me put this piece of wood in the back of my truck?'" Thomas said.

Madison Woods, a painter from Kingston, often has to look no further than her own property to find rocks to turn into paint.

"It's a mile to the mailbox and back," she said. "I cross our little creek twice on that route. That's where I do most of the looking is in the creek."

It's a very personal experience to start with a natural material and turn it into something that reflects back to nature, Woods said.

"It just adds more elements of experience -- of interaction with nature," she said. "It's almost a communal experience."

Turning natural resources into creation material can be time-consuming said Young, who turns ash into glazes for his stoneware.

"To master even small parts of this art form and go beyond the hobbyist level takes a real commitment," he said.

Using natural material is cost-effective for professional artists, Thomas said.

"I rarely ever have to buy wood," he said.

Wood turning requires an initial investment of $3,000 to $5,000 for a good-quality lathe, tools, a sharpening system and chainsaw, Thomas said.

"Anybody can turn a bowl, but if you learn the right techniques at the beginning, there is no stress in it," he said.

The effort of turning natural items into art can pay off as well, Woods said, noting her paint sets sell for $45 to $150.

It costs about $5 in supplies, which include pans, a tin to hold the pans, gum Arabic to turn the sediment into a paintable paste and honey, to create the paint.

"Everything I make is what I created," Woods said. "I've never used purchased paints before."

Paleo painter

Woods, 55, has been working from her home studio using watercolor paleo paints made from stones, bone, clay and plants since 2018, she said.

Birds of prey, landscapes and wildlife are among her favorite subjects to paint in earth tone colors, from velvety bone black to a delicate siltstone pink, she said.

Her work can be viewed at Kingston Square Arts in Kingston and includes prints selling for $5 to $75 and originals from $50 to $1,900, she said. Her pieces are as small as 4 inches by 6 inches to as large as 16 inches by 20 inches.

The material Woods uses limits her color palette, she said.

Minerals such as sandstone offer a wide range of yellow, brown and red, she said. Yet finding material to produce colors like green can be a challenge.

"If I don't find it, then I'll just have to do without it," she said.

Creating watercolors from natural material is time-consuming, she said. She breaks the rocks with a hammer or another large rock and grinds the pieces with a mortar and pestle.

"After it's all ground up, that all goes into a jar with water," she said.

The water from the jar will be poured into subsequent jars, with the sediment in each becoming smoother and changing color each time.

"From that one rock, sometimes I'll get two or three different shades of color because of the different sediments," she said.

Woods will end up with a gritty paint she can use within the hour for texture or a smooth paint for softer imagery in about a week.

"The beauty of the watercolors is that you can let these dry out and continue to use as needed," she said.

Potter

Young, 78, has been a professional artist for 48 years.

He operates Van Hollow Pottery with his wife, Sarah Young, creating decorative and functional pottery ranging from 5-ounce coffee cups, which sell for $22, to 25-inch platters for $300.

"Pottery making is extremely labor intensive, and I've never tried to compute the labor that goes into a particular work," Young said. "I'm happy to work long hours for the pleasure of creating art and having my work well-received by those who purchase it."

Numerous items and factors are part of the cost to produce a piece. Glaze, clay, propane and electricity alone add up to about 20% of production cost. His work is at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art store in Bentonville, The Gathering in Rogers and Iris at the Basin Park in Eureka Springs.

The artist works exclusively in clay, much of which comes from Georgia or Tennessee, he said. Arkansas clay can't hold up being fired in a kiln at 2,400 degrees.

Some of the glazes Young uses are created from ash he gathers from wood on his property and rice hulls from the fields in Stuttgart after they've been burned following the harvest, he said.

"We're in an oak forest, so we get a chance to recycle our own fireplace ashes," Young said.

He said creating glaze from ash takes considerable effort, as it has to be sifted through progressively smaller sieves to filter out debris and make the ash fine enough to be mixed with water and sprayed onto his pieces.

"We have a spectacular variety of glazes, which we'll blow on with an airbrush in layers," he said, noting the color combinations created through the firing process can be surprising.

Ash glazes cause graceful runs of color on a piece when sprayed over a combination of five or more other glazes, Young said. The ash glazes create cobalt blue or copper green when fired, but their overall effect on other glazes can be dramatic as the colors blend to reflect the layered colors of the Northwest Arknsas landscape, he said.

"When we open the kiln, it's like Christmas Day," he said. "We get some surprises, most of them good."

Wood turner

Thomas, 71, discovered a love for wood working in 1974 when he helped maintain a sailboat on a trip across the Atlantic Ocean.

"I realized that I was drawn to the beauty and functionality of wood," he said.

Thomas said he built furniture for about 15 years until he discovered wood turning 20 years ago.

He works in his 40-foot by 42-foot studio next to his home in Elkins. His work is at The Handmade Market in Fayetteville and at The Galleries at Library Square in Little Rock and ranges from $45 rolling pins to $2,700 sculptures.

"Some people start with a finished product in mind and then they choose a piece of wood and they make that," Thomas said. "I'll wait until one of them kind of speaks to me, and I will begin to turn it into what it wants to be. I try to turn it in a way that it displays its very best characteristics," he said.

Thomas said the region naturally has cherry, maple, black walnut, sycamore and elm trees.

"Arkansas is so rich in turntable woods." he said.

Young is often offered trees being taken down on someone's property with the stipulation he create a piece just for them from the wood as payment, he said.

One commission resulted in 107 pieces from a single sugar maple tree, Thomas said.

"It was gorgeous wood, so it was just a pleasure," he said.

Found wood takes time to prepare for use, Thomas said.

"When you start with wood from a freshly cut tree, it is at least 70% water," he said.

The wood has to be cared for to prevent it from cracking as it dries, Thomas said. He coats the ends of log sections with wax to slow down drying and cuts out the center section of the log, where most cracking occurs. He puts the logs on racks to dry and will start weighing the wood weekly until it stops losing weight.

"At this point, moisture content is about 10%, and it's considered dry," Thomas said.

The end result are pieces turned on a lathe to reveal unique natural characteristics, he said.

"Some pieces of wood are cracked or they've been invaded by insects or woodworms or fungus," Thomas said. "Those pieces of wood I find incredibly interesting because they become a piece of art when you turn them."

Extraordinary circumstances

They're no end to natural materials to create with, yet artists are working during a pandemic that's forced many sales venues to close.

Young said he likens what he does to being a farmer with seasons of creation and harvesting.

"The harvest has come to a halt," he said, adding he doesn't feel there's an area in the art industry that isn't at risk right now.

Early findings of a Business Pulse survey of 100,000 small businesses with less than 500 employees by the U.S. Census Bureau in May show arts-related businesses are among the most likely to report declining revenue and a negative impact on their businesses. It is expected to take at least six months for 57% of those businesses to return to a normal level of operation, according to the survey.

Thomas said he's always enjoyed passing on what he's learned to others and is looking forward to opening his studio when the pandemic ends.

"I've always felt every piece I do is a little bit better than the one I did before because I learned something. Maybe it wasn't even obvious," he said. "I don't know exactly what's going to come next, but I know it's going to be interesting and it's going to be fun, and it's going to have something to do with the wonder of wood."

Woodworker Greg Thomas begins the process of turning a bowl from a piece of cherry Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, while working in his workshop at his home near Elkins. Visit nwaonline.com/200819Daily/ for today's photo gallery.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
Woodworker Greg Thomas begins the process of turning a bowl from a piece of cherry Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, while working in his workshop at his home near Elkins. Visit nwaonline.com/200819Daily/ for today's photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
Woodworker Greg Thomas begins the process of turning a bowl from a piece of cherry Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, while working in his workshop at his home near Elkins. Visit nwaonline.com/200819Daily/ for today's photo gallery.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
Woodworker Greg Thomas begins the process of turning a bowl from a piece of cherry Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, while working in his workshop at his home near Elkins. Visit nwaonline.com/200819Daily/ for today's photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
Woodworker Greg Thomas shows his collection of burls of several different species of tree Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, in his workshop at his home near Elkins. Visit nwaonline.com/200819Daily/ for today's photo gallery.
(NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
Woodworker Greg Thomas shows his collection of burls of several different species of tree Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, in his workshop at his home near Elkins. Visit nwaonline.com/200819Daily/ for today's photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe)
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Explore your creativity

Artist Madison Woods provides a tutorial on paleo paint making online at https://www.wildozark.com/handmade-watercolor-paint/ .

Source: Wild Ozark

Mary Jordan can be reached by email at mjordan@nwadg.com or on Twitter @NWAMaryJ.

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