A portrait of the craftsman as an artist

Thick rain falls outside the open door of Stoney Lamar’s studio in the green country dells outside Saluda, N.C. Lamar is buzzing about his lathe, eyeballing lines and making minute adjustments, preparing to make a cut.

“It’s like an anthropomorphic dance that gets going between myself and the machines,” says the sculptor from behind the plastic shield of his orange construction helmet. Sharp-eyed and slender, a flat-footed 6-foot-5, Lamar is a Southern hybrid — Louisiana, Tennessee and, for the best part of 30 years, Saluda.

His studio is a purposeful place, rather like a small country schoolroom with a notched cathedral ceiling. The room is light, clean and undecorated. Five works-in-progress, in various stages of metamorphosis, sit, waiting impatiently. One, tentatively titled “Blue Dog Boy,” has been watching us for some time. Projecting from its center is a single image, a whirl of concentric circles radiating from a peculiar geometric protrusion that resembles a traditional Aegean eye.

Lamar is demonstrating woodturning on one of his two lathes, busying his hands with mechanical adjustments, sinking his eyes into a 40-pound hunk of Pacific Northwest madrone. The lathe is a powerful vice that spins a clutched object while the woodturner shapes the wood with metal tools.

He chalks a line along three edges of the slice of wood and performs a sectioned cut from a branched joint region which he, with a poet’s touch, dubs a torso. When the lathe starts to spin, the wood becomes a blur, and the chalk marks converge into a single, ghostly line that slices the torso in two.

Several of Lamar’s works are in the permanent collection of Asheville’s Blue Spiral I Gallery. His pieces are immediately recognizable for their craft, content and character. The textural integrity of Lamar’s sculpture is stunning: subtly flamboyant and mysterious. Not surprising, then, that Lamar — who stands at the forefront of a surging contemporary woodturning movement — is one of the few woodturners whom the arbiters of high art consider a sculptor. That critical difference means he will be critiqued as a figurative, contemporary artist.

These days, Lamar and his contemporaries get plenty of respect within the crafts community, too. A series of exhibits showcasing woodturning, as well as the Smithsonian Institution’s National Craft Show (to which Lamar has contributed three consecutive times), have caught the attention of collectors and galleries nationwide.

Woodturning is a venerable craft. In Colonial America, master woodworkers used human- and ox-powered lathes to create life’s necessities.

Over the next 100-odd years, the craft continued to develop. But then came the industrial advances of the late 19th and 20th centuries: Large-scale production of glassware and ceramics — and, later, the plastics revolution — overwhelmed the market. Woodturning, no longer a necessity, became an antiquated process that seemed near extinction.

As the craft lay on its cultural deathbed, however, a surprising incident sparked renewed interest: A bowl made by master woodturner James Prestini found itself exhibited in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art in 1949. What was a thin, wooden bowl doing enshrined among one of the world’s largest collections of revolutionary fine art? Was this the fanciful inspiration of some smirking curator, swept away by the art world’s visionary, wit-driven mood? Was there an implicit wink behind this presentation? Prestini, however, kept his attention firmly centered on the form of the bowl, as his artistic spirit delighted in the lathe’s rich potential. The art world, meanwhile, spiraled into abstract expressionism, pop art, postmodernism and beyond.

Sheltered from those tempests, though, modern woodturning continued to develop via the age-old practice of apprenticeship. In his restless late 20s, Lamar approached wood-turning and managed, after some study, to land an apprenticeship with Melvin and Mark Lindquist, two of the field’s genuine trailblazers. After serving a second apprenticeship with the esteemed David Ellsworth, Lamar broke out on his own, showing a single-minded interest in lathe-sculpted art.

Since 1985, his work has been highlighted in an impressive number of shows across the country. And his pieces have achieved blue-chip status in both the art and crafts worlds — earning a place in such prestigious collections as The Smithsonian Institution’s and the Los Angeles County Museum’s (among many others).

“If I had gone to art school, I probably would not be an artist today,” Lamar speculates, adding, “I don’t put a lot of credence in thinking I have to come up with something original and new — and that has freed me to come up with original and new things.”

The rainstorm — one of those heady, short-lived affairs — has ended quietly. The light rises up like a second morning. Outside Lamar’s studio, one of his dogs idles in the steam off the damp driveway.

“I try not to overintellectualize things … and to remain intuitive,” the artist muses. “Working here is like hanging out,” he says, gesturing at the unfinished pieces strewn about his studio as if he were introducing me to them. “It’s like having a group of friends around.”

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