A GUEST AT the home of sculptor and furniture maker Wendell Castle tried to rescue a pair of gloves that looked as though they were falling off a table. He couldn't pick them up. The gloves were wood.
A visitor to the Fendrick Gallery in Georgetown started to hang her coat on the coat rack. Only then did she realize that the other coat on the rack wasn't leather, but wood.
A tablecloth on a table, an umbrella in a rack, a scarf and hat on a console - these are all wooden still lifes. Castle's way of showing how good he is. He's not the only contemporary woodcarver suddenly working in the ancient tradition of trompe l'oeil (fool the eye).Others are Fumio Yoshimura, who shows at Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York, and Angelo Caravaglia, now at Capicorn Galleries in Bethesda. (See Jo Ann Lewis's story on page H2.)
People mention Grinling Gibbons, the great English carver of the turn of the 18th century. "I can do anything he could do," says Castle, not boasting, just stating a fact.
Obviously the work is funny. When you realize you've been had, you console yourself by thinking. "He is good." But it's more than that; it's beautiful in the way that perfectly executed objects are beautiful. Castle has made a real breakthrough: he's showing that he is a master of his art. "It's been a long time since artists took pride in their technical proficiency in their craft," he says. "I think it's about time we went back to it."
Castle made 12 of these wooden wonders and exhibited them in a one-man show in New York not long ago. Three sold, which, considering the $12,000 price tag on the coat rack, isn't bad.
"I started to make them about a year ago. I teach a class in drawing. One of the classic assignments is to draw folds of fabric. I was facinated to watch the students trying. And I thought, 'I wonder if I could do it in wood.' And I found I could." He thinks a minute and without cracking a smile adds:
"I did it to show off."
At 46, he looks as though he might have come out of someone's Pre-Raphaelite studio in England, circa 1850. A mass of curly hair on top of his head and around his chin rather resembles the wood curls produced by a wood shaver. Castle is a tall man with large hands and a back that's sturdy enough to help hoist all those heavy pieces. He tends to wear work-a-day clothes, but since he's a successful artist, his sneakers are leather and his shirt is one of those new ones without a collar. He's a bit conservative: only one button is open.
Unliked many, he's able to talk about his work; he doesn't have to draw you a picture. He speaks softly, expressing well-organized thoughts. "Well, I've just written a book about my work, the lamination techniques I use, primarily," he says. The book should come out in the spring.
He was in Washington last week to open his show at Fendrick Gallery. The show continues through Nov. 4. only one of Castle's "illusion" - a coat and rack - is in the Fendrick show. The others are the tables, chairs, desks and settees that have made his reputation as, hands down, the country's leading fantasy furniture sculptor.
"It is very sexy," a viewer said the other day, caressing a chair arm as though it were flesh. "It's anatomically correct," said another on looker with a wicked leer, patting a round-bottomed chair.
All the pieces turn, twirl, twine and tangle as though they were born of some mad marriage between plants and people. He calls them "organic, but that's not really the word. When people used to ask me what kind of work I made, I said 'modern' or 'contemporary.' And not so long ago, I heard about 'post-modern.' But my work isn't really any of that. I've discussed the problem with Albert Paley (the metal artist); his work is more like mine in feeling, though certainly not in technique or material. We just haven't come up with a name for it."
Certainly the pieces are properly called "romantic." They have a kinship to art nouveau, that curvilinear style that entwined its tendrils around the turn of the 19th century. The rocking chair, for instance, starts out as a rather nice ordinary rocker, and then the curve that makes the arms and legs doesn't stop, it curves way back (Is it a snake or vine?).The coffee table has a bulbous base with two supports that come up through the glass top, kiss and are forever mated. The settee's two seats are shaped, not to put too fine a word on them, like that portion of one's anatomy to be applied thereon. The card table's legs and those of its chairs point their feet like a dancer's. Another table has a twisted base that somehow reminds one of a seat. The work is anthropomorphic as well as organic - flora and fauna.
Castle's prices are high, befitting the handmade, limited-edition quality of the work. A cherry settee is $8,000, a rocking chair $1,000, a dining table $5,000 with each chair $750. The library steps are $3,000. (He also makes a far cheaper line of molded plastic furniture called "Molar" - the chairs look like back teeth. The plastic takes advantage of the fluidity of the material but that's all you can says for it except the colors are nice).
Though Castle's furniture looks fantastic, it is surprisingly comfortable. "Most of the time if a piece of furniture looks uncomfortable, it will be. The test is not if it's comfortable after a few minutes but after two hours.
"I've studied human engineering, what they now call ergonomics - mostly in books. The best work was done during World War II, when the military designers worried about pilots having to sit in a restricted seat for 12 hours at a time. There's more recent work on train and plane seats. I find that if you pay enough attention to supporting the small of the back in the lumbar region, the chair will be comfortable. You have to watch it with wood seats. They have to be more deeply slanted to the back because they get more slippery in use."
Castle starts with an idea and works it into a sketch. His sketches sometimes are themselves artworks. Occassionally, he'll make a plasticene model. Then he choose the wood: walnut, mahagany, cherry, maple, just a little rosewood because it's expensive and he's allergic to it.
Then the wood is laminated, pretty much in the shape he's going to carve it. "There's not as much carving in my work as you'd think," he says. The preparation of the wood for lamination is critical. "A great many people who've tried to copy my work don't take the time to prepare the wood, and so their laminates crack and come loose. I've never had any trouble with mine. I plane it down until it's perfect, and then I use Weldwood or Elmer's glues, sometimes epoxy. Then it's all clamped down with extremely heavy furniture factory clamps. When it's dry and ready, then I carve it into the shapes."
Castle laminates the wood because "the problem for hundreds of years in woodworking is to get a hunk of wood that's properly dry. About 4 inches is as thick as you can dry. So by laminating wood, I get well-dried wood that is big enough to carve the way I want."
Castle has a well-equipped workshop. "It's taken me 10 years to be able to afford it, but I have everything I need now."
He has a staff of three now, and wants one more. "Two are highly professional cabinet-makers. The other is a learner, and he's the one most overworked. I hope to get another beginner."
Castle didn't set out to become a sculptor and furniture maker. He didn't ever intend to be a sculptor. "Nothing in my background gave me the idea that it was a way to make a living. My father was a teacher. I had enrolled in an engineering course at the University of Kansas, more because I couldn't think of anything else. My first quarter, I took a drawing course, just to fill out my schedule. And I knew right away that was it. Even my professors said I should major in art. I had done no more than draw and make model airplanes as a child.But in the class, it seemed right away that I was good at it. It was a classical kind of drawing class - I think that's the best."
Castle's parents were not overjoyed at the thought of Castle trying to make a living as an artist. So as a compromise, he took industrial art courses, changing over to sculpture ("I found I thought in three dimensions") for his master's degree. "I'm glad now I did, the industrial art was a help in what I do now."
His last year in school, 1960, he made a sculpture that had a cross-piece you could sit on. "I thought, heck, with another piece higher up, I'd have not only a place to sit, but something to lean against." He made it, brought it home and sat on it.
Castle then began to teach at the Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology. He kept on making the sculptural furniture. "Though I had to work it out in my mind that furniture was ranked just as high in the way of things as sculpture. There is no hierarchy in art. Work is either good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, but it isn't lessened by being useful."
Castle soon found out that he was the only one working in such an idiom. He showed his work in many exhibits. The "Objects: USA" show, which opened here at the National Collection of Fine Arts in May-June 1968 included a Castle desk. The Johnson (Wax) Collection of Contemporary Crafts USA toured the country, and perhaps more than most helped make art crafts serious an respectable. Castle's work was often noted as one of the best pieces in the show. When the Renwick Gallery opened here, Lloyd Herman, the director, put together a woodworks show, with Castle as one of the contributors. More recently, he's been seen here in the "Craft Multiples" show at the Renwick.
Castle makes about 100 pieces a year, and sells just about all of them. Some are special orders. He recently did all the furniture for the Gannett Newspapers board room and executive office here. In Rochester, he did a staircase, a reception desk and several other pieces for Gannett's headquarters. His work is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, the Philadelphia Museum and the Norwegian Norderfieldske Kundtindustri museum, to name a few. Art buffs began to take Jay Solomon, the General Services administrator, seriously when they found he and his wife have a Wendell Castle buffet/desk/dining table that fills the room.
The largest Castle collection probably belongs to the artist's wife, Nancy Jurs, though she has a hard time holding on to it. "I've sold our dictionary stand eight times," admits Castle. "I like to sell things. I need to know people want them. I'd hate to be an artist whose work didn't sell, and everything from the last show sat around reminding me nobody wanted them."
His wife is getting a bit tired of having her furniture snatched out from under her. "It's a bore, having to clean off the newspapers because somebody's coming to see the table," Castle agrees. So he's made two concessions. "For Christmas and birthdays, I make pieces of furniture just for her, and I engrave her name on it so it can't be sold. I made her one of these rockers, for instance."
And now that they're so prosperous, he's able to go one better: He's moving his family from their perch above the workrooms into a fine big old house on nine acres of land with a greenhouse and a carriage house, three blocks away from the workshops.
For several years, Castle, Jurs, and their 5-year-old daughter, Alison, have lived in their remodeled 10,000-square-foot grain mill in Scottsville, N.Y. (six miles out of Rochester). The first floor now holds workrooms, a playroom, storage and a small gallery. The second is the huge 35-by-45 room that serves as living room/dining/kitchen. "I couldn't bear to cut it up, so the kitchen is an island in it," he says. This will be their new showroom. Upstairs are three bedrooms and two baths.
The dirty work has been done in a 2,000-square-foot train station nearby. When the Castles move out of the grain mill, Jurs will have the whole train station as her pottery. She is a serious and well-known potter who does splendid, architectural pots.
The mill has been quite a success - it was published in House Beautiful. And they hate to leave it. "But we needed the more room for the work," he says. Castle has great plans for the new house - he figures remodeling will take about a year.
If you go to see him there, be careful where you hang your coat. CAPTION: Picture 1, Castle with settee and desk; his coat rack sells for $12,000 - wooden coat included. By James Purcell - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Elsie Hamilton sits in a Castle chair at the Fendrick Gallery, By James Purcell - The Washington Post; Picture 3, the Gannett Newspaper office in Rochester, N.Y., with its Castle staircase, desk and sculpture. By Ted Kavalerski