History (WTW)

In the Beginning • A Bicycle Chain in Wood

In the Wood That Works history (here) we relate the story of Marji's exploration of wooden machines in college. The favorite sculpture created was her oversized (yet operational) wooden bicycle chain and gear assembly. It was her initial interest that started me exploring the realm of kinetic sculpture. I wanted her sculptures to move independently. She suggested I give it a try. It took me a couple of years but I did, and now 40 years later I am still at it!

For years, parts of that original sculpture have been displayed on a high shelf in my gallery space but most of it has been in pieces stuffed in an old brown paper bag in the storage room. I asked her to consider refurbishing it, re-assembling the parts, making it operational, and displaying it in the gallery. This past weekend she did.

It is composed of about 10 feet of wooden chain made using Baltic birch plywood and dowels. Marji took it all apart, sanded everything and glued it together again.

It is now once again, together and operational. It is displayed on the entry landing coming into the gallery.

Operation isn't perfect. There are a few clunks now and then but still it has a great feel as you turn the lower gear and the chain transfers the power to the upper one.


When you come and visit the gallery, you can give it a twirl!




David's First Kinetic Sculpture

David and I collected lots of video footage of his early work while preparing for his TEDx talk. We promised to start sharing some of it on the blog and this post is a first in that series.  It makes all the sense to start at the beginning.  

B.W. Cornwallis is David's very first wall-mounted kinetic sculpture. It was designed and built back in 1975. David was trying to answer the question that people always asked of his human-powered gadget Xylo. "But can you make it run longer?"

His first experiment to do so had been a behemoth of a design called Albert. Albert was a great learning exercise, and it worked, but it was huge, free-standing and lacked grace.  The design break-through came when David started using the wall for support and B.W. is the first of a long series of wall-mounted, weight driven, kinetic sculptures.

B. W. is very much a sculpture of a mechanism, as were all of David's first experiments.  He worked to develop imaginative designs using simplified escapement theory. Very basically, a falling weight attached to a string provides energy to the sculpture while the sculpture itself regulates the fall of the weight.  

The rolling wheel shifts the balance of the mechanism, releasing the catch on the cog. The weight starts to fall, this turns the cog causing the cog to change angle of the ramp mechanism the rolling wheel is on. The mechanism then catches the cog, preventing further fall of the weight. The wheel continues rolling shifting balance again and the cycle repeats. This basic concept powers all of David's weight and spring driven sculptures. It is easier to see in B.W.  

B. W Cornwallis was first shown at a small Connecticut craft fair and sold almost immediately, along with Inventor Released and Serendipity. David had made one of each (he really didn't expect that they would sell!) and he went back to his workshop to build additional copies. He couldn't get B. W. to work again.  He quickly learned to always keep a working prototype of all his work to be able to refer back to it. 

B.W. was not a very reliable design and David quickly moved on to better concepts. The next year, the original B.W. buyers returned and said it no longer worked. David offered a trade for any new designs because he really wanted his first design back. We still have the original B.W. Cornwallis and unpacked it after 35 years to video tape it. David set it up and with a minimum of tweaking, he got it working again for this video.

It was excitement all over again. It worked! It is a great piece of history!

Kinetic Art: Dream to Reality - Spreading the Word

This is the fifth in a series of blogs about my history in the craft industry. If you missed the other posts start here.

Given the era of the early Wood That Works years, it was not a marketing priority to check the availability of our domain name but it was important to get business cards and brochures printed. The angst and cost associated with these tasks have thankfully been mitigated with new technologies but for the sake of recording a little of history we are sharing our experiences. I don’t feel old enough to be using the phrase, “Remember when,” but certain phases of business development today bear little resemblance to our options back then. It illustrates how rapidly the desktop publishing revolution (a term not coined until 1985) completely changed this process.

In the ‘70’s creating print material required error free copy (without the use of a spell checker), rub & press letters, offset printing, and large print runs. We literally cut and pasted using scissors and glue to create an original document. In order to keep printing affordable, we had to create a brochure that could be used for a long time. This, along with the impossible goal of showing motion in a still format, were our two main challenges.

The very first publishing endeavor reflected our inexperience. It was hand sketched and basic. We did have the text typeset (choice of four fonts) but as with other brochures, no matter how many times one proofed it, as soon as we got it home from the printers we'd find a typo. Oh, for the joy of a delete key!

We soon ventured into photography and made many attempts at showing motion in a still photo. Not only did we predate computers but consumer video equipment as well. Still photography was the available choice. All efforts produced photos that, although showing motion, always appeared as frenetic speed. Photography didn’t capture the rhythmic and peaceful motion of David’s work. We opted for still photographs instead although kept experimenting. 

Our brochures and pamphlets went through ever-changing versions in search of the ideal presentation. David’s work has always been produced in limited editions and a minimum run of brochures lasted long after the sculptures did. Hence, 35 years later I still have stacks of original copies. I designed 3-fold brochures, 5-fold brochures, and multi-page insert brochures (a design disaster). For many years I spent evenings spray gluing colored photographs onto pages because that was the only affordable way to add color.

And then in 1984, along came a Macintosh, WYSIWYG software, soon to be followed by an Apple Laser printer. A revolution for small business was started and we rode the wave of early adoption.

A closing note: A willingness to learn new things coupled with teamwork was essential in establishing Wood That Works. David designed sculptures, I designed brochures. We learned wood working, photography, videography, computing and desktop publishing. We are still learning today. It keeps us young!

Kinetic Art: Dream to Reality: Is it Art or Craft?

This is the fourth in a series of blogs about my history in the craft industry. If you missed the other posts start here.

The debate about art versus craft has been raging for years and it is definitely bigger than my kinetic sculptures. I have no intention of debating it from a philisophical direction here although I encourage opinions in the comments area. It did figure hugely in an early and vital business decision and one that any beginning artist needs to address. Should I market through the craft world or the art world?  

I choose the craft world. Granted, it is easier to choose when creating sculpture because the line is decidedly blurry, not so fuzzy for painting. But I had strong reasons for the choice and, because we expect many fellow dreamers might bereading this to garner clues, Marji thought it important to share our reasons.

Like so many things in life, it came down to money. In the mid 70's the craft movement was emerging. Organizations like the American Craft Council, and Buyers Market were busily creating venues (just a fancy word for trade shows) that made professional and national exposure a possibility. These events brought us together with craft gallery owners from around the nation. The art side had no similar possibilities . In the art world, you lugged your portfolio from gallery to gallery searching for interest. While I would have loved to travel and show my work in Hawaii, Texas, and California, reality kept me firmly in New England. Take a moment and picture me on such an adventure with kinetic sculptures.

As impossible an endeavor as that might have been, the answer to this question for us came more from the financial organization of each industry. In the art world the norm is for an artist to provide work to the gallery on aconsignment basis. The artist gets paid a negotiated amount after a sale. In the craft industry many more galleries buy creative work outright. This meant I got paid up front or, if credit was granted, in 30 days. It was a clear illustration of the old bird-in-hand saying.

We did a little trial and error to define the best method for Wood That Works. We did test the policy of consignment at a high end gallery. Two things caused us to stop consignment arrangements. The first was that unless the gallery was local, keeping an eye on what had sold, what was being actively shown, and what was collecting dust in the storage area was impossible. It was wonderful having my work displayed and attracting attention for both me and the gallery. The galleries that had already paid for the sculptures sold far more than the ones who had them on consignment.

So, whether it is art or craft doesn't matter when it is your living. The craft world has been a wonderful place for me to show and sell my work.  

To continue to part 5: Click Here

Kinetic Art: Dream to Reality - Business Tools

This is the third in a series of blogs about my history in the craft industry. If you missed the other posts start here.
We arrived home from the 1976 Rhinebeck craft show both elated and overwhelmed. We had wholesale gallery orders for more wall sculptures in the following 6 months than I had made in the entire short history of Wood That Works. Now what?


Fortunately both Marji and I are fairly organized people. We realized that we needed to learn how to run a wholesale business including (gulp) credit checks. It seemed all of our new customers wanted something called "net 30" payment terms. (Remember I had studied Physics and Marji studied art in college, not a business course between us.) The world of business was all new to us. We had to learn about invoices, packing lists, statements and something called a tickle file. Luckily we had family resources to call on.

Marji's father had quite a collection of old furniture including some ancient wood filing cabinets that were just what we needed. My mother had been an executive secretary for years. She taught us how to handle invoicing, billing, correspondence and filing techniques. My sister was an accountant and helped us set up a bookkeeping system. These seemingly mundane functions were critical to starting and running a business. The critical office equipment we had to buy included a typewriter and a calculator. I remember it as equal in difficulty to purchasing a computer today!

Marji and I had learned early on that although we loved working together we were far better off each having our own domains to control (too many bosses). I became design, production and shipping. Marji gravitated towards finance, scheduling, and marketing. Of course to make this work there was, and still is, a lot of overlap. Marji is my essential design critic and teacher. Without her, "That's nice, but have you thought of..." suggestions, my work would be far less than it is! I like to think I help in similar areas of her domain but she's probably just being polite...

The shop, all 200 square feet of it, had the tools I needed - bandsaw, drill press, router and sander. What needed to be developed were new production techniques so I could make multiples of the same design accurately and in a timely fashion. This involved a lot of invention, experimentation, trial and error but every month I discovered new tricks. There were few books and of course no Internet, so I made a lot minor mistakes, and some disasters, like when I forgot an entire production run of parts outside for the night and it rained...

 To continue to part 4: Click Here