Local artist Gary Travis wears several hats. Soon he'll be turning them.
The 53-year-old has spent the past 15 years at IPFW as the university's graphic design specialist and illustrator. Four years ago his job expanded to include the role of Visual Arts Gallery coordinator, and some two years ago he donned additional titles as adjunct instructor, teaching Design Fundamentals, as well as that of safety director for the wood and metal shops.
To find him during off hours, look in his cramped but ergonomically correct backyard studio on the city's northeast side. There he houses a Canadian-made, state-of-the-art lathe and assorted power tools with which he romances wood of all sorts. Within the coming weeks Travis is set to begin turning wooden hats (really) of his own design.
For several years Travis has turned an assortment of wonderfully wrought wooden sculptures, bowls, vessels and spindles while honing his craft to a level that pushes the definition of mere decorative art toward more challenging sculptural forms.
"What we're witnessing is a similar evolution that occurred over the last decade or so when Dale Chihuly brought recognition to artisans working in glass," explained the staccato speaking Travis. "A blurring of 'craft' and 'fine art' in wood turnery. It is a really exciting time, and I consider myself fortunate to be a small part of it.
"I'm absorbed with both the beauty and mystery of the wood and the process of discovering old ways and inventing new techniques for working with it. Even with several years behind me, I still consider myself a learner."
Travis initially sought to launch himself in a career as a painter when he first enrolled at the former Fort Wayne Art Institute. He'd been born with an innate talent for brushwork and graphic exactness, but there existed within him an undercurrent of interest in sculpture. After a period of studies that left him unfulfilled he dropped out of the classroom and launched a career in commercial graphic arts and sign making.
For years he worked at his own studio in a space adjacent to Henry's on Main Street and successfully earned a living in the classic mode of a journeyman sign painter.
"Actually it worked out reasonably well for me, but I could see the 'handwriting on the wall,' as it were, with the introduction of vinyl signage and computer technology so I made the decision to take a position with the university where I eventually finished my degree, and these other opportunities just followed," Travis recalled.
"I'd always been good with my hands, building things, working as a carpenter and learning tricks from an uncle and I craved the satisfaction one gets from hewing objects out of raw material, feeling texture and substance. I really just stumbled into the woodturning realm by accident and its been rewarding."
Travis' admirable pieces emerge from a variety of woods, and they are no accident. Some are formed from exotic stocks imported from Asia, Australia, Africa and elsewhere, while others are scavenged from local sites. Often local sources are shared through a grapevine of "brother" wood artists who find caches of naturally downed trees as well as those harvested from the spoils of ongoing urban expansion. (A century and one-half ago Indiana was home to the largest stand of hardwood forest on the continent.)
Burls - those often flattened hemispherical outgrowths found on trees - provide perfect, if difficult, fodder for turning bowls, wall hangings and furniture parts. As the gnarly bark is peeled away on the lathe the unpredictable grain pattern is exposed giving fuel for the turner's imagination.
Sometimes the raw materials contain Swiss cheese-like pockets of void. Other woods when finished reveal a kind of marbled surface composed of embedded debris and fungi. In many cases working with such materials can be dangerous to the turner. Chunks of the fragile wood can be propelled toward the operator and unknowingly piercing a vein of fungi, causing it to spew into the air, can be hazardous to one's lungs. (Kids, don't try this at home.)
Travis has come to understand the properties of many types of wood: moisture content (he sometimes uses his microwave to dehydrate certain pieces), flexibility, density and warping qualities. In some recent work he has joined contrasting woods in a single piece with a result that highlights specific traits innate to distinct stock.
Travis finds that people are drawn to his work in part because "my pieces are gentle, convey a human touch and sensitivity. At the same time I notice the reaction they elicit transcends skill and medium and a connection is made to the spirit and heart of the maker."
So, too, has been the experience of this writer.
Travis is quick to point out the debt he owes to his mentors over the years and suggests that any interested parties follow the links on www.woodturner.org. The local connection is through Chiselers and Turners of NE Indiana. The chapter holds an annual Woodfest where craftsmen give lectures and demonstrations. This years event is scheduled for March 5 at the Allen County Sheriff's Reserve on Easterday Road.
by David Tanner