Things to Do in Fort Wayne and Beyond

Gary Travis


David Tanner

Whatzup Features Writer

Published January 27, 2005

Heads Up! This article is 17 years old.

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 year’s

event is scheduled for March 5 at the Allen

County Sheriff’s Reserve on Easterday

Road.

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