2015 Craft Show artist Phil Gautreau is an award-winning Brooklyn-based woodworker who specializes in hand-turned wood bowls and vases and serving boards made from visually unique domestic and exotic woods. We asked him what inspires him about his medium of choice.
How did you start working with wood? What drew you to this medium?
Growing up in New England, woodworking became a hobby that I picked up from my Dad. He’s an original do-it-yourselfer still living in the house designed and built by my grandfather. My Dad and I worked on projects in our woodshop and it was through his example I learned a simple concept: “build and repair,” rather than “discard and replace.” That’s also where I discovered the complexities and the tactile beauty of wood, and where I developed my artistic instinct to make functional pieces.
About 10 years ago, in the throes of a successful career in healthcare management, I started taking woodworking classes. It was infectious—I really loved the freedom to design and create something with my hands! Eventually, I was spending more weekends in the shop and my skills improved, and so a few years ago, right around my 50th birthday, after some careful planning, I decided to swap my wingtips for work boots and start my own woodworking business. It was time to return to what had become my new passion: making things with wood.
How does your material inspire your process?
My creative process starts by sourcing the wood. Part of what makes this experience so gratifying is re-imagining raw wood, whether from a large tree limb or pieces of discarded floor planks from a local residential renovation, and transforming it into an artistic and functional piece.
Over the years, I’ve developed working relationships with many local organizations to acquire wood that’s considered at the end of its useful life. A great example of this is the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The 52-acre park is over 100 years old and is located in the heart of Brooklyn, only a few miles from my shop. When trees are damaged from storms or need trimming as a result of age, I work with their arborists to determine if any sections can be salvaged for use in my bowls and vases. I’m happy when these materials are used and then returned as finished pieces for their Gift Shop.
I also work extensively with local wood salvage stores to source items that would otherwise have been discarded. The advantage of using these materials is to prolong the useful life of the wood by upcycling it into a new useable piece.
In all cases, my designs incorporate wood imperfections, rather than eliminating them. I craft each piece by carefully carving away layers to reveal the unique character of each piece. The result is something contemporary, sophisticated and organic.
Tell us about any challenges associated with and special considerations for working with wood.
Woodturning on a lathe involves spinning a chunk of wood at high speeds. It takes a broad knowledge of wood characteristics, an understanding of the how to safely use a lathe, and proper hand tool techniques. So, let’s just say it takes practice! Once the exterior bowl is shaped and the interior is hollowed, the bowl is sanded smooth. It’s also dangerous, so it’s important to learn and practice slowly.
What has surprised you about your own work, and/or people's reactions to it?
I produce custom-designed furniture on a commission basis, working directly with interior designers and one-on-one with customers. Many of these pieces are made from locally-sourced wood and retain a natural edge, many times incorporating my own hand-turned wooden legs or metal bases.
Ultimately, my customers appreciate finely crafted wood products with a story. They’re not looking for a mass-produced bowl, cutting board or piece of furniture. They want to know the origin of the materials and how and where it’s made. Having the story behind each piece lets them embrace it as their own.