See It In Person
A while back. during a family vacation, I visited the Indianapolis Museum of Art. In one of the first galleries I found an original Greene and Greene dining set designed for the Charles Millard Pratt House. Darlings of the Arts and Crafts style, G&G furniture always grabs my attention. I own several books about them and have read many, many magazine articles written about original pieces, reproductions, and “inspired by” work. I have never had the opportunity to see any original in the flesh.
I hovered and studied the table and six chairs for more than a half hour. Moving around the peninsula dias to see all the angles and even setting off the proximity sensor alarms.
I’m not really interested in building a reproduction or “inspired by” piece, maybe I was once, but those days have passed. so that wasn't the intent of my scrutiny. I was trying to decipher the mystery of my attraction to the Greene brother’s designs and I found it in the subtle details I could never quite pick up on in photographs.
Whether it’s a Greene and Greene dining set or a Philadelphia Highboy, many woodworkers experience these pieces only through measured drawings, cut lists, or a Sketchup models. Isn’t it odd that in a three dimensional medium like furniture making, the majority of our knowledge is transferred in two measly dimensions? Catalogues that come full of pictures of fantastic furniture, isolated against sterile drop cloth backgrounds only tell, at best, half the story. These photos hold no regard for how a piece lives in space, how it can command or deflect attention in a room, or truly convey the subtle details and textures that act like punctuation in a well written sentence.
Museums are the flagships of the art world because they allow people to experience a masterpiece in person. As an art student years ago, I was encouraged to imitate the styles of the masters to learn from them and better imitation sprang from time put in studying a master’s work. It was a given that seeing a masterwork in person was a superior experience. Photos in books will never really show the texture and color found in a Van Gogh painting. The way a Rembrandt changes subtly depending on the angle you view from. Or the way a Picasso draws a visceral feeling from you as your mind takes in everything both familiar and alien.
Translating that experience into broadening your woodworking horizons is easy. All it requires is that you step out of the shop for a while and look for opportunities. Visit an antique dealer and open some drawers to look at the hand cut dovetails. Find a museum or historical home in your area and see what they have to offer, you may be surprised at the cross contamination of ideas that comes from looking at great works other than furniture. Better yet, volunteer and get the chance to spend extra quality time around those pieces. Make a pilgrimage to see great works: The Gamble House in Pasadena, Winterthur Museum in Delaware, The Museum of Southern Decorative Arts in North Carolina.
Get out and see the work that inspires you in person. I promise it will only inspire you more.
Ratione et Passionis