Friday 17 June 2011
Kevin Wallace speaks to Steve Sinner, a woodturner committed to the vessel as a means of self-expression
Steve Sinner is an artist committed to the vessel as a means of self-expression and celebrating its role in art history. "My favourite works contain a message and I consider them to be art," Sinner explains. "My purely decorative works are simply language development that must be done to enable the communication of a future idea, and I consider them to be craft. Yet the one is not necessarily of greater value than the other."
Sinner explains that he winces each time he hears someone say that a woodturner has gone beyond the vessel as a form of praise: "The vessel is classic, and needs to be explored as much today as it was two thousand years ago. It is, by far, the most difficult form in which to differentiate yourself and excel."
The path that has led to Sinner's role among contemporary artists using woodturning as a means of self-expression began in childhood, when his father brought home a small lathe he'd picked up at an auction. Sinner enjoyed playing with the machine and later took shop courses in high school, while also enjoying other materials and techniques. "As far back as I can remember, the process of making has fascinated me," he recalls. "All sorts of objects, from scooters to chessmen, came out of the basement workshop prior to high school. An appreciation of fine art and classical music began at the same time, but I never dreamed of making art." A degree in industrial education and work in manufacturing followed.
The joy of making
Making things continued as an avocation after college and for a time Sinner concentrated on creating furniture and clocks. He explored carving, creating both realistic forms and abstractions, and occasionally took forays into other areas, such as when he joined with his neighbours in building fibreglass canoes one winter. His creative pursuits changed, however, in 1975, when he obtained a copy of Dale Nish's Creative Woodturning. "That book led to a near addiction with the subject," he says. Other books followed, along with symposiums where he experienced the expansive potential of the turned wood vessel. "John Jordan was probably my most important teacher of technique," Sinner says. "I saw his presentations at several symposiums, and he made a lot of sense to me. While John and others so graciously shared their technical and artistic knowledge, it was Frank Sudol who truly gave me my artistic license. I owe him a debt of gratitude for his teachings and philosophies."
Today the impact of Sudol's ideas about art and life are evident in Sinner's approach. It was Sudol who made Sinner comfortable with the idea of being an artist and provided permission to forge ahead and experiment.
This has resulted in Sinner developing a number of new techniques, including both positive and negative images in patina on silver leaf. Most of these techniques have yet to be adopted by others, primarily due to their complexity, expense, and difficulty.
In 1998, Sinner resigned from his day job to create art on a full-time basis. "After more than 30 years in industry and social services, the refocus to art was an awesome task," he recalls. "My philosophy was - and still is - to ‘go for the brass ring, and if I never touch it, I will die happily trying."
"Of course, you have to be fairly old to understand this, as carousels haven't offered brass rings for a very long time," he adds, being of retirement age and admitting to the occasional consideration of the idea, when the work seems to be piled up like snowdrifts, and the deadlines bear down like thunderstorms.
During a visit to the Detroit Institute of Arts, Sinner experienced an epiphany that has led him to feel a kinship with the makers of the vessels throughout history. "I saw a large collection of vessels from ancient cultures," he says. "A shiver went up my spine as I realised that these artisans had chronicled their time, and some of my work is a modern equivalent."
In creating work, Sinner draws upon his experiences, natural tendencies and creative processes. The presence of order, repetition, efficiency, simplicity, and quality in Sinne's work are a reflection of his previous enchantment with manufacturing processes. "I see the lathe as a means to create a blank canvas," Sinner says. "The canvas is extremely complex, providing a large surface in a small space, and requires dealing with ever changing spatial relationships. Some of my forms are intentionally simplified to reduce those complexities to the point where certain techniques can be used. The real challenge to me is the use of common classic forms to create works that distinguish themselves from the countless ones that have come before. My lack of a formal art education is a huge plus in this regard. I have no preconceived notions about what I should or should not do."
Sinner considers originality a simple matter of doing what he wants to do with materials, as opposed to taking the path of what others have done. He draws upon myriad influences in his approach to the turned wood vessel, including the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, painter Sol LeWitt, glass artist Lino Tagliapietra and composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. "Yes," Sinner offers, "a composer of music can have a huge impact on a visual art work."
In some cases, a work is planned in detail, yet Sinner prefers to begin with only the barest of an idea, and let it develop as he proceeds. He progresses similarly when designing new tooling to solve a particular technical challenge.
"It sometimes means that I have to abandon the work and start over, or at least back up and try a different route, but it also allows for a great deal of freedom," he explains. "One of the most rewarding parts of the process is to accomplish something that no one else has done, and to be able to design and build the tools necessary to carry out the work."
Despite the rewards, Sinner admits that taking on the challenges of creating new work can be intimidating. "I usually have to force myself to work. The fear of failure is often paralysing," he says. "Only when a piece begins to sing to me does the work flow easily. But then the fear of a destructive accident may temper my joy," he finishes.
The love of wood
Sinner's relationship with wood began early and the medium remains central to his work. "I love wood because I can communicate with it," he says. "No other material has ever given me much of a response. For an entire decade, I worked only walnut and I grew to know it like a member of my family. It is the standard by which I measure all other wood species when I encounter them."
In creating his vessels, Sinner estimates that he spends 5% of the time working on turning and 95% of the time working on the other processes that are involved. "The actual making of the vessel is the fun and easy part, except when it comes to forming the final shape," he says. "That, strangely, is the most difficult task of all."
For Sinner, the benefits of life as a woodturner are usually unexpected and priceless. I literally have good friends all over the world, and I meet more of them every year," he says. "For the most part, people who deal with art as makers, exhibitors, purveyors, or purchasers are the most real and fascinating people I've ever had the pleasure to meet."
Looking back at his career path, Sinner sees that his success has been largely tempered by serendipity: "Success is a strange pursuit and I don't know how anyone can claim it. Whenever I crest a career hill, I see only an increasing number of ever-higher hills. Serendipity has been at my side so persistently that I worry about having more than my fair share. Without it, my work would likely be totally unknown outside of my own home."
"For the future, the most important thing is to live a satisfying life in good health. It has been most gratifying to accomplish goals that I had thought impossible, and the horizon is filled with new ones. Will they prove to be impossible or not? As for my career, I must work to keep it from ruling me and becoming a millstone around my neck. As for the field I chose to be a part of, I would not change anything. I love to watch it evolve on its own," says Sinner.
Nearly all of his work is closely related to his earlier careers and education. And as Sinner has moved through the experience of making, he says he has identified dozens of possible side corridors. "The most interesting at present is the spools that evolved from the thin pierced goblets. I've been flabbergasted by the reception they have received from a number of quarters, and am highly encouraged to keep going, at least for a while. Soon, there will be colour added through the plique-a-jour process, and the joining of contrasting woods and other materials is gelling." Sinner would very much like to find a way around the current shape limitations, and those little glimmers of ideas are forming in the depths. "A series of small jewellery versions are near the surface, too. I choose to do this work because it is me. The challenges are enormous, but not insurmountable." For more examples of Steve Sinner's beautiful work, see details opposite.