The 19th Annual Wood Design Student Exhibition was held from March 3-9 in the Fine Arts building. I first visited the showcase on March 3, early in the afternoon. The room was quiet, and I perused the exhibition at my leisure. Some pieces took the forms of tables, benches and boxes while others defied conventional definitions. I felt as though each piece had a story just beneath its wood surface. I wanted to learn more, so I resolved to attend the opening reception later that evening.
When I came back to the Fine Arts building, the reception was already in full swing, with students guiding a number of visitors around the room. Every participant seemed excited to talk about their work.
I was greeted by Jeff Johnson, an adjunct professor at SUNY New Paltz. He and professor Edward Felton teach students the craft of wood design, then have this showcase to exhibit a selection of the students’ work. Most of the pieces in the exhibition were from the professors’ Basic Wood Design class. There are three assignments the enrolled students are given: a carved piece, a box and a freestanding horizontal surface — a table. There were a few benches and cabinets in the showcase as well; those were assignments from the Wood Design and Techniques class. Throughout the course, students are gradually introduced to the tools of the craft. They learn hand tools, power tools, construction techniques and how to undertake the design process.
The students were not limited to wood as their only medium. Johnson pointed out a few examples of mixed-media pieces in the showcase. Fourth-year digital media production major Mollie Zoldan made a bench out of teak and stone. I found her sitting on it; one leg of the bench was a large rock that looked embedded into the wooden seat.
Zoldan was originally a photography BFA major and had to fulfill the three-dimensional medium requirement. “I ended up with basic wood and then I just fell in love with working with my hands,” Zoldan said.
“It’s my rock bench,” Zoldan said of the piece. “I hauled this rock out of the Millbrook Preserve — it’s about 80 pounds — in the snow on a slide.”
The rock does not actually pass through the bench. Zoldan brought the rock to a stonemason in Stone Ridge, NY, where it was cut in half. She is able to pull off the part of the rock that appears to poke through the bench, like a cap. “It just sits like a little illusion,” she said.
The other side of the bench, a wooden cylinder looped through the seat to make two legs. The cylinder was turned on a lathe and its arch was hand-carved. It serves as another illusion; according to Zoldan, people think the wooden legs are metal.
My favorite piece was a podium done by third-year visual arts major Wren Kingsley. The podium had three gracefully-undulating legs, and where the legs met the podium’s horizontal surface, rows of string threaded into the wood. Within the cradle of strings hung a crumpled Lululemon bag. The wood of the podium is from an ash tree. Kingsley told me that there is a surplus of ash on the market; the ash tree in Asia is dying out because of the emerald ash borer, an invasive species. While the borer kills the tree, the wood is still able to be used.
Kingsley was interested in wood design because wood has been a part of her whole life. Her family owns a woodcutting company. Kingsley is now involved in sustainability efforts on a local and state level. She is the vice president of the New Paltz chapter of NYPIRG and is part of the Sustainability Ambassador Program at SUNY New Paltz.
“I just started getting interested in this relationship between me as an artist and this relationship I have to wood and lumber,” Kingsley said. “It’s kind of about grieving also; my family has profited off of the timber industry. I’ve been dealing with that for a while, in my own way.”
Our conversation turned into a discussion about the value of wood as a medium. “It feels like being a mortician,” Kingsley said. “We’re crafting something, honoring a material. You can do stuff with wood that you can’t do with anything else. It has weight and has energy. It’s breathing constantly. It’s just full of life.”
“And it’s biodegradable,” Kingsley added. “So if you really hate it, you can just throw it in the backyard and it’ll decompose.”
If students are interested in working in the wood studio and learning the craft of wood design, they can enroll in the Basic Wood class in the Fall or Spring semester. The next class, Wood Design and Techniques, can be taken up to 5 times. Orientation sessions with Professor Ed Felton are also available — but only to art students. Information on orientation dates and the wood studio schedule can be found at https://tinyurl.com/2kewxnvt.