Teapots worthy of the Mad Hatter


“Lip Service” by Dixie Biggs, 2009

Made with cherry, acrylic paint and a Krylon finish

Photo by Tib Shaw

The Gallery of Wood Art is filled with teapots, but gallery coordinator Tib Shaw says these pots are for admiring, not pouring.

Not a one of these teapots is usable for tea. I was a bit surprised by this, as it is certainly possible. In this case the artists, because they were working in wood, had quite a few technical hurdles to overcome already.

What the teapots are able to do is seduce the eye and inspire the imagination.

This is the gallery’s fourth in a series of invitational spring exhibits centered around very specific themes. Past invitational challenges included “the sphere” and in one case, presented each of the participating artists with identical rough-turned bowls to finish in their own style.

When the artists have such strong limits it makes their process more visible: it creates a window into the mind. Because my role is to expand the public’s understanding of wood art and woodturning beyond spindles and baseball bats, I love this kind of exhibit because it makes visible the vast range of approaches and techniques possible while using wood as a form of expression.


“They Came for Tea” by Darrell Copeland, 2009

Made with maple and acrylic paint

Photo by Tib Shaw

One trait the woodturners seem to have in common is a sense of humor, particularly when it comes to naming their teapots. Darrell Copeland’s “They Came for Tea” evokes a distinctly “alien” feel.

Shaw says woodturning is a highly technical craft, and so there are many hallmarks of quality that you look for: the smoothness of the surface, the clarity of the transitions between design elements, the thinness of the wall in a vessel, the quality of the wood.

With wood art, I look to see how well the artists works with what nature has provided. Wood is not a very forgiving medium: each type of wood has its own properties and needs to be worked with respect, using knowledge that has been accumulating for hundreds of years. If a piece looks like it has been forced it is rarely successful.


“Having Tea With My Good Friend Wiley-O” by Cindy Drozda, 2009

Sputnik sea urchin shell gilded with varigated metal leaf, African Blackwood, garnet in 14k gold, catnip

Photo by Tib Shaw

While this is the Gallery of Wood Art, many artists did also incorporated metal, pearls, gold and even sea shells into thier work. And while traditional standards of woodturning emphasized seemless design, Shaw says those standards are changing.

In some pieces tool marks really do scream sloppy, while in others they reflect the creative process and provide almost a micro-history of the creation of the piece, of the relationship between the maker and the object. Some have wandered away from the woodpile altogether and are turning things like cardboard and laminated paper.

This isn’t to say that technique is being thrown out the window – the artists in this exhibit are all technically as well as visually gifted; several are masters in the field. If you see a tool mark, they wanted you to!


“Sinus Amoris” by Binh Pho, 2009

Maple, acrylic paint, glass beads, cultured pearls, 14k gold

Photo by Tib Shaw

So why challenge a bunch of woodturners to make teapots, if they can’t actually be used for making tea? Shaw says teapots have a been a ‘design canvas’ for centuries.

Maybe because there is something oddly anthropomorphic about the form. Just think of “I’m a Little Teapot.”

David McFadden, curator at the Museum of Art and Design in New York, said “Outside of the chair, the teapot is the most ubiquitous and important design element in the domestic environment and almost everyone who has tackled the world of design has ended up designing one.”


Boxwood spoon by Gerrit Van Ness

Photo by Tib Shaw

In conjunction with the teapot exhibition, the Gallery of Wood Art is also showing a wide array of carved spoons belonging to collector Norman D. Stevens. The show runs through May 30.

The gallery is sponsored in part by the American Association of Woodturners. The teapots will be auctioned off at the AAW’s annual symposium in June. This year’s symposium is taking place in Hartford, Connecticut, but next year it will be coming to St. Paul, just as it celebrates its 25th anniversary.


Honey locust spoon with gold leaf by Jacques Vesery

Photo by Tib Shaw

The Gallery of Wood Art is located on the 2nd floor of the Landmark Center in downtown St. Paul.