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As the Wood Turns


For artists Connie Mississippi and Betty Scarpino, the medium of wood is the message, and the lathe is their tool to start turning that message into elegant sculptural forms.

Studying industrial arts in college, "I hated metal, and plastics were smelly," Scarpino said. "Wood is warm and has a lot of variety to it. You can carve it, paint it, texture it or leave it."

"It's a living thing," Mississippi said. "I'm never disappointed when I turn a trunk of a tree. There's always a surprise in it."

Surprises have inspired Scarpino, of Indianapolis, and Mississippi, a former Topanga resident now living in Santa Fe, N.M., to create distinctive bodies of work, and to work together in presenting an exhibit of lathe-made work by top wood-turning artists.

Sparked by the exhibit of Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party" at UCLA Hammer Museum in 1997, Scarpino and Mississippi have organized "The Birthday Party--An Installation in Celebration of Wood Turning and Studio Furniture." Spotlighting a revival of lathing as an art form that originated in the ancient world, the show opens Saturday at the Brand Library Art Galleries in Glendale.

Mississippi and Scarpino invited 41 artists from the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia to fashion an object typically found at a birthday party.

A swirling birthday cake with candles by noted Vermont artisan Michelle Holzapfel soon arrived, followed by ice cream cones, presents, party hats and party favors.

"I was enthralled with the idea that the artists were all working with the same theme, but they weren't making the same objects," Mississippi said. "Betty and I believed this collaboration would generate enthusiasm and a sense of adventure in the [wood-] turning community and that integrating it with studio furniture would be innovative."

Ron Goldman, publisher of Woodworker West magazine, published a call for entries of furniture to complement the turned objects and enhance the relevance of the birthday party theme. As a result, the party supplies will be displayed among handcrafted wood furniture made by 20 artists.

Sam Maloof sent in one of his characteristic streamlined chairs. Colorful, faux-damaged "earthquake" chairs and side table from Del Cover add a touch of nerve-wracked whimsy to the setting. In contrast, Victor DiNovi's refined two-seat bench beckons with smooth, graceful form.

Po Shun Leong, renowned for intricately detailed wood boxes and furniture, volunteered to build fanciful pedestals for a 14-foot dining table to display turned objects. Both Mississippi and Scarpino crafted unique dinner and salad plates for the party. Linda Emery's platter is filled with cookies that look good enough to eat. Rodger Jacobs' bright party hats contain tributes to music legends Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Patsy Cline and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

"People who don't always respond to traditional painting and sculpture respond to wood," gallery director Jill Conner said. "Here you're looking at furniture and everyday objects that we usually see and seeing them from a whole new perspective as art."

"It's a huge challenge," Scarpino said of wood-turning. "How much can you do with a circle? That's the pull and thrill of the turning field. In order to be creative, you often need to have limitations that present a challenge so you can make a new statement."

"I use the lathe like a carving tool," Mississippi said. "Instead of the fireplace, you give the wood another life."

Three demonstrations are scheduled as part of the exhibit: building a Windsor chair, 2-4 p.m. on March 10; building a guitar, 2-4 p.m. on April 14, and wood techniques and samples, 2-4 p.m. on May 12.


"The Birthday Party--An Installation in Celebration of Wood-Turning and Studio Furniture," Saturday through May 20 at the Brand Library Art Galleries, 1601 W. Mountain St., Glendale. Hours: Tuesday and Thursday, 1-9 p.m.; Wednesday, 1-6 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Information: (818) 548-2051.

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