Wendell Castle passed away on Saturday, January 20, 2018, from leukemia, and I’ve just returned from an afternoon at his home. He is survived by his wife Nancy Jurs, daughter Alison, son Bryon and two grandchildren. I was returning a collection of personal photographs that I used in a lecture I gave about him and our good friend, Gary Knox Bennett, for a Furniture Society Conference.
Wendell Castle played a key role in contemporary furniture development and pioneered an entirely new genre: Art Furniture. He used many new methods and techniques, and he popularized stack lamination and trompe l'oeil carving. His work can be found worldwide in museums and many major private collections.
My wife and I have spent time in his beautiful circa-1800s mansion that overlooks the Genesee valley, playing cards and ping pong, nibbling cheese and feeding the fish in their pond, enjoying wine, fine food, and perfecting the Long Island Iced Tea with Wendell and his wife. Every time I’ve been there, I would be filled full of energy and excitement and even though my most recent visit was a somber one, the creativity and inspiration is still in the air.
I have an architectural restoration and reproduction side business using fiberglass reinforced polymer (FRP) to duplicate historic elements, and I first met Wendell in the late 1980’s when I heard that some artist guy might have a chopper gun for sale. A chopper gun is used to spray polyester and chopped fiberglass used in FRP. Wendell was a pioneer in fiberglass furniture construction in the 1960s and 1970s.
I sort of knew the name, Wendell Castle, from the halls of RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) where I received my design degree in 1981. I took classes at the School for American Craft where Wendell used to teach, but he had since started his own school and the whispers of him were intriguing. This was the time before Google, so I didn’t know what he was all about. And boy, was my life about to change.
I found and walked into his studio in Scottsville, just south of Rochester, New York, and asked if the chopper gun was for sale. As I looked around, the shop was buzzing with activity and my eyes grew very wide. All sorts of wonderful shapes were being created by many fine craftsmen. I was excited by all the energy. We concluded our deal, I loaded up the equipment and I was off.
But I found myself drawn back, finding excuses to return to the shop like I was a 13-year-old walking by a girl’s house that I fancied seven times a day. Wendell and his team always welcomed and engaged me, showing what they were working on, and better yet, how it was made.
One day, I was pointed upstairs to his private gallery, which used to be his living room, when Wendell and Nancy lived there amongst the saw dust, debris and creativity. This was now his private gallery space where pieces could be properly lit and viewed. For me, this was like walking into some Dali / Picasso-esque LSD dream heaven of sculptural furniture unlike anything I had ever seen before.
By then, I was pursuing my own art furniture sculpture career, and I hadn’t been exposed to anyone else doing work in this genre. As I walked around, I noticed three dimensional, “wavy” wood that intoxicated me. The rare Curly Redwood was smooth and shimmering with chatoyance (a term I didn’t know at the time). WOW! WHOA! OOOOOHHH… I had to caress it and at that instant in time I knew I needed to learn everything I could about this wonderful material called veneer. Adding in gold leaf, crackle lacquering, stack lamination and trompe l’oeil carvings, these materials and methods enticed me like the mystical gods reaching for my soul. I was hooked.
Making a mold of a chair, with feet!
Over the next 20 or so years, Wendell subcontracted me for his mold making and fiberglass work while I continued to build my own furniture business and developed my own veneering techniques with the initial help of his team. I would call him out of the blue with odd technical issues and he always found the time to speak to me. He saved my ass more than once.
Many thought Wendell was aloof or unapproachable; he might have been introverted, quiet, and shy, but would always answer questions and talk to new awe-inspired students of mine or acquaintances while out at openings, Furniture Society Conferences, and auctions that we attended together. It was like talking to your wise old grandfather. During one of my visits, he and his staff were working on a series of large clocks for an invitational show. What I saw simply proved his genius: one clock was a 6-foot cone form lying on the floor, which had a battery-operated, balanced, motorized, self-made gizmo inside that allowed the cone to roll around in a circle. North was noon, south 6 o’clock and so on. Hash marks on the rim marked minutes where it contacted the floor. Another was a large football shape floating in a pool of water: this ball rotated on the point to point axis to tell the minutes and swiveled 360 degrees for the hours, all while floating in the water. Like his work or not, just the mechanics of this was mind blowing. (Try guessing how that worked?)
Wendell would come to my openings and support me just with his presence. I worked for his wife, creating larger molds on her Triad ceramic sculpture for Rochester’s International Airport, and it was wonderful being in the studio, with all the creative juices flowing and work being cranked out.
Most of us work alone in our shops or with employees who (dare I say) are usually below our skill and creative level, but at Wendell’s, everyone was level and above, which raised my game. I was like a sponge; I spent my breaks wondering, thinking, and continuing to prod for more information like how, what, why, how about this… We would occasionally go back to his house for lunch and sit in a porch swing with tea and have all sorts of creative conversations.
Wendell and Nancy hired me to renovate their master bathroom. The house is so awesome, funky art is everywhere, and everything is handmade. Free standing Doric columns in the kitchen/dining area are reminiscent of the inside of a Roman temple; they overlook the green house, which suggests the Louvre’s glass pyramids. A secret door and staircase from the dining room leads upstairs. A ping pong table is in the living room, where I don’t recall ever winning a game. Large paintings and works of sculptures from other friends line the space. Sketches, models, bits and pieces of found objects are spread all over eagerly waiting to be morphed into something great. It is a magical place.
Wendell had a great eye for form and visualized contour sections of these forms, which this allowed him to precut, lay up (stack laminate), then carve the form with minimal effort. He pioneered and refined this lamination technique way before computers. He also had a great eye for material, equipment, and technology. From his early fiberglass work and (now my) chopper gun to a multi-carousel-horse pneumatic carving machine, a kick-ass hydraulic chainsaw, massive 38-inch pattern bandsaw, a 24-inch jointer, not to forget the largest collection of clamps I’ve ever seen, and of course, a robot to do his carving. Wendell was always upgrading his equipment: I was lucky enough to purchase a 16-inch hand-me-down jointer from him.
Even at 85 years old, Wendell worked six days a week just about up to his passing. He was gracious enough to allow me to do a video and interview of him and tour his amazing shop when I started my YouTube channel in 2016. Watch the shop tour below. Tool junkies beware.
Wendell had a great eye for talent. All of his employees were some of the most skilled and creative craftspeople I’ve ever met. And he employed many women, one of whom taught me how to silver solder and mount gem stones. I was honored when in 2008 he asked me to become his studio director and worked with him side by side.
We would often work late together and with classical music softly playing in the background, while he sketched (he drew constantly) or worked on a small model while I finished a glue-up or sharpened the planes; we would talk about the woodworking business and techniques, aesthetics of art, philosophy, and more. We would debate our different points of view and he never came across as a… jerk. They would be some of the most respectful, insightful discussions I have ever had. I learned a lot from him.
He also had a great eye for innovation and was open to new concepts, methods, and approaches; ideas flowed from his team and Wendell let us run with them, from trompe l'oeil carving to crackle finishing. When I suggested going digital he saw the potential and eventually bought his own CNC carving robot.
Back at the house, his work is everywhere. It is a museum packed with creativity, innovations, and inspiration. I am honored that we traded work and that one of my pieces sits amongst such greatness. I have one of the last trompe l'oeil carved pieces in my office. Silently whispering to me.
If you are not familiar with Wendell’s work, I suggest you simply Google his name and view his Wikipedia page here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wendell_Castle. He was a master craftsman and prolific artist who defined an entire genre, and he was my friend. He will be greatly missed but will continue to inspire for generations to come. I salute you Wendell. Thank you for everything.
Scott Grove is an art furniture maker, sculptor, and YouTube personality who selectively teaches and lectures, most notably at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking and The Chippendale School of Furniture in Scotland. Visit ImagineGrove.com and/or scottgrove.com.
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