Christopher W. Cantwell Woodworks

Three Decades Three Forms
By Christopher Cantwell

The concept for this show is to present my work from the 1980's,1990's, and 2000's, exploring the three basic forms that I've worked in; boxes, furniture and wall art. Many times over the last twenty-five years I've tried to move towards making just one of the forms. From both a practical business aspect and my sanity, it would make sense to make just one. However, ideas and opportunities lead me from one to another, at times working on all three at once or visiting each form over a period of months or years.

For the 1980's decade, I've chose a Yosemite series box "Hetch Hetchy", a small cabinet "Uncertainty Principal" to represent furniture, and the piece "Square Dance" to represent wall art. For the 1990's decade I chose the box "Bridge to Hope", "Night Table #5" for furniture and the wall art is "Teach Me To Fish" and "Bridge Peacemaker Savior Survivor Child". For the current decade, in boxes I have "Walk", "Something Strange Has Happened To Me" and "Heaven's Gate". For furniture I have "He's Playing With Blocks Again". Wall art is represented by "God Is In The Details", "Remembering The Forgotten Years" and a number of smaller pieces.

Back to the three forms question. Why three forms? I will often find that in making a box, I will get an idea for a piece of furniture that I will make, which will then give me an idea for wall art and so on. Fluid forms in the inlays of "Hetch Hetchy" box are again expressed in "Uncertainty Principal" and lead to "Square Dance" with it's tension between fluid curves and geometric lines, a theme that continues in my work to this day.

During the 80's my work was focused on proving myself as a woodworker and making a living at it. By 1990 I was firmly established and had plenty of work. "Night Table series #5" is a good example of work from this period. High quality production woodworking including individual artistic elements at cheap prices kept sales volumes high and marketing expenses low, but this formula for success began to take it's toll. Eventually the energy and hours required to keep up the pace caught up with me and by 1992 it was clear something had to change.

At the same time, the tropical forest controversy became an obsession for me, resulting in work that dealt with this issue. These eco-political pieces began the theme for the 90's, exploring issues or experiences on several different levels. "Teach me to Fish", included in the show, is one of the pieces from this body of work. The wall art, "Bridge, Peacemaker, Savior, Survivor, Child" took things a step further. This piece not only dealt with expressing thoughts and feelings about a particular subject, but actually took on a life of its own. It grew and changed it's meaning and subject matter in the process of making it. It began about building a bridge and being a peacemaker. It progressed into the subject of self sacrifice and survival, but ultimately revealed itself to be about childhood wounds. All these levels still exist in the piece, and everyone seems to find something different in it. So you will have to come to your own conclusions. You are on your own.

This new way of working spread to the box form with "Bridge To Hope", originally titled "Suicide Box". The truth this piece is meant to share is that when dealing with emotional pain, to heal you must go back through the pain, running from it only brings you to despair.

On to Y2K, aren't you glad we're all still here? I am having much more fun this decade and it's not over yet. In 2000 I started going to a local church where I felt the love of God strongly. I became involved in many activities not only at my church but within the local Christian community. One of the most inspiring of these experiences was called “Walk to Emmaus' a retreat designed to show you Christ's love in a tangible way. The resulting piece "Walk", expresses the feeling of love and security that I felt during my "walk". Many other aspects of my relationship with the Lord are symbolized in various ways throughout the piece. It provides an adventure for the viewer, symbolizing a walk with God.

"Something Strange Has Happened To Me" revisits old wounds with a new feeling of understanding, peace and closure. While this piece was still unmade but fully formed in my brain, I wrote the following: "I am sure of what to make, it is clear in my mind. It's about content and form, about a personal yet universal experience and emotional state. I will use paint for the first time, blue, it will have no drawers, lids, compartments or enclosed space, and yet if you look carefully you will see a box."

Just last year I started a new style of wall art using as many different woods as possible. I have called it the 100 woods project. "God Is In The Details" is one of these pieces and is about both my love for different woods and the eternal question: is our reality merely a series of random events or is it a complex plan orchestrated by God?

The 100 woods project started as a wall art series. As has happened in the past where inlaid panels moved from tables to wall art, then back again, I put the 100 woods concept into a table top. I then continued the theme of the table top into the base bringing what was two dimensions into three.

"He Is Playing With Blocks Again" is the most cohesive in it's overall design of any of the tables that I’ve made thus far. I love the way the top leads your eye to the base of the table, around it's sculptural form, and back up to the top. The only problem with this piece was that the top obscured the base. I liked the sculptural form of the base by itself so much that it inspired a new piece.

"Heaven's Gate" combines these cool new forms with my tall wiggly box series to make a pair of boxes. The tall thin boxes leave plenty of room to enjoy the sculptural forms of the bases. This piece is about whatever you want it to be. I see two people in a relationship that gives them just a small taste of what is waiting for all of us.

The Medium is Not the Message
By Kevin Wallace

The Medium is Not the Message presents recent work by Christopher Cantwell, an artist difficult to classify in terms of contemporary art, craft, or even among his peers in the field of wood art. The artist's approach is without obvious influence or connection to tradition, as he has developed highly individual techniques and his recent exploration of forms and functionality are quite different from what has come before. Most importantly, Cantwell’s work presents a bold approach to contemporary sculpture, utilizing the natural beauty of wood and exquisite craftsmanship to instill concept and narrative. Unlike the majority of wood artists, Cantwell explores the pictorial qualities that wood inlay techniques offer, using both abstract and figurative elements. As if his use of dozens of exotic and rare woods to create complex elements were not enough, he embeds them in highly original sculptural forms. These, in turn, often take on the role of functional boxes that are quite unlike traditional approaches to utility.

Christopher Cantwell's career as a wood artist began early. As a 12-year-old, he won first place in the Central California Art League Young Masters Art Competition for a balsa wood sculpture he created. By his mid-teens, he was making and selling furniture and wood boxes. From the beginning, the artist has charted a course that was highly individual and without compromise and, despite the difficulties involved, he continues on this path. It's not surprising that the artist is also a mountain climber and surfer, as these activities often involve both challenge and facing obstacles that require self-mastery.

In 1982, the Ansel Adams Gallery hired Cantwell for a large commission of boxes, inlaid with abstracted scenes of Yosemite. This led to a series of boxes that continued the artist's exploration and, during these years, his approach was more straightforward, with intricate, original designs utilizing a fresh approach to wood inlay. For years he created similar boxes and they were exhibited in art shows and galleries across the country.

During this time he occasionally found the time to also make elaborate art pieces, some being more complex box forms and others wall art. In the early 1990s, Cantwell’s wall pieces began to sell well, commanding high prices and he began to focus entirely on wall art and furniture, while making a few art boxes.

Increasingly the artist explored an approach that was quite uncommon among artists working in traditional craft media. He sought the narrative potential of his technical approach and created works that addressed personal experience and larger social issues. Trinity, a major work from 2001, shows how the artist speaks of his personal life in his work. The work addresses his religious convictions by utilizing the organic imagery in a piece of wood the artist had in his studio for almost two decades.

Cantwell decided to stand the slab of wood on its end and decorate it, to bring it more fully to life by augmenting what was there. The artist saw an image of a wave in the large knot in the wood and the natural squiggle reminded him of the trail of a surfer in the face of a wave. "These trails in the ocean start off as a straight wave, like the trail of a plane, but the current will distort it in a way similar to the pattern in the wood." Cantwell says. "It represents that someone has gone this way before."

A series of symbolic and abstract elements in the work offer spiritual meaning, while the artist is represented as a small figure surfing against this complex backdrop. Aside from being a highly original work of art, the piece is a technical tour-de-force. Aside from Cantwell's trademark technical approaches, it employs a recent process that the artist refers to as a reverse order inlay banding technique. In traditional inlay work, a banding groove is cut into the larger background piece first and then the banding is fitted into the groove. Cantwell instead cuts, fits and glues the complex interwoven bandings together first and then cuts the surrounding and enclosed pieces to fit. The glued up bandings worked very well by themselves and appear in Trinity holding up a turned and carved bowl form.

Today, collectors in the field of contemporary wood art are increasingly acceptable of sculptural work and innovative approaches, yet Cantwell's work still doesn't fit comfortably within the context of woodturning or accepted approaches. This is largely due to his highly original approach, but is also connected with both the technical and conceptual complexity of his work. The artist marries his unique approach to pictorial inlay, issues of containment relating to the functional box and an exploration of abstract sculpture that employs over 100 varieties of wood to provide a wide palette to work with. The character of each individual piece of wood is an important part in the development of a work, yet only as it serves the larger vision.

While many artists working in wood seek to create work that is meant to be decorative, the work of Christopher Cantwell is imbued with meaning. Yet, it is purposely obscure - designed to initially deliver the feeling he meant to share in a particular piece. It takes the viewer on a journey of discovery, from the organic elements with the figure of the wood providing abstract imagery to the designs he painstakingly creates. He allows the abstract imagery to open the door, as the viewer searches out the artist's meaning while assigning their own to the design, form, material and function that make up a work. Although a piece will have deep personal meaning for the artist, he believes that it is best for it to be open to interpretation, growing out of the viewer's experience. Ideally, they will discover their own meaning, as well as a growing sense of the artist's intention as they consider the imagery, figurative elements and symbolism in the work. Not only is the medium not the message, the work’s function is not what it seems.

Aside from the voice of nature, the artist employs a number of visual languages in his work. The inlay work often brings to mind the abstract imagery of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) an artist who restless experimentation led him to the Secession, a group of artists dedicated to challenging the conservative Academy of Fine Arts. While Cantwell translates Klimt’s painterly images into complex wood designs, they retain a similarly bold exploration of symbolism and allegory. The sculptural elements in Cantwell's work, bring to mind the work of Yves Tanguy (1900-1955), a self-taught painter who joined the Surrealist group in 1925. Tanguy's work explored a similar interior landscape, filled with forms and fragments that suggest dream and memory. By working in three-dimensions, Cantwell is able to expand such imagery and the potential it offers.

The figures that occasionally appear in the artists work are suggestive of those employed by neo-Pop artists Keith Haring and Mark Kostabi. These elements, along with the pictorial and abstract, are all masterfully combined. Yet, Cantwell’s work takes time to fully absorb. This is in line with the artist's intention, for each work to provide a complex three-dimensional Rorschach test. Marcel Duchamp once wrote that, "All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act." This is a potential of art that Cantwell is familiar with and takes full advantage of.

In a sense, Cantwell’s work is very much like that of H.C. Westermann (1922-1981) an artist who utilized wood to create a highly personal body of work that utilized craftsmanship as a means of sharing a message. Though the two differ stylistically, Westermann's approach to working with wood was also quite unlike any of his contemporaries and his oeuvre does not fit into any single art movement. Westermann also employed the box form often, with little interest in utility or tradition. Similarly, in Christopher Cantwell's recent work, intricate carved surfaces inside the drawers contain meaning and offer a deeper exploration of the work, rather than providing the accepted and expected function of a box. "Sometimes they are like chambers of the heart." The artist offers. "They could be used to hold something special, although there may not be anything special enough to go in them."

The architect Louis Kahn once noted that "the joint is the beginning of all ornament" and the work of Christopher Cantwell embraces this theory with wild abandon. The influence of architecture is certainly important to the artist’s work, yet is so well blended with the impact of nature that it doesn’t readily stand out. Even the images of mountain and sea can be difficult to pinpoint, as they are drawn from the direct experience of a mountain climber and surfer, rather than one who simply takes in the view.

Along with his sculptural works, Christopher Cantwell continues to create wall pieces that feature painterly scenes created with inlaid wood. He has been creating work in his Waterfall Series for years. The works feature flowing water and multicolored wood spheres that represent rocks in a stream. The works actually grew out of the work of a local watercolor artist named Dan Peterson, and Cantwell's memory of seeing these works as a child. Compared to the more complex sculptural pieces, these offer a nice simplicity, despite the hundreds of pieces of exotic woods and hours of work involved in their creation.

Some of Cantwell's work explores both the pictorial qualities of wall art and the power of sculptural approaches. Bridge Peacemaker Savior Survivor Child from 1995 is the last in a series of elaborate wall pieces and contains deep psychological meaning for the artist. Central to this piece, though rather small in comparison to the other elements, is a figure stuck between two cliffs. Above the figure are roofs that initially seem to protect. Upon closer examination, it is obvious that water would pour off of one of the roofs on to the other and then fall directly on to the figure, who is struggling to hold on. Below him are sharp boulders, representing the peril of falling. At the same time as the figure is experiencing this peril, it is obvious that the work represents a beautiful place, with waterfall and river. It would be a great place to go swimming and relax, if the figure can only find a way to get there. Like all of the artist’s work, it is open to the viewer’s personal interpretation.

Christopher Cantwell is a rare breed, spending a tremendous amount of time to gain the skills to execute the works that he felt he had to make. Along with a select group of international artists, he has developed and honed a broad palate of technical woodworking skills in order to be free to express an artistic vision that is growing ever broader, deeper and more refined. While woodturning is one approach that he uses, he has resisted concentrating on it merely for the sake of commercial success. The process is only utilized when it serves the larger vision of a work.

Recently, Cantwell attended the opening of an exhibition that featured his work among an international array of the finest box makers. "In the gallery I got the feeling my work simply didn’t fit in with the rest of the pieces, like I was shooting for a different target," Cantwell says of the experience. While contemplating the situation, he came to understand that, while be being a box maker was his roots, it was no longer what he was. "I had been trying so hard to make the transition from box maker to artist that I have indeed succeeded to the point that my boxes aren't boxes any more." Yet, when an artist friend told him that “everything you do is a comment on the box, it rang true for him.

Despite a highly original approach that has often found the artist swimming against the tide, Christopher Cantwell has been exhibited in numerous museum and gallery exhibitions internationally and has been featured in a wide-range of publications, from those that focus on craft and wood art to leading newspapers. People have been paying attention as the artist has moved from making boxes to creating wall pieces to a unique approach to sculptural form and the box. The fact that influences and traditions are not obvious in the work of Christopher Cantwell is testament to his own vision. In fact, as a maker of wood boxes he is connected with traditions that go back centuries. Today, he is usually include in surveys of contemporary box makers and is highly respected in that field. The contemporaries who have influenced his work include furniture maker Robert Herzog, known for his fluid handles and flourishes, Po Shun Leong, and artist who combines a colorful array of wood pieces in larger sculptural statements and William Hunter an artist known for his sophisticated wood vessels. These influences must be brought to the attention of the viewer for them to see what Cantwell has found in each of them, for their impact has manifested itself in a manner that seamlessly meshes with the artist's own ideas.

Material and exquisite craftsmanship are such an important part of Christopher Cantwell's work that it is quite easy to delight in these aspects and not experience the work on a deeper level. Yet, those who are willing to open themselves up to the layers of meaning that are embedded in the work, by setting aside preconceptions of craft and utility, will find the works tremendously rewarding. Meaning is found by allowing the subconscious mind to take in the imagery and personal experience to illuminate the symbols and figurative elements. The medium is indeed masterfully explored, but the message is the ultimate function of the work.

Contemplating new work, Cantwell considers that his last two major works have concerned the box. He plans on creating a work that will take his work another step forward.

"I am sure of what to make, it is clear in my mind," He says. "It's about content and form, about a personal yet universal experience and emotional state. I will use paint for the first time, blue, it will have no drawers, lids, compartments or enclosed space, and yet if you look carefully you will see a box."