Some artists take years to find the perfect medium, dabbling in this or that, chasing the latest artistic trend in seeking to feed their creative fire. That wasn’t the case for Charles Farrar. He knew when he was a little boy that wood had a special place in his heart; he carved his first piece when he was about 12.
His work has evolved significantly since he fashioned a 3-foot-long fire-breathing dragon from a piece of wood he found in his youth at Bugs Island Dam in Virginia. Now, his work graces galleries, studios and homes in the form of beautifully turned bowls and vases. Farrar’s work will be displayed at Cape Fear Studios main gallery through Feb. 23.
Woodturning is definitely not new. In fact, Farrar noted that while modern tools come with many bells and whistles, people have been turning wood for thousands of years.
“The tool that wood turners use to create is a tool given to the world by Egyptians in the 4th Dynasty during the time of the great pyramids. The tombs that had the vessels that contained the entrails of the pharaoh — we know they were fashioned using a lathe. That stands to reason because the Egyptians gave us the potter’s wheel, as well, in the 800 year period prior to that,” explained Farrar.
Until recently, it was considered more practical than artistic. Old wooden plates, bowls and utensils dating back hundreds of years are still being unearthed.
“We are still uncovering caches of wood vessels turned in the 1500s and 1600s in early America,” said Farrar. “We can date them and know they come from early Americans. It is a form of craft that only in the past 40-60 years has risen to be respected. There was a time if you were not turning a bowl or bucket or something else utilitarian, you were wasting your time.”
One look at Farrar’s work and it is clear that wood can indeed be art. Turned from found and reclaimed wood, Farrar’s pieces showcase the features that make each piece unique. Each piece of wood has its own story to tell. Maybe it is the interesting pattern in the grain that speaks to him, or the stunning markings left by a wood beetle that he chooses to highlight. Sometimes, it is even the story of where the wood came from that inspires him as he turns the wood and guides the lathe. Often, it is as much about the process as it is about the end product. And for many, there is magic in his methods. Farrar uses found wood and reclaimed wood for his work; he refuses to fell a tree for one of his projects when there is so much wood readily available.
“I was commissioned to do a piece for choreographer Debbie Allen. She was working on a production that celebrated the life of Harriet Tubman,” said Farrar. “They wanted a vessel that reflected, in its time on Earth, Harriet Tubman’s approximate age. I went to an old mill that had been in operation for more than 100 years that was going out of business and was able to get a 12x13 floor joist. I got within a couple of years of what we think was Harriet Tubman’s age. I made the vessel and got to present it to Debbie Allen. The vessel was hard as rock because it was more than 100 years old at the time and had been alive many years before it was used to make the floor of that mill. It was hard to work that wood, and at the time, not knowing so much and not having the tools I have today, it was a challenge. I learned from a playwright friend years later that she still has that vessel in her extensive art collection in her home.”
When Farrar’s church was ready to replace its organ that dated back to 1872, he was asked to use the wood from the organ’s pipes to make gifts for the choir members. He made cross pendants fashioned from the F sharp pipe.
“The trees that made that pipe may have started growing 100 years before the organ was even made. For that same wood to get a whole new life in those crosses … I love the idea of recycling and recycling again.”
Throughout Farrar’s life, his connection to wood never waned. He collected pieces at arts festivals and admired fine workmanship when he saw it. In the early ‘90s he went to an arts festival and bought a wood-turned bowl. He spent the following year admiring it. The next year, the same craftsman was at the festival again. Farrar wanted to buy another bowl, but more importantly, he wanted to know how this artist made such fine work.
“I’d spent 23 years of corporate life as a middle manager for Bell South — 23 years 8 months and 6 days, but who’s counting?” said Farrar. “When I asked that artist how he made his pieces, he said ‘Come up the mountain on Saturday and I will show you everything I know about woodturning.’ I did and he did and that artist — David Goins — became my mentor. Before I got home that weekend, I had purchased a lathe and a series of training tools. I spent about $800 out of the family budget without even talking about it with my wife.”
Since then, Farrar has demonstrated design and technique at the National Symposium of The American Association of Woodturners and many prestigious museums throughout the U.S.
His work will be on display through Feb 23 at Cape Fear Studios.
“I love that in Fayetteville there is this forward-thinking gallery. Wood is still not a medium that always gets the right showings,” said Farrar. “I am tickled that Cape Fear Studios is stepping out there and that they are doing it during Black History Month when the work is presented by an African-American and the tools that gave this art form to the world were made by black people.”
Find out more about Charles Farrar at www.charlesfarrar.com. Find out more about Cape Fear Studios at www.capefearstudios.com.
Photo: The intricate woodworking of Charles Farrar is on display at Cape Fear Studios through Feb. 23.