20 Minutes with Norman Ridenour

Monday 9 July 2018

Explain the type of work you carry out at present

To support myself and the studio, I teach, originally and still mostly English, though I now also teach Film History and Visual Perception, the latter for business students based on art history but focused on how we perceive visually. I am a woodturner rather than a sculptor who turns more or less useful sculptural objects on a lathe. I have never 'cut my teeth' as a production turner though I do produce around 140 pieces per year.

What is your favourite timber to turn?

I love to turn wet fresh cut ash (Fraxinus excelsior) and European brown oak (Quercus robur) which is a new wood to me.

What are your current likes and dislikes within the sphere of turning?

Aesthetically I am a minimalist; I do not like fussy kitsch in anything. I know that some turners get totally involved in ways to create some detailed effect or another. Some day I am going to try carving a surface, but every time I get a piece ready it is so nice and smooth in the hand I cannot carve it. I want to open a door to pure form – I am only a craftsman with my current work, not an artist. No pretensions, art is about idea and nearly all the turning I see avoids the idea. I have tried sculpture in the past which I think did open that door of perception, but no longer.

What direction to you see your work taking in the future?

Maybe sculpted edges? I have had a lot a hunks of wood which naturally give me a jagged top rim, then they develop cracks and flaws which occur in drying and deliberately making more holes and these are leading me towards more ragged edges. I like pushing that top edge even if my customers want it fIat and regular. I do not usually impose my vision. It is like teaching; the students do most of the work if it is set up right.

If you could only offer one bit of advice to someone starting out turning, what would it be, and why?

Marry a successful partner who makes decent money, who believes in what you are doing, then WORK, WORK AND WORK MORE! I think it is obvious.

What music and which book are you currently into?

I am a long term jazz fan. We also have season tickets to the Prague symphony and a contemporary chamber orchestra. I read lots of history, philosophy of history and art/cultural history.

Tell us about the piece you are currently working on.

I am working on a series of pieces which use a process I call 'pickled oak'. I am experimenting with the colouration, cutting through and using the way the individual piece colours itself in order to lead me to form.

Which are your favourite items to turn?

I am a bowl turner, some tall, thus technically vessels. I like hollow forms. I like doing boxes but they do not sell. It is a game to see how many 'bowls' I can do without a repeat – I am now up to over 1,500. At one level my customers keep me honest. There isn't the option to work on a piece for several days unless I want it for myself, and my flat is already full. I need to turn a piece, get it out the door and the money in the bank.

Which turners do you most admire and why?

Richard Raffan. His work is also about elemental form. David Ellsworth for just pure audacity. My wife, who is Czech, and I visited Del Mano five years ago and Ray Leier let us handle the work. I cannot even remember what else we saw besides the Ellsworth. Bill Luce is also very high on my list.

What do you think the best single development in turning has been?

The best single development has been alloy/heat treated tools, Kyro or Hamlet 2060. I have not bought any carbide hollowing tools yet.

What do you see yourself doing in five years' time?

I want to be turning and travelling and I hope I am still achieving a good number of kilometres on the bike each summer. I might still be teaching the film course; I really love getting people to see film as more than just story. Getting young people to see and think is wonderful.

What do you see as the biggest thing that has hindered the development of woodturning in general?

Here I cannot separate turning from the crafts movement as a whole. There is a general lack of understanding/respect for craft. I show my work and often get an uncomprehending shake of the head: “Why? Why do that? A wooden bowl is $15 at IKEA.” The American Crafts Council in the States has done a wonderful job in trying to educate people but at the same time, US public education itself has been gutted of arts, shop, design and aesthetics programs of all kinds.

What is your biggest regret?

I regret that in 1974 I bought a tablesaw and joiner and started building furniture instead of buying a lathe and a bandsaw. I could be one of the ol' gurus now! As it is I am only getting old. Second, I regret not moving to Europe about that time. Probably the happiest year of my life was 1969-70 in Barcelona as a grad student. My rich life in Prague is something most Americans cannot imagine.

What three things in your workshop could you not do without?

My wonderful little NOVA lathe, the Makita chainsaw – I do not have a bandsaw – and the 2,500rpm drill motor sander, also from Makita.