Monday 9 July 2018
As time goes by, Bert Marsh the man will become a distant memory, but the work of Bert Marsh woodturner, will never be forgotten. This spalted beech bowl by Bert is an example. It was presented to me by GMC Publications, when I retired 19 years ago, and occupies a prominent position on our dining room sideboard. The other week I entered the room to find my son, a surgeon, standing there while stroking the inside of the bowl, in a gentle way. Perhaps he was enjoying a few tranquil moments aided by the skill of a fellow craftsman. “Really!” was the only response when told that it was insured for Â£2,000.
We first became aware of Bert when the late Alan Phillips, then the proprietor of Woodturning magazine and I, visited Bert's exhibition at Hove exhibition and art gallery some years ago. Alan was so impressed with Bert's work that he was unable to decide which of the bowls to buy. In the end he bought all four! The famous chef, whose name eludes me, was once asked the meaning of creativity; his answer was to not copy. Bert would have liked that, as he was always the creator. In his book, Bert Marsh Woodturner, he wrote, “There is no complex philosophy attached to the work I do: I am simply striving to achieve the perfect form, the purest possible curves in simple, uncluttered shapes, that will expose the beauty of the wood to the full.”
I felt extremely proud when I was invited to write a foreword to Bert's book. There is a paragraph in the foreword which I would like to shire with you, lest you should not have a copy of the book.
“Were I not already familiar with Bert's work, this beautiful book would, I think, have almost the same effect on me as did the Hove exhibition. Less is more, was never truer than in Bert's case. In his hands wood becomes a precious material, delicately cut, shaped and finished to reveal its inner beauty. Both visually and to the touch, every piece he creates sings the praises of the material he loves”
It is time now to say thank you to Bert, on behalf of those who own or more of his bowls. In his pursuit of the perfect form, he has brought joy into the hearts and homes of many people throughout the world. Let's hear it for Bert!
St. Peter would have had his hands full when Bert arrived. Although we had not met for years, we spoke on the telephone three or more times a year. In his roguish way, he would invariably find an opportunity to pull my leg and insist that I keep my feet on the ground while he, the rascal, was working in the spiritual roles. Usually we would end the conversation, by my telling him a joke. However good it might be, he would invariably rubbish it. “Where do you get them from?” was his usual reaction. However there was one joke that he did appreciate, the one where two generals sitting in their club in St. James's street, reading The Times. One of them, who had been reading an article on the sex habits of the young, threw his paper onto the table with disgust and said to the other general, “What are things coming to? I never slept with my wife before we were married.” The other general looked over the top of his paper, and said, “I don't know, old chap, what was her maiden name?”
Even Bert had to give in to that one. I loved the man. Bert was a loyal friend; the man who introduced us to Bert was John Haywood, chief librarian of the famous Shoreditch woodworking college. John is a mean woodturner himself. The last time I spoke to Bert (some three weeks before his passing) Bert said, “Have you spoken to John lately?” When I confessed that I had not, he said, “You should do so.” Bert thought a lot of John. Finally, a recognition of the big contribution Bert made to the success of Woodturning magazine. With his immense knowledge of woodturning and woodturners, he guided us from the wings without ever taking centre stage.
But now it's fairwell time. It is now often that my eyes fill with tears, but they do so now. Goodbye, Bert…and do try and behave.
Naturally I was already familiar with Bert's excellent simple turnings, but my first memories of Bert himself were actually stories that his good friend, Ray Key told me years ago. Their long and close friendship based on deep respect was clear in the fond way Ray would talk about their teasing. Ray would say things like “When I turn a bowl that I am not pleased with I will sign it 'Bert's Best'.” Or when Bert would give him a bowl of his, Ray would say “Come on Bert, you haven't left enough wood in this bowl to start a fire.”
I had the good fortune to meet Bert while we were both presenters at the Utah woodturning symposium. My first direct encounter with him was after watching him examine my work from across the room in the instant gallery. He came over and shook my hand and the only word he said was “congratulations.” This was high praise from Bert and of course I was very pleased.
He was a bit reserved, almost shy, in the next couple of encounters over that weekend, but by the last morning we were chatting over breakfast like we were old friends. Along with an amazing knowledge of a wide range of timbers, his wry sense of humour was delightful and the two of us talked for a very long time. He was very supportive and generous and sadly it was the last time our paths crossed.
In 2005, I travelled to England, on a trip organised by Mark Baker, who asked what I would like to do on my down time there. I told him that I wanted to visit Bert, who I felt I already knew, from having spent over a decade looking at his work. Bert seemed surprised with the visit, asking me, “Why is an artsy guy like you wanting to visit a woodturner like me?” I replied, “The foundation of any great work is its form, and I have admired your work for a long time.” With that exchange of words, we instantly became friends. He took us to the beach in Brighton for ice cream and gave us an evil grin. Later, when we got to the beach, I realised why Bert liked ice cream on the beach so much!
Later on, we had a Chinese meal on the floating boat – he loved this place. We went on and discussed the inspiration for his forms, which were mostly drawn from the domes and shapes of architectural elements of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. After dinner, he took me there. It was absolutely magnificent architecture and, as we were walking around the palace, discussing how woodturning inspiration can be taken from the things that surround us, I came to appreciate his work even more.
A couple of years later, he visited Chicago for a woodturning event and stayed with me for a week. While I was at work, he mowed the lawn on my ride-on lawn mower. He loved cutting the grass, explaining that he could cut the grass in his yard in two minutes with a 'weed whacker.' When he was not playing in my yard, he turned wood, leaving behind a few pieces that we had discussed collaborating on.
Last year, Bert started complaining about his heart and that, as the problem was getting worse, he was no longer able to turn. After many trips to the hospital and consulting with a cardiologist, the conclusion was reached that, if he wanted to turn wood again, they would have to perform bypass surgery. Bert was 78 years old, and no doctor would recommend it, when he could simply take it easy and enjoy life. The problem was, Bert couldn't enjoy life without turning wood. We spoke and exchanged emails and he told me that he really wanted to take a chance, since he really missed turning. This was his life and his passion and, without it, his life seemed lifeless. I absolutely know how he felt…when we love something, how can we measure that love? Would you risk your life for it? I have been faced with a similar decision in my journey to find freedom and so I understand Bert's decision.
When you are willing to risk it all for what you love that is true passion.
In Ancient Greece, they didn't write obituaries, they just asked one question: “Did he have passion?” In the case of Bert Marsh, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Bert risked his life for a chance that he might be able to turn again. His will to live the life of a woodturner came up against destiny. Perhaps someone upstairs needs Bert's turned wood bowls more than we do. So long my friend, you will be missed. We will meet again.
I first met Bert when I was invited to demonstrate at the Ripon Woodturning Symposium in the UK. Bert was also demonstrating there that year. I had asked Mark Baker to introduce me as I was excited to meet him, and he obliged. After Mark's introduction, Bert just looked at me and in a very dry manner said, “Hello”, and went right back to work setting up. I was rather dumbfounded by the single word response. I went about my business of preparing my demo area wondering if he was always like that.
Later that evening we were all taken out to dinner – Chinese as I recall – after all, doesn't everyone go to England for Chinese cuisine? After dinner we somehow ended up at a local pub called the River Rat and after a few beers, conversation was a little easier to come by. At some point, Bert told a joke and we all had a good laugh about it. I decided to jump in with a story of my own, and for the rest of the evening the jokes were plentiful. Any time Bert started laughing hard his response would be to belt out “Ohâ€¦shutâ€¦uuupp!” Each evening after that brought more good food along with a lot of good humour. Bert transformed before my very eyes from Bert Marsh the world famous woodturner into Bert Marsh the …. well, just Bert. As it turned out, under that dry, crusty exterior beat the heart of wonderful, fun-loving human being.
After returning home, we stayed in touch with an occasional phone call just to check up on one another, and we even talked about woodturning once in a great while. Along the way somehow, we had developed a closeness that was never anticipated, but most certainly welcomed. It was as if we had known each other for many years.
Later that year, as luck would have it, we were both demonstrating at the Utah symposium and it felt like a reunion. We had a grand time hobnobbing about when we weren't working. I remember in particular an afternoon trip, when along with several other turners we piled into an SUV and drove up to Sundance Valley to ride the ski lift there up the mountain. The entire trip was a non-stop festival of jokes, stories, impersonations, and the like. Everyone had something different to add to the fray, and I suspect that the laughter still echoes in those mountains.
Bert and I continued to stay in touch over the years, and I was aware of some of the health issues he had to deal with. He was always positive about them though, just as he was positive about everything in life. I was so shocked to receive the call about his passing that it took days to sink in. I kept thinking about how much he has contributed to this world, and to the woodturning community especially. Many thousands of turners have learned so much because of his willingness to share his knowledge and skills with us all. Every memory I have of Bert is special because they each make me smile and warm my heart any time they play in my mind. As with many of you, he will be thought of often and sorely missed.
Bert, Mark and I regularly went out to dinner. Bert's favourite place was a Chinese restaurant in Brighton Marina and I always looked forward to these evenings. However, my favourite memory of Bert was the day I helped him move his lathes and equipment to his new workshop in Burgess Hill. We had a great day, full of jokes, laughs and great conversation. I found Bert to be kind, generous and very willing to pass on the benefit of his experience and knowledge to me. I, like so many others, will miss him greatly.