Kelly Dunn

Monday 9 July 2018

This month I had the pleasure of meeting American, and now Hawaiian based woodturner, Kelly Dunn. Kelly works with a variety of timbers, especially those native to Hawaii, including koa, milo and poinciana woods and uses these to create a wealth of bowls, hollow and art forms. He takes great inspiration from his surroundings and has his works displayed in a number of galleries and private collections around the world.


Born in Texas, Kelly's father was an Air Force fighter pilot, and as a result, the family travelled from base to base. Kelly tells me how he was always making things, mostly forts and tree houses: “The last one I made was three stories high set between five large cypress trees in a swamp in South Carolina,” he tells me. Kelly was also creative in a number of other ways and had his first poem published when he was 16, then received his first award for sculpture at the age of 18.

In 1970, Kelly left the South for Colorado to finish school. Here, he fell in love with the mountains and was accepted into a craft co-op in Manitou Springs: “Here I began making craft candles. I finished high school and in my second year of college got discouraged and dropped out – I wanted to be an archaeologist,” Kelly tells me. He was told that he would very rarely get to dig and most likely would become a university professor. So, Kelly decided to open a candle shop and craft gallery. “Other than turning on a lathe in seventh grade shop class, I knew nothing about turning. A retired fellow had turned candlesticks in my gallery and I recall they sold well. My mother's father had had a full woodshop and my dad got most of it, including his turning tools.” Kelly decided to sell the business in 1978 and after spending six months in San Francisco, moved to Hawaii.

Starting woodturning

Once in Hawaii, Kelly and his family moved into a house in the town of Waimea: “Here I got into carpentry and woodturning. My next-door neighbour was a retired engineer and turned boxes, eggs and other small items that he sold in a local craft shop.” Kelly would watch him turn and one day he gave Kelly a very old lathe: “He said I had to turn him an egg that he liked and then I could have the lathe, so my dad sent me my grandfather's turning tools. And, with no instruction, I began to butcher pieces of wood, but I did make that egg,” he tells me. Kelly hired himself out and became a passable carpenter. He continued to make things on the lathe and gave them away to people. By the early 1980s Kelly was, in his own words, a lousy turner but a pretty good carpenter. A very bad recession sent him to the California Bay area to find work: “I eventually found myself as a foreman for designer Bob Waterman for his shop that made one-off furniture and fancy arbour systems for homes and gardens. As a result, I became a very good furniture maker.” Kelly experimented with making turned legs for tables and chairs and from here he began to practise with various high-speed tools and a Delta lathe.

A breakthrough for Kelly was attending a wood show in 1985 and seeing Dale Nish show slides of his work during a lecture; he couldn't believe that the things Dale was making could be turned on a lathe. Inspired, Kelly began to purchase various high-speed tools and began to practise his sharpening techniques, thanks to the help of Richard Raffan and Nick Cook.

Even though working for Bob was a great job, Kelly was eager to return to Hawaii and be his own boss again. On his return, he found that his house had sold, so he bought some land and over time designed and built the house he and his family currently live in. All the time, his turning was improving and he began to make hollow forms and bowls, but soon complications began to emerge: “My back was so bad that I could hardly work. I ended up having surgery in Marin County, California in 1989. I was advised to no longer make heavy furniture, and was steered in the direction of turning bowls instead,” Kelly explains.


As a result of the advice given by the neuro surgeon, Kelly began to work as a full-time turner in 1989, but had no idea that he would eventually become a production bowl turner: “I asked the best turner I knew – Jack Straka – to help me out. I modelled myself and my business on Jack's, producing salad bowls made mostly from Hawaiian koa wood.” He also began to turn traditional Hawaiian calabash bowl forms that Jack was so well known for. “So, I became a production faceplate turner,” says Kelly.

Turning style

Kelly finds it hard to describe his turning style himself, but Dick Gerard, a founding AAW member describes Kelly as a “Contemporary Hawaiian turner with strong traditional influences in a minimalist manner.” Other turners, including Nick Arnull, describe Kelly's turned forms as being “Traditional pure turned wood using Hawaiian sourced timbers to create natural flowing forms, highlighting the natural beauty within each piece.” These descriptions help to paint a picture of reference and make you realise that Kelly's turning is concerned with his heritage and roots, as well as traditional turning and creating beautiful forms – both utilitarian and contemporary. Kelly uses mostly woods native to Hawaii and cites his translucent bowls as being his signature pieces: “These are made from Norfolk pine and I create lots of bowls. I fill a bowl with Hawaiian grown wood balls and sell them as a collection. The smallest item I make is a small spinning top from Hawaiian koa wood.” Kelly's repertoire is broad and makes the most of the natural resources available within Hawaii, as well as picking up on traditional designs, such as the calabash bowl, and making these his own.


In terms of inspiration, Kelly cites mostly natural elements, including clouds, flowers and sunsets – all of which inspire the soul: “My basic inspiration was seeing a very nice flowing bowl form made by Jack Straka; secondly is the work of David Ellsworth. The rest is me trying to find my voice away from my signature work.” Other turners who Kelly is inspired by include Betty Scarpino, Jim christiansen, Rolly Munro and Graeme Priddle, who are just a few turners whose work encourage him to step out of his own box. Bob Stocksdale's rice bowl forms are a staple in his smaller bowls.

In the late '80s David Ellsworth agreed to critique Kelly's work whenever they were at the same event: “At his urging, I slowly have begun to see form and to price work by the piece, not by size. My advice to any turner is to be a sponge when it comes to work you admire. To learn all about why that person does what they do and how they do it.”

Kelly was floundering some years back and Betty Scarpino told him to keep at least one experimental piece going at all times: “I highly recommend doing that,” says Kelly.

Kelly finds that as time has passed, his forms have taken on more classical flowing lines: “To know a classical design, look at router bits. Our bowls are the whole bit, and I have become a very serious student of the Hawaiian calabash bowl,” he tells me.

Work space

Kelly's studio is part of a separate building on his property measuring 22 x 28ft wall to wall. Much less is usable with all the benches and wood and piles of bowl and vessel blanks. Kelly tells me that he has a large bowl lathe cast in concrete, but this very rarely gets used these days. He also has an old Carbotec lathe on wheels and a Oneway 2436 with the large outboard sitting in the middle of the room: “I have two 6ft doors that open up and two other doors and fans blow cool air around when it's hot. My view out of the workshop is of palm trees and our orchard,” Kelly finishes.

Highs and lows

When I asked Kelly about the highs and lows of his career so far he cites the highs as being slowly accepted by peers of well known turners, and then being considered as one to emulate by newer turners: “Giving back as those who gave to me did is a feel good thing. It is always a high to get positive feedback from those that buy my work.” The lows, according to Kelly, are when the muse has left the building, or times when he flounders for direction away from production work. This is when he thinks back to the advice of Betty Scarpino.

For Kelly, the best thing about turning is that it is a one-to-one process between the turner and the work. What starts out as chips, shavings and dust soon becomes a finished piece, and this is very pleasing to someone who has no choice but to make things.

In terms of the future, Kelly wishes that he had a crystal ball to see where he was heading: “I would like to do more sculptural work, but I think I will go with whatever flow the universe provides,” he tells me. Kelly is the founding member and treasurer of West Hawaii Woodturners and is on the board of directors for the Hawaii Wood Guild.