Paul Stafford

Monday 9 July 2018

Tegan Foley finds about more about the man hailed as the Wood Whisperer

Although new to me, Paul's work made an instant impression. He has a great philosophy toward his turnings in that he is very much in tune with the visual sensations of creating the raw material nature has provided. His works are quite diverse, from the amazing Zippered series, through to his various vessels and boxes. I spoke to Paul and found out more about his turnings, as well as his personal philosophy.

I started by asking Paul about his background and discovered that he always had an interest and somewhat of a talent for art: “My artistic activities have been in the background as I was educated and employed in the Aerospace industry while being married and raising children.” After he retired, Paul was to discover that woodturning was a natural activity to keep him busy, and so it evolved. Before he discovered woodturning he tried a multitude of other art forms, such as carving realistic duck decoys, but woodturning, for Paul, seemed like a logical progression.

Spurring an interest

Paul remembers a specific moment, back in the early 1980s when he was going through an art gallery in San Francisco: “I was amazed at some fantastic large bowl turnings created by Ed Moulthrop. I found them so attractive that I promised myself then and there that I was going to learn how to do that,” he says. This spurred Paul's interest and creativity and from here he quickly learned that he needed to invest in some more tools. This was a defining moment for Paul.

I asked him about his style of turning, which he finds is a frequently asked question. A common response he receives from viewers to his signature Zippered vessels is the whimsy they invoke: “Every so often I'll create a whimsical piece just for that reason,” he tells me. “It is nice to have a signature style but I don't relish being called the 'Woodturning Jester,' I'd rather stick with 'Wood Whisperer.' I consider my turning style to be eclectic. I continually try new designs to avoid repetitive work,” he finishes.

Often when Paul displays his turnings he is asked how he came up with the zipper idea: “Once, while I was studying a log trying to determine the best orientation, shape and design to bring out the interesting characteristics of the wood and leave out some of the unwanted areas, I thought to myself, unfortunately, the inside characteristics are what I'm going to reveal and I have no insight into what's there. Too bad there isn't a way to see inside the log. That is the genesis of my zippered vessel designs,” Paul tells me.


In terms of his inspiration, Paul studies everything – especially in nature – and makes a conscious effort to visualise whatever it is in the form (or part) of a turning: “My most unusual ideas pop into the right side of my brain around 2 o'clock in the morning when I awake. I learned to nurture new ideas over time, thinking and rethinking the original concept. It invariably evolves to a design that I strive to make new, unique and inspiring,” he tells me.

Since Paul first started turning he views the quality of his work and designs as having definitely matured: “Evolution is inherent in just about everything – I'd like to think for the better. As an amateur turner I went through an initial phase of learning the technicalities and what different tools can and can't do, and how to accomplish it,” he continues. As Paul began to explore different timbers, he began to experiment with simple shapes and vessels, creating various gifts for family and friends.

Due to Paul's engineering background, he found that he started approaching woodturning with an analytical, logical and objective state of mind: “I could not find any clear guidelines to know when a platter morphs into a bowl, a vase, a vessel, a hollow form, etc. I set off to establish clear rules and specifications to classify turned objects,” he says. One evening he had a revelation and decided to dispose of his charts, graphs and diagrams: “I became a holistic synthesiser using random and intuitive thoughts to develop new

designs capable of being created within the restrictions of turning and carving tools. I left behind my urge to classify turnings with specific titles and categories,” he tells me.


Another fork-in-the-road moment happened when Paul reached an understanding that unique and unusual designs sold better than what could be classified as 'standard' vessels: “I started to deviate from using flawless wood. Pieces that incorporated natural gaps, splits, knots, etc. became more interesting,” he continues. “Earlier in my career I became an advocate of the use of colour to enhance the attractiveness and saleability of vessels. I consider this a necessity for plain, characterless wood. I never conceived of using this technique early in my experience,” he finishes.

In terms of influences in Paul's career, he cites just about every woodturner and woodworker he has come across who has left some amount of influence on what he does today: “One of the great things I noticed with other woodturners is their willingness to share their knowledge. Reading magazines, like Woodturning, generates a wealth of ideas and concepts for me to use and try.”


Paul's workshop measures 6.5 by 3.5m, with plenty of bright overhead lighting: “There is a furnace to provide warmth in the winter, and my air compressor and large dust collector are in a shed on the other side of the wall. I have another dust collector mounted on the ceiling, workbench, drill press, bandsaw, grinders, router table, table saw, and disc sander – all cosy within this space,” he says.

When I asked Paul about his work ethos, he tells me how his retirement has shaped this quite substantially: “I no longer wanted anything to do with schedules, abiding to other peoples' specifications and goals. Consequently, now I let my own interests motivate my activities. I do what I want, when I feel like doing it. I do have an inner drive to keep busy and to be creative, and as yet, have not run out of design ideas.”

The future

In terms of the future, I get the feeling that Paul is happy on the path he is currently treading: “I'm living my dream,” he says. “I fully expect that circumstances will come up that will affect my lifestyle and I'll adjust accordingly. Throughout my adult life I've dabbled in various art forms, but woodturning has kept me fully involved for well over a decade now – it is the longest running sideline activity I ever got into.”

Paul does not see his preoccupation with woodturning as being a 'career,' he finds this misleading, and instead he views it as an activity that he enjoys, but which will come to an end as it evolves into a new and different interest. “Seldom does it go through a low period,” Paul tells me. Instead, he finds there are stages when new ideas are difficult to conceive and times when he has to think hard and force himself to come up with a new concept. He tells me that all his highs began at the end of a low: “A germ of an idea starts to form and I work on it. I get excited about it and can't wait until it's completed.”

When I asked Paul about his thoughts on the best aspects of turning, he brings up his frustration with its lack of regional public interest: “I've exhausted considerable effort attempting to get art venues to sponsor a woodturning exhibition of local woodturning artists' works. They claim no interest because the public is not in the market for our artworks. It follows that we collectively must change the public's interest toward more acceptance,” he says.

In terms of promotion, Paul enters art shows sponsored by Art Guilds and councils locally and around the country under the sculpture or 3D category: “These shows generally last about a month with a side benefit of the potential for an award. I continually hope this exposure makes the art loving public aware of woodturning as an art form.” He encourages other turners to help in this matter, and over the years he has observed a slow but steady increase internationally in the number of people interested in woodturning.

Paul also has his own website, and finds that the sales online manage to pay the site expenses.

There is one promotional activity, however, that Paul is definitely not getting into: “I want to take this opportunity to refute the rumour going around. I have no intention of participating in the promotion or sale of a Stafford/Ellsworth fragrance.”

Paul also belongs to three Art Guilds in his region and regularly attends craft festivals throughout the year. “Primarily, I find the best exposure with reliable sales all year long is through art galleries that take my works on consignment. It puts the works in potential buyers' faces where they can touch and feel them, Paul finishes.” It was a great pleasure to talk with Paul and get a feel for the amazing pieces he creates, although I am still baffled as to how he creates the fantastic Zippered pieces. If you would like to see more of Paul's work, see website details opposite.