Past, Present, and Future at the Huntington


For nearly four decades, Bill Hunter has been in the forefront of art created by wood turning. Not only are his works indicative of his virtuosic talents, they are elegant marriages of his inventive forms and the natural beauty of grained wood.

David Revere McFaddenMuseum of Arts and Design, New York ANTIQUES

William-Bill-Hunter's California of the late 1960s and early 1970s was a place of bell-bottoms, long hair, and creativity-and it fitted him to a tee. Inheriting a strong work ethic from his father and the capacity to dream from his mother, he balanced the two in many pursuits, from baseball to sport fishing while growing up in Long Beach. He found his way to his art as a philosophy student at California State Univer­sity Dominguez Hills, where he and two like-minded friends started a woodworking team in a garage.

Bill Hunter stands beside one of four venerable Podocarpus totara trees (native to New Zealand) planted in Henry Hun¬tington's day along the edge of the Rose Garden. Steiner-Halperin photograph.




Soon they were taking part in the craft fair explosion that started in Los Angeles about 1970. In 1973 Hunter and several others pursuing ideals of self-sufficiency and a contemplative life, moved to the Yosemite area of Northern California, where they established a co­operative wood-turning business called Sierra Wood Design and lived, equally cooperatively, without plumbing or electricity (although they wired an aban­doned building nearby to power their lathes). Living close to nature helped Hunter focus on his craft. Surrounded by mountains and rivers, flora and fauna, and in­vigorated by sunshine and snowfall, he studied nature to understand its energy and forces. Com­bining scientific observation with inspiration from myriad artistic sources, from the Bauhaus and the arts and crafts movement to Brancusi and Kandin­sky, he experimented endlessly, fascinated with capturing what he has called "motionless move­ment" in bowl forms that ripple with the rhythms of the tides or the wind.

Inner Space by Hunter, 2003. Cocobolo; height 8, diameter 10 inches. Collection of Stephen Weinroth; photograph by Alan Shaffer.


Fast forward to 1985. At a fair in Springfield, Massachusetts, Hunter's work attracted the eye of Jonathan L. Fairbanks, then curator of decorative arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, who soon commissioned a piece for the museum's permanent collection. In proposing its acquisition, Fairbanks observed, "turn­ing used to be a cost-effective method of preparing and shaping wood, craftsmen [such as Hunter] have taken the technol­ogy to new heights." The idea of craft as art had come to stay. Today Hunter's work is in numerous museum collections: the Yale University Art Gallery, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to name a few.

Evening by Paul Manship (1885-1966), c. 1938. Bronze; height 13 ½, length 21 inches. This small version of Evening, from the Moods of Time series that Man¬ship made on a monumental scale for the 1939 World's Fair in New York, was given to the Huntington with Morning and Day from the series in 1997. Gift of an anonymous donor.

"I've always been in­quisitive about the mate­rials I use," Hunter says, and understanding the properties of countless different woods allows him to use each one to its best advantage, from under-grade shipments of Brazilian kingwood to ebony, cocobolo rosewood, and satinwood. Over time his aesthetic has evolved from bowl shapes to more abstract forms, many exploring the deconstruc­tion of the vessel into helixes and other expres­sions of mass and space.

"In all of my series, I use my experience and knowledge to convey my feelings and interpreta­tions of nature. I use science in the studio to help inform my technique and refine my craftsmanship." This balance of feeling and science are expressed in the two objects at the Huntington that resonated with Hunter-a sixteenth-century Italian armillary sphere on display in the Main Exhibition Hall of the Library and Paul Manship's sculpture Evening. "I chose the armillary sphere because it reminded me so much of my piece Free Vessel, only from the scientific side. When I saw it I immediately thought of planetary arcs and galaxy spirals that have influenced my work." The sphere is believed to have come to the Library with Henry Huntington's small collection of early terrestrial and celestial globes by well-known cartographers and publishers such as Willem Jan­szoon Blaeu and Jodocus Hondius; like his excep­tional holdings of early maps and atlases, the globes reflect Huntington's twin interests in the old and new worlds.

Detail of an armillary sphere attributed to Antonio Santucci (active 1580-1619), Italian, c. 1580.


Hunter's words about Manship's sculpture, on display in a glass-walled loggia of the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art, might be applied to his own work: "Can a work of art be perfect? Probably not, but Manship's comes close....He is a master at accurately portraying muscular structure, proportion, gesture, and expression, while captur­ing spirit. He is able to express, in arrested moments, an exciting and dramatic motion that brings us into the abstract realm. To be able to convey and combine the real and the imagined worlds with this success is true genius."

Free Vessel by Hunter, 2003. Cocobolo; height 12 inches. Private collection; Shaffer photograph.

by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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