January 2012: Carving of the artist planing a board by Garry Smith
Header image: Carving of the artist planing a board by Garry Smith

Featured Artist: Garry Smith

Last updated: December 31, 2011

In a number of previous “Featured Artist” articles we have urged readers to take a look at the artist’s website. In the case of this month’s artist, a look at the website would render the article unnecessary. Garry Smith’s website address is www.superwoodworks.com, but beware—it’s a total trap. You could spend all day on it. What you’ll see is what results when art, fine craftsmanship, and patience is combined with a love of wood and a knowledge and understanding of the properties of wood. You’ll also find elements of a treasure hunt. Like a treasure hunter, Garry has some sense of what he’s looking for and some sense of where it may be found, but must rely on clues, insights, and a keen eye to actually find it. And he may not know just what’s in the box until it is open. So it is when he spots unusual stumps and burls. A case in point is reprinted from his web site:

“This past spring (2006) a new radio station came to the town of Newberry, Michigan (Eagle 96.7 FM). The trees on the west side of the lot were cut down. These trees were very old and large. The trees were cut up into firewood size pieces and hauled off except for one piece which lay in the sun by a maple stump for two months or more and became very weathered and cracked. I drove by this piece most every day, waiting to see if anyone that had claim to it would remove it.

“One day it got the best of me and I called the new radio station to ask if I could pick it up. A week or so later I received an email saying I could have the piece and to come and get it. When I cut into this gnarly piece of firewood, I could see it was something more than I had expected. The new radio station was interested in the history of this property and I thought that this piece of wood from this 100-year-old-plus tree that once towered over the property would tie in with the history.”

We asked Garry if the station had seen what became of the piece and he replied that he gave them one of the bowls he made from it. Two of the bowls he made from that chunk are shown below.

Smith’s creations run the gamut—from free form, burled centerpieces, vases and bowls to a breathtaking staircase with sunburst landing—all of curly birch (see photos below); from a whimsical sunroom door to a practical bathroom vanity; from an expertly fitted window sash to the beautifully carved piece that tops it. To adopt current phraseology—Garry Smith’s wood creations are “home grown” and “all natural”. Like the best of artists, he looks for what is unique and beautiful in each piece of wood and designs around it, in a sense using the ultimate shape as a frame to bring out its unique beauty. There is nothing forced or contrived in the result, be it a free form sculpture or a utilitarian piece of furniture. What there is, is simplicity and the absence of added frills. The wood is allowed to speak for itself. His range is truly impressive—everything from small vases and bowls to staircases and potting sheds. Also impressive is the utility and practicality of his designs. Doors fit, cabinets are carefully crafted for a hundred years of use, the beauty is not skin deep but part of the basic construction of each piece. Color and contrast is provided by the combination of different woods, and the variety of wood used is as wide as the UP.

The wood itself comes from local mills, woodlots, the side of the road, his neighbor’s yard. The only thing the woods have in common is that they're almost all local and that other than carving, shaping or polishing them he lets them be—their natural beauty and color shines through. Special effects and contrasts are achieved by combining different woods rather than by staining or painting.

Garry’s combination of art and craftsmanship means that one can enjoy the art by using it—opening a door, putting away clothing, walking up stairs, making a salad, setting a table or even going to bed. It doesn’t demand a block of time or a trip to the theater, it’s simply a part of life and work.

Garry Smith is mostly self-taught and that probably goes a long way toward explaining both the innovations and designs he has come up with and the direction in which his work has taken. Often when one has been taught how to do something, there is a tendency to stick to the straight and narrow and to refrain from experimentation. This may result in good craftsmanship but rarely in artistry or inventiveness. Failure is a great teacher and those who fear it are hobbled. Smith’s varied background has also served him well. He has worked as an auto mechanic, small engine repairer, sawyer, and carpenter. (When asked how he learned his craft, his reply was “hard knocks and determination.”)

Garry is married with three adult children, all of whom are woodworkers and one of whom is studying furniture design. His six grandchildren include two sets of twins. He has lived in Engadine since going there on a deer hunting trip at the age of seventeen.

His work is receiving a lot of well-deserved attention. America’s Best Home Workshops, a Better Homes and Gardens publication had an extensive article on his shop in 2009. His downdraft sanding table (an original design) was featured in Fine Woodworking’s Tools and Shops 2004/2005 Annual Issue. (See his Projects Index page at www.superwoodworks.com/ProjectsIndex.htm). We used one of his turned wood bowls as our 2011 Sault Summer Arts Festival raffle item and it was a very popular choice—it begged to be touched.

A few years ago Garry and a friend organized the Hiawatha Wood Turners Club. Beginning with a meeting in his Engadine shop the group has grown to include members from Cheboygan, Onaway, Harbor Springs, Boyne City, Engadine, Newberry, Garden, Sault (Ontario), and Moran. Members have a chance to show their work and to critique and learn from one another through demonstrations and the exchange of ideas. He says that the club has been a great inspiration.

Garry’s work can currently be found on his website, at the Art Tree Gallery in the Crooked Tree Art Center in Petoskey, at the Freshwater Studio in Boyne City, the Voyager Trading Post in St. Ignace, and in Alberta House. Schedule permitting, he will participate in some juried shows next summer—including, we hope, our own Sault Summer Arts Festival.

Works in Wood by Garry Smith
Click to see a larger version.

Staircase with sunburst landing of curly birch by Garry Smith

Staircase with sunburst landing of curly birch

Carved sunroom door by Garry Smith

Carved sunroom door

Carving of the artist planing a board by Garry Smith

Garry’s daughter took a photo of Garry planing, and drew it for him. Garry transferred the drawing to a 2” slab of curly birch and carved, later incorporating the carving into a window in his workshop (at right)

Window with carving of the artist planing a board by Garry Smith

Window with carving of the artist planing a board

Bowl given to Eagle 96.7 FM by Garry Smith

Bowl given to Eagle 96.7 FM

Second bowl given to Eagle 96.7 FM by Garry Smith

Second bowl given to Eagle 96.7 FM

Headboard and footboard by Garry Smith

This headboard and footboard are made of cherry with panels of curly birch. The bench is actually part of the footboard, making it free standing.

Cherry burl organic carved dish by Garry Smith

Cherry burl organic carved dish

Top of a jewelry box of black cherry by Garry Smith

Side of a jewelry box of black cherry by Garry SmithDrawer of a jewelry box of black cherry by Garry Smith

Top, side, and drawer of a jewelry box of black cherry

Sault Area Arts Council Home Page 217 Ferris Street, Sault Ste. Marie, MI 49783
e-mail: saac@saultarts.org Phone: (906) 635-1312