A Way to See the World

“Wood has a rhythm of its own,” says Stoney Lamar. The same could be said for the sculptor’s long, varied career. Photo by Rimas Zailskas

It seems odd that Stoney Lamar nearly became a psychologist, considering his major success as an artist, including a body of work that’s been admired for almost 40 years. But the two paths aren’t really that disparate, because Lamar’s interior geography is mapped onto the shapes and lines of his wood sculptures. “Everyone has a way to see the world, and for me it’s in geometric patterns, in planes and lines,” Lamar says. “I study how each work fits into my cosmology.”

Lamar observed at close quarters the outer limits of self expression during his two years, in the early ’70s, as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. He was assigned community service at an Atlanta hospital for emotionally disturbed children, and noted in the behaviors of the patients and the responses of the staff the hazy, shifting line between what was considered normal and what was judged illness. He came within a few days of earning his degree in psychology before deciding he had too much empathy with the patients’ struggles, and gave it up.

A suspicion of the conventional and a passion for the beautiful were embedded in Lamar’s worldview early on. His father, an Episcopalian minister, was encouraged to leave a small Louisiana congregation in the 1950s after allowing an African-American to attend services. His mother, a nurse, was plagued all her life by ill health and coped by surrounding herself with local crafts and the kind of “beautiful objects,” as Lamar recalled them, that he would go on to make himself in later life. But he was mostly left to his own devices while growing up. “The writing was on the wall when I was a teenager, maybe by 15 or 16,” Lamar remembers. “I was on a slippery slope that wouldn’t have had a good ending.” But his father found a new congregation in Tryon and Lamar did well enough in high school to be accepted at UNC in Chapel Hill. But then he was called up in the draft during the Vietnam era and began his alternate service in the Atlanta hospital.

Shibori (detail).

The years that followed eventually brought him a degree in industrial arts from Appalachian State, marriage in 1979, and an ill-fated attempt to earn a living as a furniture maker, a craft which turned out to have little appeal for him. He found making wooden bowls equally dispiriting, even though he enjoyed working with a lathe a friend loaned him. “I never thought what I was doing was making art,” he admits of his early relationship with wood. “Bowls were a way of making a living, although I fell in love with the process of working with the lathe. It suited me more, it was more spontaneous.”

The turning point came early in the 1980s, when Lamar and his wife Susan Casey decamped to rural New Hampshire while Lamar apprenticed as a woodturner with the noted artisan Mark Lindquist. It was where he developed a uniquely personal way to work with the lathe, developing a technique to use it as a carving tool rather than just a wood-turning one. This allowed him to express himself in wood as never before, making one-of-a-kind sculptural pieces. “I began to perceive the world in my work with the lathe,” Lamar says. “I didn’t see it as a way to make production items, but a place to go to develop a conceptual vocabulary of planes and lines.” Soon after, he and Susan settled in Saluda, where Lamar’s father had his last congregation and where the couple have lived ever since.

The sculptures that have emerged from Lamar’s mountaintop studio — crafted of oak, walnut, ash and the red-tinged fruitwood madrone, among other species — vary in dimension from table-top sized to elongated six-foot-tall pieces, sometimes in spiked, forest-like groups, and often incorporating steel elements. Many are colored using a traditional Shaker-derived paint made from milk, valued for its translucent glow. “People ask why I’m putting paint on the wood, but I want them to see the form, not the material itself,” Lamar explains. “Paint takes the focus off the wood and emphasizes form first.”

All Dressed Up

But he’s also well aware of the material’s inherent artistry. “Wood has a rhythm of its own, in the way the seasons affect the grain,” he says. “There’s a summer grain, which is deeper than the grain laid down during the winter.” Lamar uses the grain patterns to add texture to each piece, emphasized by selectively sandblasting painted areas, then repainting them to delineate the grain further. He often leaves intact the cutting marks made by the lathe instead of sanding them away.
More recent work has been larger in scale, some pieces more roughly worked, a reflection of reduced fine motor control. Lamar was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease nearly ten years ago, and he’s let his condition’s physical effects define a new style. Many of his newer pieces are bifurcated, divided by what Lamar has called a “wellness line” separating the segments of health and illness, positive and negative, the two halves bound together into a whole. “I impose myself on the material,” Lamar says. “There’s something there about who I am.”

Stoney Lamar’s most recent work is included in the group show “Forging Futures: Studio Craft in Western North Carolina” at Blue Spiral 1 (38 Biltmore Ave., Asheville, bluespiral1.com) through Friday, August 25, co-curated by The Center For Craft, Creativity & Design. The artist will be honored during a special ticketed event at the gallery, “Celebrating Stoney Lamar,” on Thursday, August 10, followed by a dinner and program at CCCD. For more information, see cccdnow.org/celebratingstoney. (Also: www.stoneylamar.net)

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