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Esherick Museum's Poplar Culture

Miriam Carpenter, Karnapidasana. Photo: Mark Sfirri
David Ellsworth, Esherick Sphere. Photo: David Ellsworth
Ray Kelso, Stool. Photo: James Mario
Miriam Carpenter, Karnapidasana. Photo: Mark Sfirri
Photo gallery (11 images)

Wharton Esherick is often called the grandfather of the studio furniture movement. He thought of himself as a sculptor who built furniture, and he created a home and workshop just outside of Philadelphia, where he was able to follow his creative muses. After Esherick's death in 1970, the home and studio were turned into a museum. When one of the majestic poplar trees near the studio was ready to come down, the museum decided to do something interesting with the wood. The resulting show, "Poplar Culture: The Celebration of a Tree," opens with a preview party on May 20 and goes until June 10. I got a chance to talk to museum director Paul Eisenhauer about the show.

Can you tell me about the origins of this show?
The idea for the show began when we realized that the poplar tree that stood directly behind Esherick's studio was unstable and needed to come down. It is a significant part of the landscape, and its presence helped define the size and shape of the studio. We did not want to just get rid of it. Instead, we wanted to do something positive. The basic idea was to use the tree to make art, and to sell the art to support the Wharton Escherick Museum. I wanted to honor the tree, and to see how many different ways it could be used.

How did you pick the artists you gave pieces of the tree to?
There were two guiding principles: We wanted the show to be diverse in terms of styles and types of things produced; we also wanted to represent all the types of people who have been inspired by Esherick. We invited artists whose work we knew and appreciated, who were friends of the museum, and who were not so far away that the cost of getting wood to them would be prohibitive. We also had a number of artists who asked to participate after they heard about the show. We have established artists, emerging artists, hobbyists, and students. The range of pieces presented is great fun: We have a splint basket, plates, bowls, and other functional tableware, tables, benches, stools, sculpture, relief carvings, shelves, cabinets, vessels, woodcut prints, and ceramics, with glaze made from the ashes of the tree.

Were there any rules attached to the wood?
I told the artists to honor the tree and to use only the poplar. They could paint or stain or do whatever they wanted. As artists do, not all followed the rules. Some used other woods. But the poplar is the centerpiece of all the pieces.

Poplar is a relatively neutral wood, and is often seen as a lesser hardwood compared to other traditional furniture species such as maple, walnut, cherry, and mahogany. Do you think this impacted what the artists created?
It did. We saw this as a challenge to the artists. Limitations can have a wonderful way of unlocking creativity. Several remarked on the challenge of using poplar. This particular tree had beautiful streaks of green, brown, and purple, and several of the artists used that in their design. Others found some incredible figure in the wood, as well as the colors, and did some beautiful turnings and carved pieces with that. Others used only the creamy sections. A few painted their pieces because the color and figure detracted from their ideas.

Did Esherick often use wood from his own land?
He once said, "If I can't make something beautiful out of what is in my back yard, I shouldn't make anything at all."  Most of what he made came from the region, because his land was not that wooded.

Did any of the pieces particularly surprise you or stand out?
Many of the pieces stand out. Some of the biggest surprises came from the color and the figure that the wood turners found in the wood. They shot down the idea that poplar doesn't have much character. Many of the artists produced work that is recognizably theirs, which is what we were hoping for. Other's surprised us. Jack Larimore produced an amazing piece from the top of the tree – the part that had a rotten core. I knew he would do something interesting, but I was unprepared for how amazing his piece is.

Anything else you'd like to add?
One of the greatest joys of producing this show has been the generosity shown by everyone. People have been inspired by Esherick and his studio, and it shows in the work they produced. 

For more information about the Poplar Culture show and preview party, contact the Wharton Esherick Museum at 610-644-5822 or [email protected]. Or visit the Museum’s website at www.whartonesherickmuseum.org.

Andrew Zoellner is American Craft's assistant editor.

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