David Ellsworth: Teaching to Learn

David Ellsworth: Teaching to Learn

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At his small-group workshops, Ellsworth's students learn both the lathe and its place in contemporary craft. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

He is one of the most emulated woodturners in America. But David Ellsworth never feels threatened by copycats. "If a student copies the work of the master to learn the skills of one's craft, he or she will eventually grow tired of the master's work and realize his or her own voice - the voice we all search for in our work," he says.

Having spent more than 30 years in the classroom, Ellsworth, elected to the ACC College of Fellows in 2001, knows a thing or two about guiding students through that process. At his home in Pennsylvania, Ellsworth hosts three-day small-group workshops, where students learn not only how to turn wood, but also the history of the contemporary woodturning movement through his collection of artists' works dating back to the 1940s.

His mantra: "The key to being a good teacher is being a good student." Ellsworth takes pains to learn about each student on an individual level, so he can draw from their experiences and develop a more personalized curriculum.

Ellsworth holds a master's degree in sculpture, but he developed a passion for the lathe in junior high woodshop. A chance encounter with teacher and ceramist Paul Soldner led to his first job developing a woodworking program at Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Colorado in 1974.

"I never thought of [the crafted arts] as a career until I ran into Paul and got involved in the Anderson Ranch, with the whole philosophy of craft as an art form - that really changed me," says Ellsworth, today renowned for his thin-walled hollow vessels.

Eventually Ellsworth moved on to become an instructor at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Tennessee, where he's taught since 1983. In 1986 he co-founded the American Association of Woodturners, and to this day he encourages the work of beginning and pro­fessional woodturners alike through seminars, programming, and contributions to the AAW journal, American Woodturner. He recently published Ellsworth on Woodturning, a comprehensive guide to his philosophies and techniques.

When he's not emboldening others, Ellsworth has been experimenting lately with a new series of highly constructed, minimally turned pieces created from wood found on his property, in addition to continuing to make and market tools that help other woodturners excel in their work.

For makers starting out in any medium, Ellsworth has advice: Don't be afraid to share methods with others in your own field and beyond to gain both confidence and perspec­tive."Get out of your own backyard, expose yourself, and become vulnerable," he says.

"It's the only way to maintain a balanced ego, which you must have in order to survive as an artist."

Jessica Shaykett is the American Craft Council librarian.