A Portrait of the Artist as a Very Young Octogenarian

A Portrait of the Artist as a Very Young Octogenarian

In a kitchen steamy with boiling lobsters, his grandson bangs wooden spoons on an overturned bowl. His granddaughter claps and sways. His daughter plucks chords on a guitar. And his wife calls out lyrics as friends gather around a table that flows from a trunk-like pedestal into a curving swath of glossy walnut. “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,” croons the man who made the table, strumming his ukulele.

Sunshine is an apt image for this artist, whose tables, chairs, chests, and clocks inhabit museums, galleries, public spaces, and private homes around the world. As he embarks on a yearlong celebration of his 80th birthday and 50-year career, Wendell Castle is virtually basking in spotlights – including solo shows of his recent and early work; a new catalogue of 1,700 of his artworks; his fourth honorary doctoral degree; and yet another lifetime achievement award.

But perhaps just as enviable as Castle’s legacy as father of the art furniture movement is that he’s still going strong – and that he’s achieved all of this without sacrificing his personal life. If his sculptural furniture buzz-sawed through the boundary between art and craft, his lifestyle similarly shatters stereotypes.

What’s the secret of his success? “You gotta breathe a lot of sawdust,” Castle says, his Kansas twang dry as the Dust Bowl. “And carry around big planks.”

Sawdust and planks notwithstanding, Castle fits neither the starving artist stereotype nor the self-indulgent celebrity one. His life seems as playful and practical, as organic and firmly structured as his sculptural furniture.

The grandson of Midwestern farmers who survived the Great Depression, Castle put down deep roots in upstate New York some 50 years ago and has thrived, even amid the Great Recession. He lives with his wife of 41 years, sculptor Nancy Jurs, on a 16-acre estate in Scottsville, in a sprawling 107-year-old compound that’s brimming with their own and others’ art, a collection of sports cars, and with visiting family, friends, and neighbors.

But six days a week, Castle can be found several blocks away in his studio, where he and seven assistants create one-of-a-kind and limited-edition pieces priced between five and six figures. In nearby Le Roy, another team of craftspeople produce his classic designs in more affordable furniture for the Wendell Castle Collection, which he founded in 1998, and now sells through a dozen American showrooms.

Castle also often drives seven miles north of his home to Rochester Institute of Technology, which hired him 50 years ago and where he is currently an artist-in-residence, giving lectures and demonstrations to students in the Industrial Arts school, as well as the School for American Crafts.

Seven miles farther north lies Rochester itself, where he regularly plays tennis at the Genesee Valley Club, attends meetings of the Pundit Club, and supports the Memorial Art Gallery, which has acquired 12 of his pieces and will unveil his cast-iron installation in its new sculpture garden this spring.

“Wendell is a quiet and thoughtful man with a warm sense of humor,” says Memorial Art Gallery director Grant Holcomb, praising Castle and Jurs’ devotion to area artists and cultural institutions. “Let me only add that if Wendell is an original in art, as he is, he is also an original in dress, from boots to glasses.”

Hazel eyes encircled by tangerine-colored spectacles, lean frame clad in designer jacket and jeans (often consignment-shop finds), feet shod in scarlet cowboy boots, Castle is usually the most fashionable man at any opening. And the least talkative.

“But serve him his favorite martini,” says friend and tennis partner Samuel O. Tilton, “and then he will become quite chatty, and his wry sense of humor comes through clearly.”

What also comes through, in speaking to family and friends, is Castle’s loyalty – how the artist puts people first. He’s the husband who, the morning after his wife’s retrospective opened in 2009 in the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, sat by the hotel pool painting her toenails a bright magenta. He’s the father who flew to Paris to install bookshelves in the apartment of his daughter, Alison Castle, 39, who has written several books about artists and filmmakers and is planning to make a documentary about her “enigma” of a father.

He’s the mentor who has launched the careers of dozens of designers and sculptors, including his stepson, Bryon Jurs, 50, who works in Castle’s studio.

He’s the dog lover who, after a day of drawing and carving, makes time to chop chicken breasts to feed to Fozzie, the family’s elderly shih tzu.

He’s the competitive tennis player who tore the rotator cuff and tendon of his right shoulder in mid-stroke, had surgery, and was back on the court six months later, practically running through walls to return shots.

He’s the friend who lounges on his dock with this writer, watching his grandchildren – Arabella, 6, and Archibald, 3 – throw bread to koi swarming in the pond below. But those who know Castle also agree that nothing can come between him and his art, especially in recent years, when his focus has become, if anything, more intense.

Sawdust coats every surface in Castle’s workshop, gathers in corners like snowdrifts, and fills the air with a sweet, buttery smell like popcorn.

As his assistants saw, sand, and stain, Castle describes what they’re working on. Here’s a massive dining table and 10 chairs commissioned for a home in South Korea. There’s a plump purple fiberglass armchair and a series of sleek wooden tables destined for a gallery in Manhattan. And then there’s a scale model of what he calls his “most ambitious piece” – a 45-foot-long, two-story-high installation featuring three chairs, two tables, and a lamp set into a cast-iron floor, along with a spiral staircase leading to a cocoon-like enclosure where visitors can meditate. (An echo of his famed 1969 Environment for Contemplation, this new work debuts at New York’s Friedman Benda gallery in December.)

Regardless of size, material, or function, each new piece looks ready for takeoff. The forms are sleek, streamlined, and curved like nose cones or bullets or seed pods.

“They’re all ellipsoids,” Castle says. The three-dimensional form has fascinated the artist since he was a child. When a car in a cartoon was supposed to be moving, he recalls noticing as a youngster, the wheels became elliptical to convey “that leaning-forward, motion look.”

Now, as ever, his ideas emerge as he draws with graphite on 100 percent rag paper – while trying to suspend all bias, value judgments, and practical considerations, such as how long a piece might take to make or how much it might weigh.

“The purpose of a drawing is to generate ideas that become real things, not to make a beautiful drawing,” Castle says.

“I have no use for computer renderings,” he continues. “The computer wants to iron out your lumps and bumps, and I don’t want them ironed out. I want it to still have some funkiness, not be too slick.” But he does embrace technology to help capture that quirkiness and conserve his time and energy.

So after Castle renders the most promising drawings in three dimensions, carving maquettes out of urethane blocks, studio director Marvin Pallischeck sweeps them with a digital scanner, then prints out a series of blueprints for each successive layer of wood. Once cut, those layers will be glued into a single solid form, then sanded, stained and finished – just like Castle’s original stack-lamination pieces.

Unlike that early work, which featured exotic wood such as red Gabon ebony, his recent furniture is made of ash. Castle extols its virtues: long planks with hardly any knots; very hard, thus difficult to cut but durable; color variations that can be evened out with stain; and a pronounced grain that can be accentuated by sanding. “And we’re not endangering any rain forests – it grows in our backyard like a weed,’’ he says. “I’m not interested in the wood anymore. I’m interested in the form. And so are my clients.”

To ensure that his studio produces enough work to satisfy those clients, Castle is considering investing in robotic carvers to allow his team to shape layers more efficiently. “I’m always looking for better ways to do things,” he says. But to be truly creative, he insists, “artists should make work for themselves – ideally they don’t have a client.”

By extension, he does not think of his art as a business, he says. “I think of it as: I’m an artist working in a studio, and it’s expensive. So I have to make enough money to keep working in my studio. Because what I really want to do is work in a studio.”

And so he does, until 4:30 p.m., when he drives off in his powder-blue convertible for his Monday tennis match in Rochester.

Stay Tuned...

Wendell Castle’s 80th birthday was November 6, but the celebrations will continue through next year. Here are some highlights:

Volumes and Voids
His latest one-of-a-kind and limited-edition furniture, including a grid of nine wooden tables with identical bases and varying tops, through January 26 at Barry Friedman Ltd. in New York.

A New Environment
A two-story-high installation of stack-laminated pieces set in an iron base with a spiral staircase leading to a nestlike structure will open December 12 and run through January 26 at Friedman Benda gallery in New York.

Wandering Forms – Works from 1959 – 79
A show of early stack-laminated wood and fiberglass furniture, through February 20 at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut. The museum co-published a book by the same name this fall.

Forms Within Forms
Furniture from the first years of the 21st century will be on display November 29 – February 4 at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft in Louisville.

Catalogue Raisonné 1958 – 2011
Some 1,700 works covering each phase of the legendary artist’s career are documented in this ambitious book, which will be published by The Artist Book Foundation this spring.

The Unicorn Family
A table, chairs, and a 13-foot high LED lamp are part of this 1,000- pound cast-iron sculpture slated for the Centennial Sculpture Park of Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery. A kind of outdoor living room, it will be unveiled this spring.

International Exposure
Solo shows of his work will open at Carpenters Workshop Gallery in Paris early this year and at Seomi gallery in Seoul, South Korea, this summer.

The Road Map to Creativity

IIn 1996, Castle published his “10 Adopted Rules of Thumb,” a gleaned guide to creativity that quickly became a classic among artistic types. True to form, however, Castle didn’t stop there. Sixteen years later, here are 11 new adoptable rules from Castle’s current list-in-progress:

Wendell Castle’s New Adopted Rules of Thumb
1.   Distrust what comes easily.
2.   You have to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.
3.   Bring conflicting attitudes to bear on the same problem.
4.   We should never know for whom you’re designing.
5.   Always listen to the voice of eccentricity.
6.   The whole secret to designing a chair is applying the seat of your pants to the seat of the chair.
7.   The problem with taking life in your own hands is you have no one else to blame.
8.   If your mind is not baffled, your mind is not fully employed.
9.   Imagination, not reason, creates what is novel.
10. Jumping to conclusions is not exercise.
11. Keep knocking – eventually someone will look down to see who’s there.

The Original 10 Adopted Rules of Thumb
1.   If you are in love with an idea, you are no judge of its beauty or value.
2.   It is difficult to see the whole picture when you are inside the frame.
3.   After learning the tricks of the trade, don’t think you know the trade.
4.   We hear and apprehend what we already know.
5.   The dog that stays on the porch will find no bones.
6.   Never state a problem to yourself in the same terms it was brought to you.
7.   If it’s offbeat or surprising it’s probably useful.
8.   If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it.
9.   Don’t get too serious.
10. If you hit the bull’s-eye every time, the target is too near.

Sebby Wilson Jacobson is a writer and editor in Rochester, New York.