Hatching a Genre

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This article is from Issue 4 of Woodcraft Magazine.

By D Wood

A happy marriage of lathe work and sculpture has made Betty Scarpino one of the country’s most notable turners and studio artists. 

Exploring such concepts as motherhood, femininity and the boundaries of art, her Altered Plates and Egg Series could have inspired the term “lathe artist.”

In 2002 the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. opened “Wood Turning in North America Since 1930.” The exhibition included the work of such august classical turners as James Prestini, Bob Stocksdale, Art Carpenter and Rude Osolnik. 

One might expect that a man on par with these grandfathers of the American lathe would give the keynote address. However, in an inspired move, the Renwick chose to highlight four female turners who had transformed the genre both in terms of its demographics and its forms. One of these women was Betty Scarpino.

It was a special moment for Scarpino. She was honored to be chosen as a representative of contemporary turning. 

“It helped me step back from my anxieties about whether my work was good enough,” she says.

Later, when she was invited to join Virginia Dotson, Michelle Holzapfel and Merryll Saylan in a panel presentation about women in woodworking, she saw it as the icing on the cake. Not only her art but her stature within the community was being acknowledged. In the elegant Grand Salon with its gilded frieze and art treasures, Betty Scarpino had arrived. Yet she soon packed her laurels into her suitcase and headed home.

Home, for Scarpino, means Indianapolis. It also means her skylit garage studio, her two sons aged 20 and 17, and the artistic community of central Indiana. 

Lately, Scarpino’s recognition in her adopted state has allowed her to expand her creativity beyond the realms of woodturning, and it is timely to review her 30-year journey. In order to do this, I spoke with her at Anderson Ranch in Colorado. 

Scarpino was teaching at Anderson Ranch, a one-week course on using the lathe in conjunction with methods of cutting, carving, coloring and texturing to create sculptural forms. Scarpino presided over a class of seven turners as they moved back and forth between lathes and drill presses, bandsaws and hand tools as they emulated their instructor's own methods. 

“overlay” is crafted of maple and mounted on stained poplar. It measures 15" in diameter.

Scarpino is best known for her Altered Plates series of sculptural turnings. She begins by turning a uniform plate or disc, and then cuts it. The plates are carved; the discs undergo more cutting. The portions separated from the mother form, whether elaborately carved or simply modified, are then reunited. 

Scarpino believes that the activity of removing sections of discs and putting them back together is a metaphor for human lives. We often mess up the components of our existence and are forced to reassemble them in unexpected ways. The results, frequently, are much richer than the original. I overheard observers of Scarpino’s slide show exclaim in surprise that her beautiful sculpture was woodturning.

The freedom of limitations

Scarpino clarifies that there are two similar series – Altered Plates and Altered Discs. Both arose in large part due to limitations of the lathe, although Scarpino doesn’t regard the word “limitation” as negative. She feels limitations provoke creativity. 

One such limitation, her lathe’s 12" capacity, prompted Scarpino to seek ways to give the plates more presence. She devised stands to complement each piece. Each with its own pedestal, the Altered Plates are “altared,” referring not only to how the objects are displayed but to the importance of the personal transformation they represent. 

Scarpino is a wordsmith and enjoys the meditative hours of carving and seemingly endless sanding that allow her to formulate profound, sincere titles and incorporate layers of meaning into her work. This is partly why she is invited to Anderson Ranch, where woodworking is regarded as artistic expression. 

BLACK AND WHITE, a recurring color choice in Scarpino’s work, play a dramatic role in her piece entitled “Vessel.”

 Scarpino’s career in woodworking began at the other end of the art/craft continuum. She grew up in Montana in an environment unversed in either  art or craft. Despite not knowing what a bandsaw or lathe was, she enrolled at the University of Missouri at the age of 25 in an effort to learn to work with her hands. She took classes in woodworking, metals and drafting, and graduated in 1981 with a degree in industrial arts. During her last semester she employed the lathe to make a bowl and a table pedestal; she took two semesters of wood sculpture as well. But she didn’t realize there was a community of woodturners out there, pushing the craft far beyond these classroom experiences.

While she felt at home in the art department, it would be some years before she revisited that satisfaction. For a time, she simply wanted to make small items and furniture in her own studio. When her husband completed his PhD and the couple decided to have children, she purchased a lathe and a bandsaw with the goal of combining woodworking and motherhood.

The family of three (Scarpino was pregnant with her first son) moved to San Marcus, Texas and Scarpino spent several years working on the lathe. She made items such as cutting boards, candle holders, baby rattles and bowls in an effort to master technique. She was still oblivious to the turning community until Bob Rubel, the first journal and newsletter editor for the American Association of Woodturners, knocked on her door. He wanted turning lessons. Scarpino was thereby introduced to the AAW. 

An academic posting sent the family to Oklahoma where Scarpino entered her first competition in 1986. She says she expected to win first prize at the Forest Heritage Association show, thinking her unorthodox, knock-their-socks-off vessel would have no rivals, but she placed second after Alan Lacer (who later became president of the AAW). Lacer was just as surprised as Scarpino – he expected to walk away with the prize, but faced a serious threat from an unknown. A female unknown at that!

most of scarpino’s work – like “Forms of Desire,” shown here – requires a variety of combined colors and finishes.

Making connections

The next year the family moved to Indianapolis, where a second son was born. Scarpino worked part-time as an editorial assistant for a history journal and continued woodturning in her basement. She went to an AAW conference and met Pete Hutchinson, who wanted to resign as the organization’s volunteer editor. Scarpino readily assumed Hutchinson’s duties and from 1990 to 1993 was editor-in-chief of the American Woodturner. 

“I began to think about what it meant to have a record of the woodturning movement,” she says. 

The result was that she made connections, did research and wrote about the development of woodturning so that current happenings would eventually become part of the movement’s history. In addition she became aware of potentialities within the field and actually thought about her own work instead of just making it. As editor, she attended conferences and, setting aside personal bias, attended everyone’s presentations to report on them. In this way she was exposed to and absorbed a range of concepts that she stored away for the future. After her tenure as editor, she devoted herself full-time to turning.

Scarpino’s artistic journey into the mid-1990s had a logical progression – she had accumulated knowledge and ideas and honed the ability to express herself; she had made the effort to meet people and attended classes given by esteemed experts; and she had marketed her work to local galleries and given demonstrations. She had transformed from a turner making functional goods into a wood sculptor using the lathe as just one of many tools.

When the spotlight shone on her, Scarpino was lauded as an overnight success. More realistically, it was years of practice, learning and networking that brought recognition to her unique work.

She began to create the Altered Plates at this time. The 10th anniversary AAW show entitled “Growth Through Sharing” (1996) was Scarpino’s first national exposure; the accompanying catalog contained her entry, “Stepping Out of Line.” The title refers to the lines created by the lathe as well as the tradition of unadulterated wood. 

After staining and clearcoating, Scarpino begins to rub in a coat of liming wax.

The liming wax, tinted with yellow pigments, is rubbed deep into the grain.

The wax is removed with fine steel wool.

The top form receives a coat of shoe polish on top of yellow stain.

A thorough rubbing with fine steel wool leaves coloration only in the grain.

There was meaning, too, in Scarpino’s choice of paint color: black and white. There are no black-and-white or hard-and-fast rules about art. More often than not, those who take exception to the rules get noticed more than those who follow them all.

A detail of “Stepping Out of Line” appeared on the cover of the exhibition catalog, selected by its editor, Rick Mastelli. Subsequently, the piece was purchased by Robyn Horn, a prominent collector and turner. Scarpino’s stepping out of line was recognized.

Horn invited her to submit entries for “Moving Beyond Tradition: A Turned Wood Invitational” in Little Rock, Ark., in 1997. Scarpino credits some of her turning mentors in the exhibition catalog: Merryll Saylan, whose work “allowed me to consider using color with wood”; and Mike Hosaluk, John Jordan and Steve Loar, who “encouraged early forays into woodworking beyond making bowls.” One of her submissions, “In Lieu of Housework,” permitted her to express herself as an artist and obliquely as a woman.

“We didn’t talk about ourselves because it wasn’t done,” she says. “It’s different now. Women are entities in and of themselves, and my gender is part of what informs me. I make a concerted effort to express who I am – a mother, a woman going through menopause.” 

Her Egg Series more openly addresses feminine motifs.

“Blue Egg Bowl” (1998) was the first of these pieces. The eggs and their containers speak of birds and nests; birth, life, family and home. Eggs are metaphors for new beginnings and the cycle of nature. Egg imagery is often symbolic of womanhood, whether it means fecundity or barrenness. With “Blue Egg Bowl” Scarpino transcended basic turning to create sculpture about togetherness and isolation represented by form and color. It also initiated Scarpino’s entry into fine-art circles when it garnered a first-place award in a regional juried exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art Columbus Gallery.

scarpino’s sculpture, “From With Our Own Bodies” is on display at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery.

Answering questions

By the late 1990s, Scarpino had confronted many of her troubling questions about creating art, such as, can a woodturner be an artist? Is turning fully satisfying? Can a lathe be used to make sculpture? Why use a lathe at all if the intent is sculpture? 

“I felt like an outsider in the turning community,” she says. “I was not doing what others were doing and not willing to do what they were doing. Although it was easier to stay within that community, I was a big fish in a little pond. Finally I decided that I had flopped around in the pond long enough and it would be more challenging to be in a larger community.”

And while she has made the decision to expand her boundaries into the realm of art, she often revisits the familiar territory of turning.

For instance, in 1999 Scarpino was selected by Philadelphia’s Wood Turning Center to be an International Turning Exchange fellow. The ITE will have a retrospective this year and the internationally dispersed participants from the past 10 years will reconvene. Also, in 1999 she received an Excellence in Craftsmanship Award from Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts. The following year she was invited to the International Woodturning Symposium in France as one of six American representatives; she was invited again in 2003.

Scarpino will also be the guest later this year of “Turn-Fest ’05,” an Australian conference and roster of workshops. And in 2006 she will be the first artist-in-residence at the Center for Turning and Furniture at the University of Indiana, in Indiana, Pa. The turning community doesn’t seem too anxious to be rid of Betty Scarpino: With adoption of designations such as “lathe artists,” the sculpturally inclined contingent is proliferating. Turning is evolving.

In 1999 Scarpino was one of 50 artists statewide to receive a $7,500 Creative Renewal Grant from the Indianapolis Arts Council (IAC). In 2002 she was commissioned by the IAC to make six works that would be given as awards to individuals who had contributed to the arts in Indiana.

“I introduced woodturning as art to Indianapolis and it has been embraced by the arts community as an art form. I have been invited to give slide lectures and am known locally as an artist,” she says. “My sculpture is represented by a traditional gallery in Indianapolis and it has nothing to do with turning!”

As a consequence of the latter, Scarpino took part in an exhibition at the Indiana State Museum in February entitled “Whispers to Shouts: Indiana Women Who Create.” The piece she displayed was “From Within Our Own Bodies,” which is in the collection of the Renwick Gallery. In August she will have a solo show at the Indianapolis Art Center to coincide with the opening of its Sculpture Garden. And another solo show is scheduled in March 2006 at the Ruschman Art Gallery in Indianapolis.

Scarpino is gratified to be accepted in the world of fine art. Much as her presentation at the Renwick signified her stature as a turner, her acclamation in art venues is a personal victory. For most of her life Scarpino felt that the label “artist” was only accorded to graduates of accredited arts programs. She struggled with the notion of designating herself as one, but now that she can justifiably use the label, she places importance elsewhere. 

“What I find most satisfying is the ultimate connection with something greater than myself,” she says. “When I am interacting with a piece of wood and it is interacting with me, that is when I feel I am an artist. The process is more meaningful than the label.”

D Wood

D Wood has an MFA in furniture design from the Rhode Island School of Design. She is a freelance writer for a variety of international craft and art publications. When not writing, she teaches design at Tucson Design College and explores the Arizona desert. 

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