Inside the Studio

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This article is from Issue 8 of Woodcraft Magazine.

By Sarah Brady

Trading a recording studio for a woodturning one, former rock musician Dennis Elliott steps down from the stage and into a very different spotlight.

A sharp tool makes contact with a spinning disc, and the result is called art. In the 1970s, this would make most people think of dropping a needle onto a record. But those weren't the only platters that would bring creative satisfaction and renown to native Englishman Dennis Elliott, the original drummer of the rock group Foreigner. Unbeknownst to teenyboppers on both sides of the puddle, the rock star was quietly stealing away hours at his lathe while Foreigner's albums climbed the charts.

''Sometimes [while on tour], he would come home - even for a day - from across the world just to turn. He was passionate about it,"' said David Ellsworth, founder of the American Association Woodturners, who helped Dennis refine his turning technique and style in the 1980s.

My early inspiration was from the American turners when l moved here from the U.K. in 1975, and I'm still in awe of what is being accomplished today,” Dennis said.

From his home studio in Cape Coral. Fla., Dennis now turns and sculpts sometimes-massive pieces of wood into vessels, platters and wall hangings that sell for thousands of dollars. His work has been collected by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the American Craft Museum ln New York City, among nearly a dozen others.

DENNIS ATTACHES A FACEPLATE to a slab of bigleaf maple burl in preparation for mounting it on his lathe.

Two Different Worlds

Dennis started down the road of the woodturner well before taking his side-trek as a multi-platinum studio and stage drummer. It all started in 1971 (Foreigner was formed in 1976) with the Christmas gift or a lathe attachment for his drill, from his wife Iona.

"It was a fabulous hobby, and I spent many years learning the techniques necessary to make things on the lathe." he said.

"'When we lived in England, when he first started turning, he was doing very functional items ," Iona said. ''When you first start out you look around the house and think, what can I make that will be useful? An egg cup, a napkin ring, a candlestick holder. You spend hours at the lathe turning beads. He spent years doing that.”

The lucrative and exciting world of music tugged him away, though never completely. Foreigner's first album was a huge success, astounding everyone involved, and the band was swept off on tour to promote it. They followed up with six more albums - and corresponding tours - over the next 15 years.

"Interestingly, as a rock musician he is one of the shyest people I ever met." Ellsworth said. “Iona always traveled with the band, and it was a family affair for many years. Dennis stayed away from all the temptations and did his job."

"When they were traveling on tour, he always wished he could take a small lathe with him," Iona said. "He was frustrated with being in a hotel room all day long with nothing to do ... he looked forward to getting home and turning.”

So even as Foreigner’s hit singles proliferated and the band sold tens of millions of records, Dennis found time for turning.

"I've been a professional musician since age 16, and having woodworking – and more specifically woodturning – as a hobby provided me with almost the complete other side of the coin, so to speak," Dennis said. '"I would perform in front of thousands of people nightly, but woodturning allowed me to work in solid isolation.

MASSIVE WALL SCULPTURES are an Elliott hallmark. This one is 27’ tall and 43 ½’ wide.

"ln music, if a mistake is made, especially in a recording studio environment, it can be erased and redone. Even onstage, a mistake is over and done within a matter of seconds, but in the woodworking studio any mistakes can mean many hours of wasted labor or worse,” he said. "They are both fun things to do, but I have to approach the latter with some caution and a clear idea of what I want to achieve."

When the band went on hiatus in 1987, Dennis indeed knew exactly what he wanted to achieve.

He took up woodturning in earnest, and now has a seriously equipped garage studio in his Florida home.

"My studio is equipped with most of the usual tools and machines including a Delta planer, Grizzly jointer, Craftsman radial saw, Grizzly bandsaw, Delta table saw, a Coronet Major (a universal machine made ln the U.K.), an Ingersoll Rand 80-gallon air compressor, and a custom lathe made by Jim Thompson of Greenville, S.C.,” he said. "It weighs about 2,000 pounds and will swing a 36" piece inboard and a 60" piece outboard. It also has hydraulic drive to give variable speeds from 0-1800 rpm!'

THE ELLIOTTS WORK AS A TEAM: He turns wood sculptures, and she handles publicity, marketing and networking.

Do What You Like

"When I decided to do this seriously back in the mid-80s I really had just two goals,' Dennis said. "One, to enjoy making whatever I was making; and, two, to sell it. The first part is easy. The second part, the marketing, I leave to my wife, who has done a stellar job ... Iona has achieved the second goal so I can continue to enjoy the first one."

In November the Hodgell Gallery in Sarasota, Fla., hosted a solo show for Dennis. It featured sculpted vessels, wall hangings, and pieces from his "Orbital" series, designed to be rotated on their axes by the viewer to create multiple perspectives.

Hodgell Gallery owner Brian O'Connell said Dennis has developed a following and that his pieces sell very well. “He docs very rich, very interesting work. He's a leader in his field," O’Connell says. "He's an interesting character, too, having been involved in both the performing arts and visual arts. lt's always about more than just the work; it’s a combination of the work and the artist."

DENNIS PAINSTAKINGLY ADDS DETAILING to a large bowl with a micro die grinder. He often draws motifs from nature when adding decoration to a piece.

O'Connell noted that Dennis' clients also appreciate the scale of the work. "These aren’t tiny little pieces. When you have a condo with 12' ceilings it's important to have the right scale."

Dennis' favored wood is bigleaf maple burl, which he says is both beautifully figured and stable. He has it shipped from Oregon (when he is able to get it). Many years ago he bought a custom lathe to accommodate the larger and larger pieces that kept arriving from his supplier.

"The maple burl slabs I use for wall sculptures can be any different shape and size, and my lathe used to be limited to a 36" swing," he said. “But after receiving some slabs that were just too big, and not wanting to change the natural shape by cutting them, I had my lathe modified so that I am no longer restricted.

“The very large ones are a bit intimidating when they are revolving at speed, but I've gotten used to it. Working on larger pieces enables me to do more creatively, and I find it more challenging."

Noted turned-wood collector Arthur Mason has purchased several of Dennis' pieces, and appreciates them for more than just their size.

"Dennis does work on a grand scale,” he said. "His bowls make a statement. They're bold, and you notice them. They are pure forms, using one big piece of wood."

Mason is a seasoned collector with more 1han 1,000 pieces (some of which have been donated to museums), and devotes much of his time to learning about Woodturning and meeting turners.

"Dennis has come a long way," Mason said. "He has his own style, and doesn't follow the more recent trends.”

His large wall sculptures actually evolved from platters; as they grew more and more massive, he started giving clients the option of placing them on a table or hanging them, by routing a keyhole in the back. These he dubbed "Vertizontals."

The new format, he said, opened doors to greater embellishment and freed him to explore more design options. On many of these pieces, he painstakingly carves or burns patterns, inspired by nature and the cosmos, into the surface; and sometimes he incorporates other materials such as metal, alabaster and semiprecious stones.

NATURE DICTATES THE SHAPE of much of Dennis Elliott’s work; this turned and carved wall sculpture started as a cross-section of bigleaf maple burl.

“People like his work because he's done one at a time; it's not like a print run where there are several copies of the same thing," O'Connell said. "And you can see a lot of the hands of the artist, with all the carving, burning and intricate designs. It's very detailed.”

For almost two decades, Dennis has been featured in museum and gallery exhibitions all over the country (and he's even developed his own line of turned drumsticks). Most of the legwork it takes to get his name into the ears of the public and his pieces into the hands of collectors falls to Iona. But she also played a role in helping him find his artistic voice, by seeking out David Ellsworth.

Inside Information

In 1986, Dennis had already spent 15 years learning how to turn wood, but he wasn't satisfied.

“Those early pieces were somehow lacking in something. The wood may have been beautiful, but there was always something wrong with the form. I knew David could help me look at my own work with a more critical eye and to make just some subtle changes that would transform a so-so piece into something quite beautiful," Dennis said.

''He came to me as a highly skilled technical turner; our focus was on design," Ellsworth said. "He was extremely piqued to go to the next step. He knew what he had accomplished, and he knew where he was headed. He just didn't know how to get there, which is a common problem."

The master turner and his eager student "explored the discovery process of design" through conversation and collaboration. Once they spent an entire day turning a 20" log into a 5"-diameter sphere. 

"I had him take small cuts in different areas to watch it change in proportion and volume,” Ellsworth recalled. "We spent a day doing this and discussing it. At the end, we painted it and threw it out on the lawn, and watched it out there for a while too.”

Dennis and Ellsworth also collaborated on a major piece in ash burl, which they cut together from a tree on Dennis' property. They sold the finished piece to Arthur Mason.

“Dennis comes to turning from a sculptural perspective," Ellsworth said of Dennis’ current work. “He uses natural-edge burled materials combined with elaborately turned surface treatments that embellish and enhance his wall plaques and vessel forms."

Learning from one of the most respected teachers in the turning community did more for Dennis than increase his abilities and aesthetics.

"Woodturning helped him gain more personal self-confidence for sure,” Ellsworth said. "Woodturning is one of those community type endeavors that brings people out of their shells, so to speak.”

Though he found inspiration and direction in fellow woodworkers, Dennis still prefers the solitude of his home studio.

"Now I seem to be inspired by the wood itself, by its natural qualities,” he said. ''I'm also inspired by what I did yesterday, and by trying to continue to develop new ideas and techniques.”

As Iona describes it, each slab of wood has its own personality, and the give-and-take between artist and material is the real magic.

"Dennis respects the wood. He has a lot of integrity. And he really tries to listen to his inner voice and do his own thing.”

You can learn more about Dennis and his work at denniselliott.com.

DENNIS TRIES HIS HAND at standing sculptures, wall sculptures and vessels. Left: the sculpture “Gemini” is a bigleaf maple burl turning mounted with stainless steel onto a patinated copper base. It stand 32 ¼” tall. Top right: this 32” wide x 28” tall, 2” deep bigleaf maple burl wall sculpture has an aventurine gemstone set into its center. Bottom right: dubbed the “Hurricane Charley Howl,” this vessel was turned from a piece of dalbergia wood from a tree felled during the hurricane. When Dennis went back to the site to salvage more wood, it had been cleaned up and hauled away.

Sarah Brady

Sarah Brady is a writer and designer from Parkersburg, W.Va. Growing up in the 1980s, she loved to fall asleep at night with the radio on, and therefore knows a lot of Foreigner songs.

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