Pencil Obsession

"Former Trophy of the Swedish National Pencil-by-Numbers Team"

In the Spring of 2005, I participated in “The Leonardo Challenge,” an annual fun art event at the Eli Whitney Museum in New Haven, Connecticut. The 2005 challenge, “The art of the pencil,” led me to create an entire series of pencil sculptures, which were shown by the Ironwood Gallery at the "Wood 2005 Collectible Wood Art Showcase and World Turning Symposium" in Philadelphia in September of 2005.  You can see the entire series of sculptures by clicking here.

(You can also see past Leonardo challenges here)

Pencils got under my skin in a surprising way. I've become preoccupied by the power and possibility of art made from this everyday object. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, when colored pencils and pencil-by-number kits were as important to me as PlayStation is to a kid today. About the same time, I also learned to use a wood lathe in middle school wood shop.

I was always testing the limits of the pencil sharpener hanging on the wall of Mrs. Morgan’s fourth grade classroom. Could I make the smallest sharpened pencil known to modern man? Could I write with it? Could a double ended pencil open up new possibilities? 30 years later, I find myself sharpening once again, looking for innovative new ways to assemble pencils such that lasting sculpture is revealed. So much potential is housed in these colored sticks yet they normally lead such temporary lives. As they are slowly dissolved by sharpeners, what mark will they leave? 

These pieces are always on the verge of coming apart. I cut into them with chisels as they spin on the lathe and inevitably remove some of the glue that holds the sculpture together. If I go too far, the individual pencils will fly off the lathe. The trick has been to work with pieces on the verge of coming apart, which has made the most interesting sculptures. Maybe that’s the zone were all art (and life) is most interesting.

For more than ten years I have turned natural wooden bowls on the lathe. I’ve traditionally found all my material for turnings while walking in the woods. I’ve also discovered a lot of wood on the side of the road while riding my bicycle, often lovely trees cut down by town workers in order to protect power lines. (I can’t carry much wood on my bike but come back with a truck). I have always been amazed by how much beauty lives inside fallen trees and to make art from this material has been one of my favorite forms of recycling. 

Woodturning for me has always been about the fascination of what might be revealed once an object is turned on the lathe. The lathe for me is a tool for looking inside. These pencil sculptures my first attempt to look inside man-made material. Each color responds differently to being cut... some pencils come to life when their sides are cut open... others mute. The writing material inside the pencil responds differently than the wood that contains it.

Some of the pencil sculptures can still be seen at the Ironwood Gallery in Ridgefield, CT: http://www.ironwoodgallery.com/sculpture/

What about your creative self expression?

A simple creative challenge led me on a journey to explore a new material with the woodturning skills I already possessed, and the result was an invitation to display this artwork at one of the premier venues in the world for wood art. 

What would it take for you to express your creativity at the highest level? How do you liberate ideas and express your best work, regardless of your chosen field of expression?

Each of us has a unique set of skills, yet so few people are expressing their greatest creative work. We are usually mired in “the reasons why we can’t.” Rarely do we step out on the frontiers of possibility and express what we have to share. It’s risky to share what we hold inside. We risk rejection and inadequacy. Whether you are an artist or an executive, the expression of such intimacy is often thwarted by fear.

Since 1994 I have supported everyday people to make their gifts visible... and to engage the adventure of full creative self-expression. Maybe your best work will be liberated with the support of a coach. If you’d like to explore this possibility, click here to try an introductory coaching session. 

(See entire pencil series )

"Antiquated Equipment from the Chipmunk Highway Dept." (2005) 

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Watch it move (video) 

“Strength” under construction

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“Trophy” under construction

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Other Shows:

"Coastline," at the Guilford Art League annual juried show, October 2004. This is a piece of an old maple tree I found on the side of the road, cut down by the city because it was in the way of power line. I sliced off a piece of the tree and turned the depressions on the lathe. The colors are the result of the spalting process, as fungus digests the wood, and returns it to the earth. I turned this piece very slowly on the lathe, because it was way out of balance. You'll notice that the turned depressions are far from the center of the piece. Mounting and balancing this piece took much longer than the actual turning.

Click for larger photo

Woodturning is not a difficult craft to learn. With a mini lathe, anyone can turn pens and other small projects. Used lathes are periodically available for reasonable prices. For more information, visit:






For exceptional private woodturning tutorials and classes, contact Andybarnum@aol.com

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