Liquid Wood 

Sculptor uses power tools to draw a sensual vision of whimsy and grace

For those who aren't familiar with shop tools, a band saw is one of the bigger ones -- a large, clunky machine that stands about 6 feet tall and weighs 200-plus pounds.

Woodworker Anne Shutan's mentor -- the late Dutch-born sculptor Jan DeSwart -- once told the artist that she would one day learn to use one of these iron giants like a pencil.

Because the band saw's blade is relatively thin, woodworkers can maneuver wood through the saw's whirring teeth with incredible precision, cutting tight circles and curves.

But to use one like a pencil -- to express artistic feeling, to draw spontaneously without benefit of a pre-drafted line -- is definitely an acquired skill.

Viewing Shutan's latest display of woodwork -- now at the Colorado Springs Airport through March 31 -- it's clear that her mentor's prediction has been realized.

Not only does Shutan draw with her band saw, she also shapes, shaves, carves and contours. She uses her motorized blade not only as pencil, but as brush, charcoal, chisel and knife.

Cases in point are the several 4- to 8-foot-tall abstract totems -- or beams, as Shutan calls them -- that dance around the knee-high, roped-off platforms in the airport concourse.

By repeatedly cutting through the heart of thick walnut beams in sweeping, improvised curves and turns, Shutan has transformed large chunks of nature's densest woods into images of weightlessness -- random pathways of falling water, the snaking movement of cloth in the wind, the lips of a dancing flame.

"I am definitely drawing with the band saw -- it's still my favorite tool," said Shutan. "But I'm still a baby at it. I still have a lot to learn."

A part-time sculpture instructor at Boulder's Naropa Institute, Shutan seems utterly earnest when she says she's still working on living up to her late mentor's promise. But she's also being modest.

A professional woodworker since 1981 -- a year after she graduated from Colorado College with an English degree -- Shutan is no newcomer to wood play.

Her nearly two decades of experience started here in the Springs with a brief stint at Van Norman Design, then continued with a longer tutelage with local woodworker John Lewis.

After working with DeSwart in Los Angeles for two years before his death in 1987 -- an apprenticeship that Shutan says changed her life and her perception of woodworking -- she moved to Vermont, where she began selling works to buyers as far away as California.

(One of her earlier works, by the way, is the elegantly sparse, sculpted bar at Dale Street Caf.)

But the best proof of Shutan's abilities are the beautiful manipulations of walnut, teak and mahogany that fill her airport exhibit. Consider for a moment Shutan's doors, arguably the most practical of the pieces in the artist's display. The surface of each door is a waving, undulating relief of rounded lines that resemble the random patterns that sand forms in the bed of a shallow stream.

For such a heavy, functional implement to evoke something as mobile and fleeting as water and sand is a testament to Shutan's skill. "I like taking this hard medium of wood and making it look very fluid," she said.

Indeed, the lines which she has wrought with band saw and sandpaper flow so beautifully and smoothly, you almost expect them to ripple or react when you reach out to stroke the caramel- and chocolate- colored grains.

And you will want to reach out and stroke these pieces. Shutan's sculptures tug on your hand, and only extreme self-control keeps you from running your grubby little fingers across the gentle caves and ridges of these sculptures.

These pieces could be admired for their aesthetic grace, and for the skill that Shutan employs to craft them. But even a quick study of Shutan's work shows that all her works are imbued with ulterior motives that have little to do with function or craft.

More than being practical -- a place to sit, a barrier between indoor and out, a beautiful ornament -- Shutan's work evokes emotional responses.

Even her most functional pieces -- desks, end tables and doors -- could probably be described with adjectives reserved for things like poetry or song: Whimsy, sensuousness, humor, even sexiness are as much a part of her work as balance, function, proportion and fine craftsmanship.

One good example is an elegant, spare bench for one that Shutan calls "Kotai," a Japanese word that means "retreat." The piece is a study in Zen-like minimalism.

"It's simply a place to stop and take refuge," Shutan said of the piece, which draws inspiration from spiritual and musical symbols and features another of the artist's trademarks: a seat of pure walnut that waves and undulates like miniature ocean swells.

On either side of the seat, backed by delicate slivers of straight polished wood, Shutan has installed diminuative shelves, as if designed to resist any accumulation of clutter and hold only the most essential of momentos or icons.

This elegant, meditative loveseat-for-one oozes calm, without being overly austere.

"Part of my role as an artist is to remind myself and the viewer to smile, an essential ingredient to our survival," Shutan writes in an artistic statement that accompanies the show. "Laughter, pain, wonder, sensuality, all deserve to be touched. Discovering sensation in wood requires a lot of faith and patience."

A great example of Shutan's subtle wink at viewers of her art is her series of musical instruments -- two slightly oversized abstractions, one of a cello, one of a double bass.

With no strings attached, these instruments aren't made for playing. But their randomly off-kilter necks, zigzag bows and oversized parts -- reminiscent of Picasso's cubist deconstruction of the guitar -- may well make you smile.

Though there's an obvious sense of whimsy about them, these instruments are also beautiful: Their wonderfully balanced parts, the bows that stretches across the bass and cello like limbs from a body, seem to dance with each other in a slow, graceful ballet.

Probably the purest example of Shutan's emotional approach to woodworking are her beams. Tall, abstract totems of pure form and movement, the beams serve as gorgeous celebrations of the sensual nature of wood.

The curving, twisting and meandering pieces are also remarkable because they still resemble enough of their original form to create a sense of illusion: Some beams almost appear as if they've simply been twisted, or molded into impossible shapes.

Shutan achieves the effect, of course, with her handy pencil, the band saw, by cutting waving lines through the center of large beams, then repeatedly turning the inner, contoured side of the cut to the outside. Then she cuts again ... and again.

It's a process Shutan loves, in part because of what it reveals about the wood. "I like the idea of taking things and turning them inside out, exposing what's on the inside," Shutan said. "What you're looking at is the very center of the tree, the part we don't usually get to see."

But drawing with a large power tool has its challenges. Because Shutan can't simply erase mistakes in her medium -- pricey pieces of mahogany, teak or walnut -- she takes her time before making a move.

"I sit with a piece for a long time, then all of a sudden, I know what to do," she said. "It takes a lot of confidence and getting over the fear of making a mistake. Then if I do make a mistake, I just have to have faith in what ends up happening."

Shutan says her mentor, DeSwart, used to tell her that if she ever had a choice between the obvious and the mysterious, to chose mystery. Clearly, Shutan is following her master's advice; there is nothing in this show that one would expect to get from a hunk of hardwood.

Even with an explanation of her unusual technique, you'll likely leave this show more than a bit mystified by how anyone can carve shapes like Shutan's with a power tool like a band saw.


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