Minneapolis art collectors Ruth and David Waterbury  love wood, especially the elegant wooden sculptures that they’ve collected over the past 35 years. They marvel at the satiny skin of a huge kettle made of polished Mediterranean cedar, the translucent glow of a Norfolk Pine bowl, and the clever design of a set of black-stained maple boxes that look like a family of miniature seals sunning on a beach.
Standing in a gallery at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts recently, they beamed happily as museum staff sorted and arranged pieces from their collection for a show, “Conversations With  Wood,” that opened this week and runs through Sept. 4. Though it contains more than 75 pieces, the exhibit is just a sample of the 500 sculptures that line the white walls of the Waterburys’ modern house overlooking Lake Calhoun. It coincides with an international wood-turning symposium Friday through next Sunday at St. Paul’s RiverCentre.
“The Waterburys have a gorgeous collection,” said Cindy Bowden, director of the American Association of Woodturners , sponsor of the upcoming symposium. “It’s one of the key collections in the U.S., representing artists from all over the world who are the best of the best.”
As with many collectors, the Waterburys’ enthusiasm for wood started by chance. An investment adviser by profession, David was a wood-turner on the side, a hobby he’d picked up in high school that continued through college and his years as a senior vice president at Morgan Stanley.
So he knew enough to be impressed when, during a Hawaiian vacation in 1984, he and his wife stumbled onto a collection of gorgeous wooden bowls centered with a starburst formed from a knot in the pine. They had gone to a cocktail party “for the free mai tais,” but met an artist, and left with a major purchase that changed their lives.
“The fun thing about collecting work by living artists is that you get to know them,” said Ruth Waterbury, a longtime volunteer docent at the Minneapolis museum.
Any conversation about their collection is punctuated with references to David (Ellsworth, famous for his ability to hollow out spheres through incredibly tiny holes); Ron (Kent, known for bowls so thin they’re translucent); Michael (Mode, designer of multicolored vessels made of exotic laminated woods inspired by Mughal architecture) and myriad more talents who have become first-name friends.
Extended family
The Waterburys are accustomed to living with museum-quality things — they’ve donated pieces to art museums at Yale University (David’s alma mater) and Carleton College (Ruth’s), Carnegie Museum of Art, Skidmore College and the Cedar Rapids Art Museum as well as the Minneapolis Institute of Arts — but they think of the objects as family.
“I hate to give things away,” Ruth said. “It’s like sending children off to college, only worse, because your kids will return but a collection is an entity that will never be together again.”
“When we gave pieces away, we had real separation anxiety,” David agreed.
The exhibition and its accompanying catalog were designed, in part, to mitigate their sense of loss. In preparing the catalog, they sent photos of the objects to the artists and asked them to respond with memories, technical details, notes about the wood or the technique they used, whatever struck their fancy.
Irish artist Liam O’Neill wrote about an ancient tree whose wood he used in sculptures owned by Queen Elizabeth II and the Waterburys. Sculptor Hans Weissflog recalled a nosebleed he got in the mountains of southern France while gathering the boxwood burl for a sculpture the Waterburys purchased. Craig Lossing of Lino Lakes mentioned microwaving one of his sculptures to dry it out, a process that caused its spherical shape to collapse into a beautifully twisted oval. Lossing also explained that he wants his work to convey the sense of tranquility he experiences when “staring out at the vastness of Lake Superior.”
Top-form creativity
While virtually all of the Waterburys’ sculptures began with turning a piece of wood on a lathe, the pieces are much more complex, subtle and sophisticated than the familiar salad bowls and candle holders often sold at craft fairs.
Thierry Martenon, who lives in a French national park, fashioned dense ash wood into two tall, narrow triangular plinths that look like minimalist sculptures. William Hunter carved pieces of cocobolo wood into undulating abstractions that suggest waving grasses. Michael J. Brolly used ebonized walnut to create a “baseball bat,” which, as its punning title suggests, is a blackened baseball with wings.
“This is the height of creativity, the top,” said Jennifer Komar Olivarez, the institute’s associate curator of decorative arts. “Though it evolved from wood turning, it’s less about function and more about sculptural form and expressiveness.”
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431