Imagine coming upon this door! What world of the imagination did it come from and were does it lead? Stratoz and I were at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, PA, and amid the Pennsylvania Impressionist paintings we saw Phillip Lloyd Powell’s Door and Surround. I sat down on a bench to take it in, the beauty of the layers of wood, the warm colors, the vibrant portal over 11 feet tall.
After the Michener purchased the door at auction, furniture conservator, Behrooz Salimnejad, spent months restoring the original vibrant finish, removing layers of latex paint that obliterated the colors. Phillip Lloyd Powell(1919-2008), was a self-taught woodworker who read an article about an artist in New Hope, photographed in front of a wall of books, and wanted that life, and moved there, and set up shop. I admire his focus on creating the life he wanted, and the work that came from that life.
I was drawn to woodworking at age 9 or 10. I wanted a tool set for my birthday. I spent many hours dreaming about what I would make, especially with the chisels. I wanted to sculpt blocks of wood. I don’t know where this came from, this intense desire to have tools. I did get the tool set for my birthday, much to my delight. The box was a golden yellow shade, with the grain of the wood in wavy pattern. The tools had red handles, and fit behind dowels to hold them steady. There were two chisels, but I was disappointed that I had no idea how to create what I was imagining.
I started researching where my tool set might have come from. There’s no label, no brand name. I did find the word “Poland” faintly stamped on the inside, and this led to the “Handy Andy” Tool Sets for children, or more accurately, for boys. As an ad admonishes, “Keep away from Dad! He’ll want to use this too. . .well rounded assortment to help train boys in the correct use of practical tools. ” I don’t remember seeing a label on my set, and didn’t contend with the image of Andy, and his boyish ease with all the fabulous tools. I also didn’t need to keep them away from my father, who was a professor of English, with a wall full of books of his own, but he did stand next to me in the garage supervising me with the sharp implements, as I constructed a dollhouse. This wasn’t what I originally intended, but I slowly warmed to the decoration of the rooms, creating furniture out of scraps of wood, papering the walls with wallpaper samples.
I’ve kept the box of tools over 30 years. I loved the hand plane, skating across the wood. The spirit level mesmerized me with the bubble in glowing green liquid. I took the tool set down from the attic, and put it in my mosaic studio, an homage to my desire to work with my hands, to make things. Phillip Lloyd Powell’s door reminded me of my dreams of chisels and sculpting, and I came across an interview describing his process:
His materials are meant to provoke sensation. He selects woods, colors, and accent elements for their expression.
Powell also considers malleability. He finds walnut, which is softer than maple or oak, fun to shape with his favorite tool, the spoke shave (a side-handled plane for curves) which requires a sculptor’s skill.
The furniture parts are fitted together by spline and rabbit joints, dovetails and butterfly inserts. The wood and colors of the pegs are important to the design. Finally, several coats of oil will bring up the rich grain and color of the wood.
So he loved a plane too, and even the name appeals to me, the “spoke shave.” I have tools for my mosaic work, tools that I know how to use, and with which I can create.