Bill Turner is described as 'a master' by another local woodworker.
Bill Turner is described as "a master" by another local woodworker. (Globe Photo / Bill Regan)

Letting the wood talk

Nature, music, painting are among the inspirations for Stonington woodworkers

Email|Print| Text size + By Jane Roy Brown
Globe Correspondent / September 30, 2007

STONINGTON, Maine - It is clear at a glance why this village on the tip of Deer Isle has long been a magnet for artists. The views of pale sky, whale-backed islands, and granite coves change constantly in an ever-shifting, brilliant light. For several of the area's painters, photographers, printmakers, and other visual artists, the ocean is the primary subject.

But artisans also flock here, many to study at the 50-year-old Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in the village of Deer Isle, which offers workshops in clay, glass, metals, paper, blacksmithing, weaving, and woodworking. Such artisans have settled here for the same reasons as painters: visual inspiration and community. Among them are a number of accomplished woodworkers. Four recently agreed to talk about their work and its connections to place:

Joaz Hill, ShapeShifter Woodturning, Stonington. At Hill's studio, natural-edge bowls stand next to onion-shaped urns, vases, and goblets with stems as slender as daffodils. "The forms are dictated by the wood," Hill, 58, explains, "but I'm also inspired by nature."

Hill's turned vessels, buffed to a sheen, show off the rich grains of cherry, ash, maple, and walnut - all domestic woods - as well as the bold colors and textures of exotic ebony, rosewood, and Australian malle. He works with small blocks of wood as well as burls - the tumor-like bulges found on some tree trunks. To a woodturner, these imperfect spheres are uncut jewels that invite exploration.

"I let the burl talk to me," he says. "You never know what's inside." He has found bullets and fencing embedded in some, but mostly, "once you start turning, you find beauty - it's an addiction."

Twenty years ago Hill arrived in Stonington, "via New Mexico, via Arkansas." A former carpenter and cabinetmaker, he now makes his living operating a wholesale seafood business. He left cabinetmaking because he "got tired of squares" and insists that woodturning is a hobby. If so, it's one that he takes seriously enough to have pursued for 15 years, taking occasional courses at Haystack and achieving enough proficiency to teach private students, including former cabinetmakers.

Bruce Bulger, cabinetmaker/artist/illustrator, Village of Deer Isle. Bruce Bulger's studio occupies the first floor of the former Deer Isle High School, a white shingle-and-clapboard building capped with a bell tower. Sculpture, furniture, landscape paintings, and figure drawings - all made by Bulger - are arranged in the gallery. Upstairs, children work on an art project at Seamark Community Arts, an arts-education organization Bulger and his wife, Holley Mead, cofounded with another couple.

Bulger, 59, grew up in Connecticut, trained as a medical illustrator at the Philadelphia College of Art, and moved to Maine in the 1970s. After building his house, he got interested in working with wood and began making furniture.

He is inspired by the landscape, but even more by the buildings - "the way they set into the landscape." The love of built form comes naturally to someone who has worked as an architectural illustrator and makes clock cases, tables, chairs, and cabinets inspired by 18th-century Chippendale, Hepplewhite, and Sheraton. The mathematics that underpin form are as tangible to him as the cherry or walnut he might select for a clock case. "I'm into the numbers," he says, explaining that he sees proportion, space, volume, form, material, and place as interrelated. The S-curve, which he pursues in all his work, appears in his drawings of the human figure.

A walnut and bird's-eye maple chess table is topped with chess pieces that contrast with the inlaid squares. Another table holds an arrangement of puzzle boxes, clustered like skyscrapers. Intricately detailed, their design conceals hidden compartments. "They came to me in a dream," he says.

Geoffrey Warner Studio, handcrafted furniture and custom cabinetry and fine art, Stonington. Perched on the gallery floor, the music stands, made from curly white oak and walnut with ebony accents, look poised to spring into a fast waltz. It comes as no surprise to learn that their designer, Geoffrey Warner, is also a musician.

"I moved here from Rhode Island 11 years ago because I wanted to be surrounded by water and sail a lot," Warner says. "Now making furniture and music have taken over my life." On the music side, he's a singer-songwriter who also plays guitar and fiddle.

Warner, 53, studied furniture making at Rhode Island School of Design with the late Danish master Tage Frid. Afterward he worked mainly for New York designers, making a lot of kitchen cabinets. These days his commissions increasingly come from people who live in Maine, and he's concentrating on stand-alone furniture. He also spends more time on design, with craftspeople making the pieces in the studio's workshop. Next spring he plans to launch his first furniture line.

William Turner, cabinetmaker, Stonington. Bill Turner has been up since 4 a.m., but that's when farmers get up. On their 12-acre farm, he, his wife, and two daughters raise 90 percent of their own food. "Our goal," he says, "is to need less money." This comes from a craftsman whose heirloom-quality pieces can command prices in five digits.

He stops en route to his studio to show off the sawmill he cobbled together from old machinery. Turner, 60, grew up in New Jersey and picked up woodworking as a hobby. He taught it while serving in the Peace Corps and then as a shop teacher in Ipswich. But it wasn't until he discovered the North Bennett Street School in Boston's North End, which offers classical training in trades, that Turner found his feet - or rather, his hands. "I was stunned by the school," he says, "It matched exactly what I wanted."

Today he, like others, draws inspiration from the island's spare beauty, though it contrasts with the rich detail and materials of his work. A recent octagonal dining table with removable leaves in contrasting veneer contained 16 pieces in the top alone. It took four months to build and cost $11,000.

In his shop, hundreds of tools reveal the level of precision the work demands. Though he doesn't do reproductions, he loves the classical lines of 18th-century cabinetmakers, especially the flowing curves of Sheraton. "I love the narrowing beadwork on the arms," he says, showing a photo of chairs he crafted in mahogany, macoré (a West African wood), and rosewood. "It gives the illusion of great depth."

Jane Roy Brown, a writer in Western Massachusetts, can be reached at

more stories like this

  • Email
  • Email
  • Print
  • Print
  • Single page
  • Single page
  • Reprints
  • Reprints
  • Share
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Comment
  • Share on DiggShare on Digg
  • Tag with Save this article
  • powered by
Your Name Your e-mail address (for return address purposes) E-mail address of recipients (separate multiple addresses with commas) Name and both e-mail fields are required.
Message (optional)
Disclaimer: does not share this information or keep it permanently, as it is for the sole purpose of sending this one time e-mail.