By Steve Fuller
Special to The Ellsworth American
STONINGTON — Chris Joyce recalls with a chuckle his first experience turning wood, decades ago.
“I turned my first bowl, and it was horrible,” he said, reflecting on the experience more than 30 years later. “Today I would throw it in a burn pile in two seconds flat.”
He fell in love with the art of using machines and tools to shape the wood, however, and found he enjoyed the process. In his spare time since then, Joyce — an electrician by trade — has turned more than 1,000 wooden pieces from live-edge bowls to fancy jewelry boxes, along with the occasional bannister and drawer pull.
The interest in working with wood goes back to his childhood, growing up in Stonington. His dad also did woodworking, and Joyce remembers saving scraps from his father’s carpentry jobs to make wooden boats and other toys.
“Wood is the medium that has always held my fascination,” he said.
In high school that fascination was furthered in shop classes taught by Dennis Saindon, whom Joyce described as a mentor and a talented teacher, in addition to being an “extraordinarily talented woodworker.”
After he graduated from high school, Joyce said three things set him onto the path he has followed since that time. He found a copy of Fine Woodworking magazine, where he learned about a fledgling organization called the American Association of Woodturners. He saw ads for the machines woodturners use, and for the exotic woods and gnarly burls that they fashioned into objects of fine art. He was inspired.
Joyce soon came into possession of a Shopsmith brand multi-tool that included a band saw, table saw and lathe. The machine uses a single motor to power the various components which cut, carve and shape the wood. Now he had the tools.
Finally, he found a burl — a rounded, knotty (sometimes warty looking) growth found on trees of various species, and a medium of choice for woodturners making everything from bowls to pipes. With that, he had his material.
Though that first wooden bowl would not meet the standards he holds himself to today, Joyce was not deterred. He made more bowls and learned how to work with unusual species of woods and figured woods (“figure” refers to how a particular wood looks due to its grain and how it is cut — think of bird’s eye maple).
A friend who was opening an art gallery at that time in downtown Deer Isle, The Gifted Hand, asked Joyce what he was going to do with all the bowls he had turned. He asked if she wanted to sell some, she took him up on the offer and two weeks later she was back because the first batch had already sold out.
Joyce went on to display his work in Mary Nyberg’s Blue Heron Gallery, and since 2007 has shown and sold his wooden creations in Elena Kubler’s The Turtle Gallery in Deer Isle. His work is also in the CRAFT Gallery on Elm Street in Rockland, and he also hopes to be in a Portland gallery this coming summer. He has taken part in multiple exhibitions, starting with the Maine Crafts Association’s 20/20 enVision in 2003.
From the various places where it has been shown, Joyce knows his work has gone around the globe. An architect whose son was getting married in Japan bought pieces for gifts to take there. A woman who lived on Little Deer Isle bought six pieces for friends in Germany. Many pieces can be found in local homes, too.
The varieties of woods Joyce works with have names and stories that evoke their exotic nature. There is manzanita, a hardwood shrub from the American Southwest sometimes referred to as “mountain driftwood” with root burls that, according to Wood magazine, “when sawn, cleaned, and polished, can pass for ceramics or marble.”
Imperfect or irregular pieces of African blackwood, a species typically used to make clarinets, can be fashioned into tiny containers with a snug-fitting and intricately scalloped lids. Burls of eucalyptus and Australian gum trees sit on Joyce’s shelves, as do pieces of amboyna wood. Banksia pods from Australia resemble something of a cross between a pine cone, birdhouse and spaceship.
Joyce can pick up any one of these specimens, and the many others in his shop next to his home in Stonington, and tell a visitor where it came from and what its distinguishing characteristics are.
While many of the species sound strange to the ears of Mainers, Joyce does work with local species, too, ranging from lilac to white ash. Friends will sometimes message him on Facebook to let him know they have a burl they think he might like to work with (one was so large it ended up requiring the use of a tractor to move it).
Although he has examples of his work in his shop, Joyce — taking advice given to him by a friend — does not keep his best or favorite pieces there. The friend advised him that if he did keep them there, Joyce would be less inspired to push his own boundaries and try new things with his craft. Likewise, Joyce said making the wrong cut or choosing the wrong pattern for a particular piece can also inspire him to be better.
“If you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t trying,” he said. “You aren’t stepping outside your comfort zone.”