LIVEAUCTIONTALK.COM HIGHLIGHTS CONTEMPORARY CRAFTSMAN
Bench; featured in the Brooklyn Museum exhibition, “Masters of Contemporary American Crafts,” 1961; sold for $132,000. Photo courtesy of Dave Rago.
Inspiration comes from unexpected places. One night shortly after placing a large chunk of wood on the fire, Wharton Esherick saw a figure emerging in the wood just as the flames engulfed it.
He quickly pulled the charred piece out of the fire and headed for his woodworking shop. There he carved the figure he saw in the flames. It was his daughter. Wandering through nearby forests he saw ever larger "images" in the living trunks and limbs of huge trees around him which he also carved.
As a craftsman, Esherick spent most of his career working in relative isolation. There was something about silence, the lack of distraction and his own single-mindedness that enabled Esherick to take woodworking to a new level.
Born in 1887, Esherick lived a few miles from Rose Valley, Pa., a village established at the-turn-of-the century as a utopian community of Arts and Crafts furniture makers. Trained as a traditional painter, Esherick shifted to woodworking in 1924 after his hopes of being recognized as a painter failed.
Ultimately, it was furniture design that brought Esherick the attention he sought. His chairs and tables were sleek, sturdy and practical. In fact the more than four dozen chairs he built out of oak axe handles for Rose Valley's Hedgerow Theater in 1930 are still in use.
Another source of inspiration for Esherick was the teachings of Henry David Thoreau. For most of his adult life, the woodworker kept a copy of Thoreau's book, "Walden" on his bedside table.
Thoreau’s philosophy held that real freedom and peace of mind could only be found in simplicity and a life based on honest, meaningful work, and respect for the natural world. Esherick took Thoreau’s message to heart.
His woodworking combined the line and feel of modern sculpture with the techniques of fine furniture craftsmanship. He started to make free-form wooden bowls, platters, and trays his family and friends used all the time.
He also started accepting furniture orders and received commissions to do wood block illustrations for new editions of Walt Whitman's "Song of the Broadaxe."
By the late-1920s mass production had all but taken over the marketplace and interest in Esherick’s work diminished. He would wait another 40 years for things to come full circle. In the late-1960s people rediscovered fine hand crafted furniture and Esherick was a leading force in the revival.
His pieces have been featured at three World's Fairs and exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Crafts.
Before he passed away in 1970, Esherick was officially named by the national art and design community as the "Dean of American Craftsmen."
The man and his work had arrived one more time.
On April 21 & 22, 2007, John Sollo and Dave Rago featured several Esherick pieces in their 20th Century Modern auction held in Lambertville, N.J. Here are some current values for his work.
Block Print; “The Lee Rail”; framed; signed, titled and numbered 14/59; 1921; 9 ¾ inches by 9 1/8 image size; $3,900.
Tray; maple with raised edges; signed; 1947; 1 inch by17 ½ inches by 10 inches; $4,500.
Three-Legged Stool; walnut; signed; 1959; 25 ½ inches by 17 ½ inches by 17 ½ inches; $5,700.
Armchair; walnut; with sculpted back and arms; leather strap seat; signed; 1951; 28 ½ inches by 23 ½ inches by 21 inches; $19,200.
Single Arm Bench; padouk; base has small storage compartment and four banks of shallow pivoting drawers; illuminated from under seat; featured in the Brooklyn Museum exhibition, “Masters of Contemporary American Crafts,” 1961; 38 ¼ inches by 94 inches by 26 ½ inches; $132,000.
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