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Rural Missouri Magazine

Artful Turnings
Cassville Woodworker transforms burl wood and crushed stone into works of art

by Bob McEowen
Jerry Crowe turns one of his burl wood art vessels on a lathe at his shop near Cassville. Crowe, a former restaurant chef, sells his turnings at gift shops and art galleries across America.

A 6-foot-tall chain link fence surrounds Jerry Crowe’s woodshop and office. The fence, a remnant of an emu operation that once boasted
$1 million worth of birds now protects a pet goat named Nancy and a jumble of logs piled in the yard. Rustlers aren’t likely to recognize any value in the knotty tree stumps but, under Jerry’s guiding hand, the wood will yield valuable works of art.

A former chef, Jerry now earns his living as a woodturner. His wildly figured wooden bowls, or vessels as he calls them, bring a premium at art galleries and gift shops. Most of Jerry’s turnings, which sell from $125 to $900, begin as a burl, a large wart-like growth on the side of a tree trunk or root. Unlike straight-grained wood, each burl reveals a surprising display of colors and designs.

“This has all kinds of unusual patterns in it. There’s no wood that looks anything like it,” says Jerry, 69, who sells his artwork under the name “Unique Turnings.”

A Barry Electric Cooperative member from Cassville, Jerry rough cuts these logs with a chainsaw and then mounts his wooden wonders on a powerful lathe. Using turning chisels, some longer than his arm, he carefully shapes the burls into vessels reminiscent of Southwestern Indian pottery.

The unpredictable character of the burl wood, combined with the free-hand guidance of Jerry’s tools, guarantees that each creation is one of a kind. “I’ve made thousands and no two of them is ever alike,” he says.

Jerry left bark in place along the rim of this 8-inch hickory burl vessel with malachite inlays. Photo courtesy of Jerry Crowe.

Jerry’s lathe spins a chunk of wood at nearly 1,000 rpm while he skillfully guides a chisel across the surface, removing everything that isn’t a bowl. A drill bit held securely in a Vise Grip begins to bore inside the spinning orb, establishing the eventual depth. Jerry gouges out the vessel’s insides with a hook-shaped chisel, custom made by a local machinist.

While the artist’s hand is at work in every piece, the main influence on Jerry’s turnings is the wood itself. Whether he’s using oak, walnut, maple, sycamore, hickory, box elder, cherry or apple wood, Jerry examines each log and visualizes the work of art inside. His decisions about the shape or size of the vessel and whether to leave natural defects or bark as part of the piece, are driven more by the specimen in front of him than his own design.

“I don’t really plan. I make what comes out,” he says. “You don’t really have too much choice, especially on the burls. They’re going to be kind of what they want to be. There will be big holes in it or it will be rotten here and there.”

A gaping hole in the side of a vessel only accentuates the imperfect nature of wood and is a prized feature for many collectors. Small cracks and other imperfections are filled with crushed stone. The ribbons of turquoise, malachite and lapis he adds provide dramatic contrasts to the color and tone of the burl.

Jerry produces as many as 70 of his turned wood creations each month.

“Some of them are very striking,” says Mary Bowman, co-owner of Peter Engler Designs, a woodcrafts gallery in Branson that carries Jerry’s turnings. “You look at them and you wonder, ‘Oh my gosh. How did they do that?’”

Jerry’s woodturning skills are largely self-taught and came late in life. After serving in the Navy and Air Force, Jerry returned to his native Cassville and took over a diner his parents started in the 1950s. In time, he owned three different restaurants in Springfield. After one of his establishments failed, he accepted a position as a chef at a hotel in Arizona. That led to another restaurant job in Hawaii and, eventually, another on the western Pacific island of Saipan.

Jerry and his wife, Anne, stayed in the Pacific for 13 years. It was there he took up woodturning.

“I built a house and I needed some spindles for a staircase,” he recalls. “I couldn’t find any over there so I just thought, well, I can make my own. I bought a lathe and started turning. That was about 25 years ago and I’ve been going ever since.”

After finishing his stairs, Jerry taught himself to turn bowls on his lathe. When he came back to the states in 1989 he was finally able to meet and learn from other woodworkers.

photo courtesy of Jerry Crowe

“I went to a symposium where they have turners from all over the world. I watched them and I learned more in three days than I had in 15 years,” says Jerry, who now teaches other craftsmen through area woodturners’ clubs and an instructional video.

Back in Cassville, Jerry tried his hand at emu ranching and operated another restaurant in Cassville for a time. About seven years ago he closed the restaurant and began turning wood full-time.

Today Jerry’s turnings are sold in 36 galleries nationwide. He also attends a number of prestigious art shows each year, where he sells his vessels directly to collectors.

“They come to these art shows and they’ll pick up one that’s maybe $500 or $600 and never look at the price on them,” he says. “One person might buy $1,500 worth of pieces. They buy them for wedding presents, or to give to their friends or for housewarming gifts.”

Peter Engler Designs in Branson carries work from other woodturners but Jerry’s art often outsells the rest.

Although Jerry guides his turning tools by hand, he says the wood itself influences his decisions about shape and design.

“We have carried other woodturners’ work but his seems to be what people like,” says Bowman, who typically offers 50 to 60 of Jerry’s pieces for sale at any time. “The price is right, the quality is right. He does it right.”

At least some of Jerry’s success is due to the fact that many woodturners don’t have access to the kind of wood he does. “There’s no place else in the country that has burls like in southwest Missouri here,” he says.

While the character of each burl guides Jerry’s creation, he also has a knack for finding a beautiful shape inside and is skilled at bringing it out.

“You’ve got to have an eye for the form,” he says. “It’s just like a painter. You’ve got to have a perception of what this is going to look like.”

Surprisingly, Jerry says his years in the kitchen helped prepare him for his career as an artist.

“If you’re a chef putting out a nice meal, 50 percent is presentation. You’ve got to make it eye-appealing and desirable,” he says. “It’s the same thing with this.”

While Jerry says he’s grateful to be making a living as a woodturner, he’d continue the craft even if his vessels didn’t sell. “I’d stack them up, give them away or burn them. I’d still be making them,” Jerry says, adding that he gets a great sense of satisfaction watching an interesting shape appear out of a spinning block of wood.

photo courtesy of Jerry Crowe

But the real reward, he says, comes from knowing his customers appreciate the artwork he’s made.

“What makes me satisfied is when somebody buys a piece and really likes it,” Jerry says. “And then when they come back a year later or two years later and they’re still in love with it, that’s what’s really rewarding.”

For more information write to Unique Turnings, route 2, Box 2722, Cassville, MO 65625; call (417) 847-2742 or log onto www.uniqueturnings.com. Jerry’s video, “Wood turning into art,” is available from HandyCraft Media Produc-tions, (417) 234-8373 or online at www.handycraftmedia.com.

 

 

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