ACE Excellence in Wood Award Winner: Mike Shuler

by Dave Long
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Mike Shuler's "Organica Garden" became a Victory Garden at the 32nd American Craft Expo (ACE).

Shuler won the Collectors of Wood Art Excellence in Wood category at the event held September 23-25 at the Chicago Botanical Garden located in the northern suburb of Glencoe, Ill.

The award is worth $500 to the 66-year old artist from Santa Cruz, Calif., and entry in the 2017 ACE, which is considered one of the top three high-end craft shows in the United States.

This year the show drew 140 artists in 13 categories from all over the United States.

There were 12 makers in the wood group - two others who won awards along with Shuler (www.mikeshuler.com). James Borden, a clock maker from Sibley, Iowa,(www.timeshapes.com) was given the Founders Award given to the most inventive entry in the show.

Turned and beaded vessels by Eucled Moore of San Miguel Allende, Mexico and Marilyn Endres of Driftwood, Tex. were part of the Purchase Award. Each year sponsor, Northshore University Health System, buys what it considers some of the show's outstanding pieces to go in a permanent collection at the organization's Evanston, Ill., headquarters. This year it bought two works by Moore/Endres.

The overall Best of Show award went to jewelers Roberta and David Williamson of Berea, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb. Attendance for the three days was estimated at over 10,000.

Judges for the CWA's Excellence in Wood were collectors Dave and Karen Long of Beavercreek, Ohio, and maker Al Miotke of Mt. Prospect, Ill., current president of the Chicagoland Turners. Criteria for judging included: form of objects, material characteristics, craftsmanship, how well the artist conveyed ideas to the viewer and overall reaction to the presentation.

Shuler, who has been creating wood art for 34 years, has been a prior award winner at ACE, the Smithsonian show in Washington, D.C., the Philadelphia Museum Show and the American Craft Council Show in Baltimore. He was a 2013 Niche Award winner and has work in at 10 museum collections.

"The older you get, the more you appreciate these awards - especially when they come from an organization of your peers like CWA," said Shuler. "This is the first major national show I've done in a couple of years.
"I've spent a lot of time in the studio perfecting what I call the 'organica' part of my work and getting a new display booth ready. I'm happy with how it has all turned out."

Shuler's signature work for years has been segmented bowls. Each vessel is 2-3 inches high, 12 inches in diameter and with inlaid kaleidoscope patterns which take 3,000-5,000 slender, precisely cut pieces of exotic hardwood to create.

Several years ago he began turning shot-glass sized pinecones with incredible grain patterns. They were created with what Shuler refers to as a "subtractive process involving resin impregnation."

The pinecones proved so popular with buyers he added flower blossoms and artichokes. He expanded his use of materials for the ACE show with an entire shelf called the Organica Garden.

Included were protea blossoms, Australian bankisa pods, thistles, sunflowers, banana peppers, bamboo shoots, pineapple cores and blossoms, celery roots and Aloe Vera plants.

All the organica were 3-6 inches high with unbelievable grain patterns. Shuler's process is to take the organic item, place it in a freezer bag, vacuum pump all the air out of bag and freeze the item for a specific amount of time.

Freezing the item eliminates all the moisture. When the items thaw and expand, Shuler places them in specially-made containers and adds resin. When the resin cures, he has a block which will fit on a lathe. He can pick the most intriguing part of the organic item to showcase.

When finished, the organic items will retail from $1,500-$2,200.

This is the third display booth for indoor show Shuler and his wife, Kay, have designed over the years. It has a black screen roof and layered black curtains to put total emphasis in the items in the booth. Close attention was paid to putting angled LED lighting on each of the four shelves to cover all angles. The shelves were also built so displayed items are neither too high or too low.

"We've been doing shows a long time and learned from experience about building a great booth," said Shuler. "I'm pleased with how this one turned out."

The combination of the overall excellence and innovation of Shuler's pieces plus presentation in the booth made him the clear winner of the award.

Several of the other entries stood out. Koji Takana (www.kojitanaka.com), the 2015 CWA winner, had an outstanding selection of carved pieces. He had a modest booth presentation where natural beauty of the pieces was emphasized. His work continues to have a tranquil feel with flowing lines, flawless finishes and faultless craftsmanship.

Mark Waninger, a former master millwright from the Indianapolis area, displayed eye-popping colors and glass finishes on his segmented work.

The segmented/beaded work by the Moore/Endres (www.kazistudio.com) partnership continues to astound after 25 years of limited exposure at regional shows.

Sculptor Salem Barker (www.salembarker.com) continues to gain attention. After several years of using gears as his motif, he has switched directions bringing the beauty in exotic woods with crisp, flowing lines and deep relief carving.