Smithsonian Craft Show 2015 Highlights

by Dave Long
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A decision to go big made Norm Sartorius the big winner in the wood art category at the 33rd Smithsonian Craft Show held April 23-26, 2105 at National Building Museum.

Sartorius won the Excellence in Wood award given by the Collectors of Wood Art (CWA). The 68-year-old from Parkersburg, W,Va., earned $1,000 prize money. It was also a great way to celebrate his 32nd wedding anniversary.

Over 1,600 artists in various craft medium's apply to be juried into the show with only 120 spots available.

There were seven wood artists chosen for show. Two others were award winners along with Sartorius. Mike Shuler of Santa Cruz, Calif (www.mikeshuler.com) took the bronze award worth $500 in the best-in-show category. The award combined overall quality of work and booth presentation. Shuler was the CWA's Excellence in Wood winner in 2014.

Christina Goodman, a jeweler from New Orleans, La., was the overall best-in-show winner.

Janel Jacobson of Sunrise, Minn. (www.janeljacobson,.com) won $500 for a third place in the Exhibitor's category. The award is voted on by the exhibitors in the show. Lucrezia Bieler, a paper artist from Tallahassee, Fla., was the Exhibitor's category overall winner. Show rules don't allow multi-category winners.

Artists in the wood category at the Smithsonian along with Sartorius, Shuler and Jacobson were Holly Tornheim, Peter Petrochko, Michael Bauermeister and North Carolina instrument maker Archie Smith

Sartorius (www.normsartorius.com) is the first double winner two excellence in wood awards given by CWA. He took first at the American Craft Council's flagship show in Baltimore, Md., in Feb., 2015.

A decision to alter the direction of his work in late 2014 has brought recent success. He has been a fixture on the high-end craft show circuit for almost 30 years. His specialty is hand-carved, non-functional spoons. His forms vary from traditional to very abstract. But all feature the grain patterns of the exotic and hard to find domestic woods.

"Most of my work has been 12 inches or smaller because it is very difficult to find big pieces of the wood I like at a reasonable price," said Sartorius. "But I've come across some bigger pieces over the years I've kept stashed for those 'special projects' I've always been going to get to.

"My wife gave me one of those gentle reminders last year I wasn't getting any younger and that stash wasn't getting any smaller. She was right. I'm getting to the last quarter of my career (he turned 68 in February). If I don't do it now, when?"

Many of his special blanks were 30 inches or bigger and "I couldn't bear to break them into small pieces." So he decided to use skills as a sculptor to bring out the beauty of the wood.

"Keeping my concentration to get the best lines and angles of each piece was the most difficult part of the process," he said. "Usually with a spoon or a small sculpture I might do, it's maybe a week at most. With some of the pieces I did for the Smithsonian it was 10-12 hours a day for two straight weeks with the tools before the sanding and polishing started."

The result was startling when first seeing his booth. Artists Keith Holt and Terry Evans joined me on the judging panel. We were all used to seeing Sartorius' booth at craft shows featuring small work.

His Smithsonian display space was transformed featuring five pieces 17 to 30 inches high. That size allowed him to play the lighting to create dazzling effects.

Especially eye catching were a deep crimson cocobola spoon, highly figured pieces of oak and walnut burl and 30-year old piece of bloodwood from the stash of woodturning pioneer Bob Stocksdale.

"I had forgotten how much sanding it takes on the bigger pieces," he said. "That was the most physically tiring part of the decision.

"I wanted to introduce the bigger work at the Smithsonian because it is my favorite show. The patrons are much more sophisticated when it comes to understanding the work all the artists in the show. Some of my best clients come to this show and always ask me why I don't do bigger work.

"So I surprised them this year and the response was great. It would have been easy just to coast and do what I've always done. But we have to challenge ourselves as artist.

"I took a gamble and I could have fallen on my face. But it worked out. Knowing my clients are pleased and getting the CWA award for excellence made it one of my best shows ever."

Individuals in the category were judged in form, use of materials, craftsmanship, originality of ideas used in work and emotional reaction to the overall presentation.