Introducing the Work of J. Paul Fennell
My experience of making works of art is largely rooted within the desire for
creative expression. The medium I have chosen is wood, and stems from my
deep reverence for the material since childhood. For me, one of the first physical
steps of the process of making involves the lathe, a machine which allows me to
explore forms very quickly, with found wood that is generally not available
commercially. Most of my work concerns the aesthetic of the vessel form, one of
the most relevant and oldest artifacts of human civilization: it is timeless and
ubiquitous throughout multitudes of cultures—past and present.
My earlier work explored the seemingly infinite variety of pleasing shapes and forms that have evolved
thoughout the course of history. My desire for expressive work then was focused primarily upon the
discovery and subsequent presentation of the inherent beauty of the material itself, within the vessel
aesthetic. Living in Massachusetts with abundant resources of found wood, I was able to create a large body
of work that took full advantage of the material’s color, figuring, grain and texture. Examples of this work are
in the link Early Work.
At a point in time, however, “the natural beauty of wood” became a cliché, and had run its course: I realized
that it represented only one component for creative expression, and was certainly not the only criterion upon
which I could base my work.
In his remarkable book, Art as Experience, John Dewey states: “Because objects of art are expressive, they
are a "language.” The making of art effectively communicates to the world just who you are, what your
interests focus upon, your reverence for things, your experiences, and the relative importance of each to
yourself. These creations are a “language” that everyone can understand. The body of work, if it is
expressive, is due as it has been said, to the connection you make between the visual world as you see it,
and your inner self--that is, your experiences in this world. In my view, this “connection” cannot be
constrained by employing only one aspect of the medium without limiting the expressiveness of the work itself.
As a result, my work is made based upon things which have had a decided influence on myself throughout my
life—namely, the natural world, family, architecture—Its elements and their cultural diversity, memories and
experiences of the past, travels, artists whose work I admire, patterns—natural and man-made, and the
workmanship of things made. With these in mind, the creative experience--through my work--makes the
“connection” for me in what I see plus what I feel. Examples of this work are depicted in the link Recent
Work, with an explanation of the idea or concept behind each piece, and in the link Gallery, showing current
The challenges of working with wood:
To the artist, there is always a collaboration between the maker and the material. The creativity of the artist in
approaching wood is influenced and often constrained by the qualities inherent in the material, for each piece
of wood is different from any other. The challenges of wood as an art medium is eloquently stated by Elizabeth
Braun in the book A Revolution in Wood: The Bresler Collection:
Of the five craft media, wood most neatly balances inherent material limitations with a vast potentiality for creative intervention.
Experienced artists working with more malleable materials like glass or metal may tease out extraordinary new shapes
without risking disaster, but wood artists must always be aware that the object may crack or splinter if they force their will onto
the material. Wood artists must cultivate a special deep sensitivity to the strength or vulnerability of the specific piece of wood
chosen, respecting its individual grain and growth patterns.
A note about the wood I use for my work: For decades, I have taken the approach to acquire and use my
material responsibly. Salvaging wood from trees that are destined for the landfill or for firewood is a
responsible act that provides a wood artist with as much wood as he/she can possibly use, while resulting in a
minimal impact on the environment. When living in the temperate region of the Northeast, obtaining wood in
this manner was relatively easy. Living in the Sonoran Desert region of Arizona, however, where the native
vegetation has adapted to harsh climatic conditions, indigenous trees are few, relatively small and are
protected. However, as in most large urban areas, there exists an "urban forest," largely comprised of trees
that are introduced from other regions and planted as street trees, landscaping or for other horticultural
purposes. Many are considered exotic, not being available commercially. When these trees are removed as a
result of weather, age or development, they become an exciting resource for the wood artist, again with
minimal environmental impact.