Few objects equal a grandfather clock as a symbol of the home.
Yet, while most of us would associate grandfather clocks with the permanence and tradition of home, furniture maker Wendell Castle has taken the grandfather clock as a jumping-off point for the new.
Castle is a woodworker who has been surprising, and usually delighting, the world with his furniture for a quarter-century. He also has the distinction of being the American craftsman whose work commands the highest amount of money.
The price tag is $100,000 and up for one of the 13 clocks in a series Castle has produced, according to his New York dealer, Alexander Milliken. The clocks, some of which debuted at the Taft Museum in Cincinnati, were on display at Milliken’s gallery in Soho before being sent to the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery in Washington for a four-month exhibition through April 24.
Made as Art Objects
At these prices, it’s obvious that the average person is not going to buy any clocks. However, Castle noted in an interview at the Milliken gallery, that at least one will be on display in a corporate lobby.
“I made them as art objects,” he said. Castle worked on the series, along with nine woodworkers, in his Upstate New York workshop six days a week for 18 months.
Except for the piece titled “Ghost,” all are working models that keep accurate time and chime. The “clock” called “Ghost” is a trompe l’oeil sculpture that looks like a traditional grandfather clock but has a “cloth” covering. So realistic is the white-painted wood “cloth” and rope tie that most people who come into the gallery try to lift a corner to see what’s underneath, Milliken said.
The clock Castle calls “Bird” represents in three dimensions his idea of time flying. The clock is made of Australian lacewood, cypress-crotch veneer and ebony. At its base, gold-plated brass eagles symbolize the strength and weight of America. At the top, carved ebonized cherry birds perch, ready to fly away at a moment’s notice. Three sets of chimes sound every quarter-hour to remind the viewer that time is fleeting.
Castle says his goal since graduating with a master of fine arts degree in sculpture from the University of Kansas has been to be the best. He chose to make furniture rather than sculpture when he observed that “practically speaking, most sculptors were not making a living. I felt in the ‘60s that I would have the whole field of art furniture to myself.”
This bit of market research has been accurate because Castle, who is 53, achieved almost immediate recognition for his free-form sculptural pieces carved out of layers of laminated wood blocks. Recently, the Art Institute of Chicago acquired a set of living room pieces from Lee Nordness, the dealer for whom they were originally made in the ‘60s.
“I was fortunate to start out designing something that didn’t require being a cabinetmaker,” said Castle, who knew nothing of traditional furniture construction, by choice.
The next phase of his development was making traditional-looking pieces that had trompe l’oeil objects carved on them. Two of the best known are an umbrella stand and a table with a hat and book.
Interest in Cabinetmaking
“I thought it would be great if I could do trompe l’oeil and sometimes fool people. That turned out to be very easy,” he recalled.
A critical point in his development came when he was invited to be co-curator of an exhibition, “The Fine Art of the Furniture Maker,” with Penelope Hunter-Stiebel, then a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition at the University of Rochester in 1981 consisted of pieces of antique furniture chosen by the artist and the curator from the Met’s great storehouse.
This experience fanned a growing interest in fine cabinetmaking. It also crystallized Castle’s desire to develop a new type of woodworking school where traditional cabinetmaking skills would be taught to students who would use them to create contemporary pieces rather than replicas of the old.