By Joshua Brown Article published September 12, 2007
The wood shavings smell like bread dough. They fly off the lathe, covering Ralph Tursini’s arms in pale yellow confetti. Tursini again pushes a long steel chisel into the spinning block of black cherry, inward and down. In response, a circle seems to move outward, like a slow-motion ripple in a pool of wood. He’s turning a humble bowl.
Created on an old General 260 power-lathe at UVM’s Research Forest in Jericho, and cut from a tree harvested there, this bowl is being fashioned from freshly cut wood and will be finished with nothing more than a chisel edge and a few swipes of tung oil.
For Tursini, who works as a bowl maker and is teaching a one-credit course this fall, Conservation and Wood Turning, each bowl is the artful extension of the UVM degree in forestry he received in 1999. For David Brynn, who directs the new Green Forestry Education Initiative at the research forest, the bowls show students one path from forest to finished product. And for the university, these humble bowls make an elegant gift for distinguished visitors.
Three recent speakers at UVM — Laurie David, who produced the film An Inconvenient Truth, Native American activist Winona LaDuke and forest ecologist Jerry Franklin — have more in common than concern for the environment. They all own one of Tursini’s bowls.
“I like the functional aspect, that people will use this as their everyday bowl,” says Tursini after turning off the lathe. He runs his finger down the rippled cavity forming in the center of the woodblock. “It’s an everyday ceremony, taking a bowl from the shelf and putting a meal in it and eating.”
Humble means modest and unassuming. But it also shares a root with the word humus: of the soil. For Turisini, humble bowls carry both meanings. Their slightly irregular shape, mottled grain, obvious knot holes and remnant tool marks remind a bowl’s owner of the hands that shaped the bowl, the tree that yielded the wood and the earth that bore the tree.
“As they dry slowly, each bowl seeks its own beautiful form,” says Brynn, who is standing with Tursini in the semi-gloom of the shed that has become home to the Green Forestry Education Initiative, a program of the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.
He rests a finished bowl on top of a four-foot section of cherry and says, “We know that selling logs into an undifferentiated commodity market is the quickest way to bankruptcy, so we wanted to do something that demonstrated for students the value-adding process, like making furniture or flooring. Humble bowls have become our signature product.”
Along the walls, orange hardhats, chainsaw blades, slabs of rough-cut lumber, a bandsaw, Kevlar chaps and many other forestry tools remind a visitor that the bowl-making lathe is, really, at the midpoint of the education offered here, not the beginning. “Students can participate in the whole process from selecting and harvesting the tree, to shaping the blank, to turning their own bowl and taking it with them,” Brynn says.
“I found it awesome to see the stump where the wood we were using came from,” says Sefton Hirsch, a continuing education student focusing on forestry, who took Tursini and Brynn’s course this summer. “And then to see it as a finished product.”
For the students enrolled in the course this fall, some of the challenge comes from the deceptively difficult task of relaxing. In Tursini’s hands, the curved chisels disgorge an impressive wave of shavings that pile on the floor. He breathes easily, his tool shifting surely toward the center. The wood seems to know what shape it wants to take. In my hands, the chisel timidly bumps along the surface and then jutters forward, pushed too hard.
But with a bit of practice, a few shavings fly upward with a satisfying hissing sound. “All the students go home with a bowl,” Tursini says with a gentle smile.
As a forestry student at UVM, Tursini worked in an internship with the Shelburne furniture makers Bruce Beeken and Jeff Parsons. After graduation, the internship turned into his first woodworking job. “Their forest-based approach to furniture design and thorough technical grasp of the processes involved inspired me to pursue my work with an equally thorough understanding,” Tursini says.
He moved on to Woodbury’s, a woodware company in Burlington, where he worked for about two years. “There I learned from a turner who has been at it for most of his life and has probably turned more than 100,000 bowls,” Tursini says. “I got my own lathe going at the same time and learned how to turn green bowls — as opposed to the work I was doing there, which was little more production-oriented. They’re starting from cut and dried lumber. I was interested in going back in the process and starting from the tree.”
This led him to form his own one-man business, Tursini Woodturning and Bowl Works, that produces about 100 bowls a year, and also provides architectural turnings, workshops and forestry consulting.
It’s his interest in the “tree within the bowls” and understanding of the whole forest that made David Brynn think Tursini would be an excellent instructor in the Green Forestry project. Then Larry Forcier, professor of forest ecology, asked Brynn if he had any good ideas for a suitable gift for Winona LaDuke, who was coming to campus in 2006 to give an Aiken Lecture on forest conservation. With that, the full reach of what the bowls could mean came into focus. “She loved it,” Brynn says. “Humble bowls say a lot about stewardship — and stand for some of the best and unique parts of this university.”
See more photos of the bowl turning process on the view's Flickr page.