Dan Webb gives dead trees a gorgeous second life. The Seattle artist’s amazing ability to make wood transcend its own nature and look like other materials is on full display in Bellevue Art Museum's Fragile Fortress: The Art of Dan Webb, the first solo museum exhibit of master wood carver's works. His apt hands can transform redwood into cloth, fir into a mylar balloon, or maple into sneaker canvas. Fragile Fortress opens Friday, March 7, and runs through June 15.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Webb about accepting his love for carving, the reuniting of pieces in Fragile Fortress, and the serendipity of the wood he uses.
How did you first get involved with woodworking and using that as a way to express your artwork?
I guess I can’t really remember not being involved in making something out of wood. I think I made stuff out of wood before I made stuff out of Legos, you know? It just always felt really natural and felt like something that I was good at, and it took me a long time to not fight that. I felt like I had to be a painter or I had to be, you know, just a bunch of other things that you’re supposed to be if you go to art school and you read Art Forum. But by the time I kind of came back and really rediscovered it, it was like rediscovering an old friend, it just felt really comfortable and good.
So just like a kind of natural connection with the material itself?
Yeah, I mean that sounds really romantic and corny, but it really is that. There’s a thing about just not overthinking it and making it complicated.
What aspect of the Fragile Fortress exhibit are you most excited about?
I like that a whole bunch of work from different shows is in the same room together. Some of it was actually meant to be in the same room together and it never were, like the piece that SAM bought called Shroud and the piece that the Trues bought called Fortress. So getting those things back together again is pretty great.
My favorite thing about your work is how you’re able to make the wood appear like other materials in a very photorealistic sense. I Love You, for example, really has that balloon sheen despite being carved from a fur tree. How much goes into picking a certain wood in order to achieve the appearance of a certain other material?
None. I guess my approach is really more arte povera. One of the reasons that I think I’ve been able to carve wood successfully for so long is because it’s so available here, and what I carve are really cast-offs from building projects and occasionally trees that people give me. There’s just a whole lot of serendipity in finding what the wood looks like underneath the weathered exterior, underneath the bark. It’s not really me trying to say this piece of old-growth fur would look most like a mylar balloon from a kid’s birthday party, I don’t know that that wood actually does represent that the best, but I know that there’s kind of a clash of those materials; it really does transform from wood to a balloon in a sort of surprising way. So I suppose it’s not totally satisfying to hear, that a lot of it’s just using whatever I have at hand, but that’s really pretty much what it is.
No, that’s interesting in its own right. Are there any young, up-and-coming local artists you feel like people should check out?
I really like the work of Sol Hashemi, Jason Hirata, Anne Fenton, Sam Wildman, Matt Browning, Anthony Sonnenberg, and Peter Scherrer. Of course if you asked for a list of artists that wasn't age specific, there would be a whole lot more people on it. There are a lot of good artists that live here.
If you weren’t an artist is there any other line of work you think you might have wanted to pursue or were interested in?
I think I’d probably be an architect. Before I was a full-time artist I was a carpenter and I was really satisfied doing that. It was really a great job, but it didn’t satisfy all the aspects of what being an artist satisfies. Being an artist is just more multifaceted.
You kind of spoke to this a little bit regarding the prevalence of wood around here, but how do you feel like Seattle has influenced your artwork?
I get asked that a lot, and I guess the truth of the matter is that it’s had a very clear influence on me. I’m a real believer that that should be how that goes. I mean, I feel like if you lived in New Orleans there should be a way about that place that influences the food that you eat and the accent that you have, and if you live in New York I think the same thing. If you live in L.A., I hope that that place influences you. There has been a way that it’s influences me, I think one of the ways that’s surprising is not in a way that extends craft-centric necessarily, but in the way that it’s allowed me to be less alone. This isn’t an especially huge art hub, and carving has taken me so long to be good at, that I could really take on a 20-year project to learn how to do what I do, and fail in public a lot and feel like that was okay; that was fine. So I’d say that that’s not probably the first thing that people would think about, but it’s been a really nice fringe benefit.
Fragile Fortress: The Art of Dan Webb
Mar 7–June 15, Bellevue Arts Museum, $10