CRAFT OF MAINE – JUNE 2007
Photography Warren Roos
Four craftsmen create radiant lighting that truly shines
Richard Dunham The warm radiance emanating from Richard Dunham’s wooden lamps is the culmination of a life preoccupied with the infinite possibilities of light.
After earning a master’s degree in lighting design from Indiana University, Dunham worked for decades as a lighting technician. His long résumé includes theatrical and cinematic productions, as well as innovative lighting displays for Disney World and several Las Vegas casinos. In the early 1990s, the New Hampshire native, longing for the tranquility of the Maine woods, decided to relocate to the town of Appleton on the edge of the St. George River.
Having “tinkered” all his life with wood, Dunham set up a workshop and began build-ing furniture that is a somewhat contemporary take on the Shaker tradition. During a class he took at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport, Dunham held a thin sheet of wood veneer to the window. When he saw how the light penetrating the veneer made it glow, Dunham realized he could combine his expertise in lighting with his newfound passion for woodworking.
Today, Dunham’s one-man operation, Wood and Light, offers a selection of earthy but elegant table lamps, sconces, and floor lamps. He crafts the “shades” using veneers of redwood burl, Madrone burl, and local variegated red maple and sugar maple. The graceful Arts and Craft–inspired bodies of his lamps are made from cherry, mahogany, and maple. Because each sheet of wood veneer has natural variations in translucence and opacity, Dunham is continually surprised by what he discovers. “Every piece of wood creates its own color of light,” he says.
Ever the technician, Dunham is also ceaselessly experimenting with the countless varieties of “common” light bulbs now available at the local hardware store. While fooling with a chandelier bulb in one of his wall sconces, Dunham found that setting the long, skinny bulb at a certain angle would cast radiating shadows onto the wall behind it.
“Lighting is always about both light and the absence of light,” Dunham says, “and I’m constantly drawn to that contrast.”
When Joe Hemes says that his modern, pulsating lights are not made to read by, he’s simply stating the obvious. “I try to make the ceiling and walls my canvas,” Hemes explains, “and I want these lights to create an ambience that transports you to a different place than the room you’re in.” In fact, Hemes’s work pushes the idea of “lighting” to such a high artistic level that it can more precisely be described as “illuminated sculpture.”
As an architect with Stephen Blatt Architects of Portland, Hemes focuses on sustainable green architecture, and has designed several Maine schools in this fashion. Frustrated with the lack of interesting fixtures available to illuminate the spaces he designed, Hemes decided to start creating his own lights in 1996 with the help of a grant from the Maine Arts Commission. Today, he spends four days a week in the office and the fifth in his studio building lights.
Hemes creates his lights with materials that are perhaps more familiar to architects and engineers than artists. He experiments with an endless variety of building, plumbing, and electrical components and has created lights using materials as diverse as copper, steel, gypsum-board tape, flooring, hoses, zip ties, and tubing. “I’m quite fascinated,” Hemes says, “with changing coarse, industrial materials into an elegant, refined object.”
Hemes draws his motivations from sources as eclectic as his materials, saying he is inspired by “the forms of the microscopic diatom, by the proportions of skyscrapers and mosques, and by Japanese sensibilities.” He freely admits that many of his lights have a “building-influenced look to them.” Hemes is perpetually concerned with, and passionate about, the sculptural aspect of his work—in other words, he is just as interested in how his lights look when they’re shut off as when they’re splashing multicolored light around the room.
But in the end, Hemes wanted to create lights, not sculpture, because of the sensations and emotions that extraordinary illumination can provoke. “There’s a kind of mysticism,” he says, “that you can achieve from throwing light and changing a room.”
In the world of functional art, there are designers and there are craftsmen—and then there are those who bring their own designs to life. Stuart Loten is a designer who likes to get his hands dirty.
After receiving a master’s of fine arts from the University of Kansas, Loten became a production potter and managed a ceramics studio. Over time, some of the pots Loten was creating evolved into lamp bases, which sparked a fascination with lighting design that inspired him to experiment with a mixture of materials. By the late 1980s, Loten was designing lamps for a major lighting manufacturer. After spending several years sitting in front of a drawing board, Loten began to miss the workshop. Eventually he grew restless enough to leave his design job and begin fabricating his own lamps. Today, Loten Art Lighting produces a line of distinctive lamps with metal bases and hand-painted shades.
The steel-rod bases of Loten’s lamps do not use nuts, bolts, or washers. “I try to eliminate anything that could possibly loosen over time,” says Loten. He cold-bends the steel legs around jigs, and then heats another metal rod, which he wraps around the legs and welds in place. The bases are then dipped into an acid bath, which creates, Loten says, an “instant patina of earth tones.”
The most eye-catching aspect of Loten’s lamps, however, is the shades. “There are plenty of great lamp bases out there,” he says, “but I think the shades are really what distinguish my lamps.” To create his shades, Loten stretches sheets of silk around a frame and uses bamboo brushes and dyes to hand-paint his unique designs. The silk is then backed with paper or cloth to make it rigid, and attached to round or oval metal rings that give the finished shades their shape.
Loten’s recent shades feature an earth-toned palette. The leaves and vines on several of his shades echo Maine’s natural landscape, while his other designs recall popular lamp shades of the 1950s. For his retro-style lamps, Loten uses solid maple and walnut bases with lustrous finishes.
“The whole process between the design and the actual fabrication of a lamp,” Loten says, “is a constant evolution.”
Not so long ago, earthenware lamps with delicate beeswax shades would have been the last things that artist Jon White might have imagined himself making.
White admits that after studying ceramic sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design, he was disdainful of “functional” pottery. But soon after graduation, White happened upon a coffee-table book featuring the ceramics of the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 1800s, and he discovered an unexpected appreciation for what he had once disdained. Today, much of White’s art continues to be influenced by the Arts and Crafts aesthetic as well as his fascination with the Industrial Revolution that followed.
After beginning Odd Inq Pottery and Tile in cramped quarters in the mid-1990s, White moved to South Portland’s Cottage Road in 1997 and opened the Front Room Gallery. In addition to featuring the work of other artists, White also shows his own pottery, vases, tiles, lamps, and ceramic sculpture in the gallery.
White’s foray into lamp construction began when the owners of Fore Street Restaurant in Portland were looking for lamp shades made of beeswax. Fascinated by the idea, White turned to the mold-making skills he had learned in college and began creating prototype molds out of clay. After much experimentation, White found that he could pour heated beeswax into a mold, and then extract it at the precise moment when it was hard enough to hold its form but hadn’t yet attached to the mold.
“People often seem surprised that the beeswax doesn’t melt,” White says of his shades, which glow with a soft, golden hue. “But I tell them, ‘Hey, a paper lampshade doesn’t catch fire.’”
White builds nearly every component of the lamps himself. He throws the earthenware bases on a potter’s wheel, pours the beeswax shades, and turns the lamp’s mahogany domes on a wood lathe. White also makes wooden harps (the U-shaped piece that holds the shade in place) for the lamps, which he wires together using reproduction cloth cords that accentuate their antique look. “I really try to consider how every detail you’ll see will look,” White says.
Today, White is almost embarrassed that he once shunned the ideals of the Arts and Crafts tradition. “It’s about growing up as a person and as an artist,” he says of his embrace of functional art. “And I’m certainly no longer afraid of the term ‘craftsman.’”