SHELBYVILLE – Michelangelo, the Renaissance genius who gave us the David statue, said his technique was basically to cut away all the stone that wasn't David, and then he was done.
Fast-forward 500 years to rural Shelbyville, and we find wood-turning craftsman Jeremy Williams adopting a similar approach. His medium is dead wood rather than stone, and that wood is often twisted, holed and decorated by the ravages of disease into artsy shapes and patterning. Chucking up a chunk of this on a huge lathe in a chilly workshop veneered in layers of sedimentary sawdust, he gets to work.
“I remove material until I have my desired size and shape,” explains Williams, 31. “With most kinds of woodworking, you take pieces and put them together to build something. With me, it's the opposite: instead of putting parts together, I make shavings until I'm done.”
And while Michelangelo freed statues from the embrace of stone, Williams liberates a parade of exquisite wood bowls, vases, wooden bodies for ink pens and even wine bottle stoppers. He has been known to fashion chess sets when the mood moves him, and is open to doing commission work. He says customers bring out their deceased wood from favored felled trees and call upon him to transmute it into utilitarian art.
Otherwise, our craftsman prowls “wood dumps,” looking for the dead and diseased raw material the rest of us don't want. Under his loving hands, it becomes objets d'art that command prices ranging from $5 to about $400.
“He makes some very nice utilitarian pieces, and a particular interest of mine are his ink pens: He uses so many different woods and they are of very high quality,” says Carol Kessler, the owner of the not-for-profit Flourishes Gallery and Studios in Shelbyville.
She first encountered Williams and his work at a farmers market and quickly decided he deserved a more discerning audience. “I am a co-director for the Shelby County Arts Show, and we invited him to demonstrate and exhibit at our shows,” Kessler adds. “He's done that and won major awards.”
Williams discovered a career in wood seven years ago. His father, Steven, was a carpenter who could build houses but later laid aside his saw to become a pastor and run a church, mirroring the life of that earlier carpenter who switched careers to found Christianity.
“I was 10 when Dad stopped working with wood, and so no, I didn't really learn wood-turning at my father's knee,” recalls Williams. He was in fact home sick one day from his job working at Walmart when he fired up the TV and found himself fascinated by a PBS show on a guy turning a wood bowl. Everything grew from that and now his art, supported by other odd jobs, including furniture repair, is how he makes his living.
“I watched quite a few YoutTube videos to figure out how to do what I wanted to do, and then it was lots of trial and error,” he says. “I've had tools go flying out the window when something broke but you have to be persistent to learn and find something you are passionate about. We all have to find that thing in life we are willing to fail at so that, later, we can succeed.”