Imagine how wood turning and sculpture might look if made by a renegade paint junkie from a flash hot rod shop and you’ll have a sense of what comes from the fertile mind and deft hands of Giles Gilson. Using custom pearl, translucent and transmission pearl pigments, he embellishes his turnings and sculpture with dramatic graphics and the shifting “now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t” paint effects wielded by the best automotive flame artists. The result is as dazzling as it is unusual.
“I used to be a motor head,” Giles confides, “and liked to build hot rods. Consequently, I was into the exotic colors typical of such cars: candy apple, pearl, metallic, and ultra-high gloss finishes. At the same time, I was also doing two-dimensional painting; landscapes, still life, pets, airplanes, graphics and advertisement art. I was even designing colors and designs for painting airplanes. It gave me the idea that using translucent colors would look interesting over the textures and patterns of wood.”
“At that time, adding paint to wood turnings was strictly taboo. I first presented two pieces at a turning conference around 1980. Those two pieces divided the audience in half. Some loved it, others hated it and were mad at me for having done it. Even today there is a lot of resistance to my painted work, but it did start a trend. Mark Lindquist once told me it is my fault that all these people are now putting color on wood. I got a lot of static for it, but felt I had to do it. That led to using other materials, like fiberglass, acrylics, fabrics and metals in conjunction with wood.”
“I don’t see myself as a woodworker per se,” Giles insists. “Wood is simply a material that I use, in part because it is still one of the easiest, quickest, cheapest, and most available materials for getting things done. On top of that, it has its own beauty and warmth, and it works well in combination with other materials. Granted, it has drawbacks, like instability, but those can be worked around.” The problem with some of his more elaborate painted finishes was that because wood moves, a thick lacquer finish would crack. “I hit on the idea of thoroughly encasing the wood in epoxy to stabilized it, which then allowed me to put automotive finishes on wood sculptures and turnings.”
If his work is unusual, perhaps it’s because even his birth back in Philadelphia was also a bit odd. Sixty four years ago, he was born in the front seat of 1933 Ford. His older brother, thirteen at the time, claims he “heard him drop and hit the floor.” Dropping must have suited him, because he later dropped out of high school, but ended up with a diploma anyway. “I got hooked up with a tall, blond, beautiful girl,” he recounts, “who inspired me to take courses with her at the local community college.” He did so well that he made the dean’s list. When the dean discovered he did not even have a high school diploma, he intervened and convinced his high school to send him one.
Working with his hands, however, was something he was taught early on. “I learned to make things as a kid,” Giles explains, “and always liked shop and art classes in school. My father was a machinist. He went through the Depression on a farm and learned to do everything that needed to be done. He never cared about how good something looked, only how it worked. He taught me how to make things work with whatever was at hand, and he encouraged me to do things myself at an early age. In fact, he started teaching me to drive cars and fly airplanes when I was nine years old. I owned my first car when I was thirteen and got my pilot’s license in the sixties. I have been involved in airplane technology as far back as I can remember, and that also shows up in my work.”
“In the seventies, I was broke, so I started delivering newspapers and asked my parents if I could commandeer their barn,” Giles told me. “I started making things out of wood to sell. I made whatever would sell; unfinished furniture, antique reproductions, turned objects like bowls, candlesticks, sculpture and mobiles, and so on. The turning point came when I met Melvin Lindquist, who became my mentor. He hooked me up so I could get into Rhinebeck, then the Cadillac of crafts fairs. I took sculpture and turnings to Rhinebeck where I met collectors, museum people, and gift shop owners from New York, D.C., Boston.”
It wasn’t easy, but it did help direct his artistic growth. As he puts it, “I was losing a little on every sale, but made it up on the volume. Shops were buying things like my scent jars designed to hold potpourri. I was gluing up different woods to make patterns, and that grew into assembling woods to make segmented turning.” His “feathered series” grew out of that, as did his “picture series.”
He talks about his work in series—groups of work that are loosely related by style. The pieces in the feathered series, for example, which look like pure sculpture, are all actually containers that open, some with hidden doors and drawers. In most cases, what appears as the sculpture is merely the lid. Some, like his elaborate wall cabinet, have counterweighted lids that open slowly and gently.
The lavishly painted and sculpted pieces break a lot of the rules of woodworking, but that’s all intentional. “My father always told me, ‘If you are going to break rules, don’t leave the pieces laying around for others to trip over.’ Also, ‘if you are going to break rules, you have to know them.’ I’ve seen my father do things that were uncanny, and seemingly impossible, yet they worked.”
“It is important to be able to break tradition,” he explains, “and try things to see what works. Also, learn how to understand what works. Learn the rules so you can break them. If you study classic design, you learn what will work. Combine that how-to with intuition, and make a choice as to whether or not you want to use it.”
Of course, not all is work is turned, nor is it all painted. One of the most dramatic wood pieces is a highly unusual sculpted rocking chair. “The sculpted rocker was done as an assignment to myself,” Giles explains. “I wanted a good looking sculpture that was comfortable to sit in but also came apart easily to be stored. That piece had no reference points for measurement or where they fit together. It is entirely freeform. The only way to make it is to measure in your mind in three dimensions. For things like that, I do a lot of quick-and-dirty mock-ups using Styrofoam, masking tape, rubber bands, and whatever else is at hand to see what works.”
“I sent the rocker to a gallery, not to sell, but merely to show, since my wife at the time loved the piece. To make sure it did not sell, I doubled the price. It sold for about six thousand dollars, which in the seventies was quite a lot. My wife never forgave me for that, and I never made another one.” She is now his ex-wife, though not necessarily because of that incident.
Like most who have learned well, he also devotes time to teaching others, frequently lecturing and demonstrating, but maintains that is not necessarily the best way to learn. He currently has two part-time students because he feels that the reality of teaching and learning works best by association rather than instruction. “A student will absorb a lot more simply being there and working with someone than in a class,” he insists. “Teaching is always a two way street: I learn as much from my students as they learn from me. There is also the function of community and camaraderie. This has always been my favorite way of doing things.”
What comes through strongest when talking to Giles, and undoubtedly in his teaching, is how involved he is with his art. “Everything I do is somehow related to who I am,” he explains. “The activities I have done throughout by life come out through my work. My work is me, and I am my work.”
That must reveal quite a life, because it is certainly an exceptional body of work.