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An artist by nature works with nature's art

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By Sara Miller

Dave Voth has woodworking in his genes. His great-great-great-grandparents’ relatives were woodworkers in Prussia. His great-grandfather was featured in a book on Mennonite furniture making. The aged black-and-white photograph shows Voth’s ancestor standing next to the wooden house that he built by hand in Minnesota.

Voth wasn’t always an artist, or a woodworker for that matter. He grew up in North Dakota and earned his Ph.D. in biology from Oregon State University. For 29 years, Voth was a professor at Metropolitan State College of Denver. When one considers the number of years Voth spent studying the natural world, it only makes sense that, in retirement, he would take an interest in examining the beauty of the natural world around him, layer by layer.

Voth practices the age-old craft of woodturning. A form of woodworking, in turning the artist creates wood objects on a lathe. As the wood revolves, the artist uses a stationary tool — often a chisel or gouge –—to cut away layers and shape the wood into bowls, plates, vases and numerous other artistic objects.

The origin of woodturning dates to approximately 1300 B.C., when the Egyptians first developed a two-person lathe. One person would turn the wood with a rope while the other used a sharp tool to cut shapes in the wood. While today’s turners use motorized lathes, the handwork used to obtain the overall shape and details of the vessels is relatively unchanged after thousands of years.

The origin of Voth’s turning dates back to 2001. Voth retired from Metro State and began accumulating some basic woodshop tools in his basement.

“I’ve always enjoyed fooling with wood, but when you’re working full time, you don’t have the time or effort to do it,” Voth says. “Once I started building up a woodshop, I would try my hand at a flower vase, a bowl, even a walking stick with ornamentation on it. Each time you make a mistake, you learn what not to do the next time.”

When you meet Voth, you quickly begin to realize that it’s not just the “fooling with wood” that fascinates him, but the stories that are told through each piece he makes. As you walk through the Voth home, Dave will tell you about the hammer that he crafted from the trunk of an almond tree that his father had hidden away in his basement woodpile. Voth rubs his hands over the shining surface of a cedar bowl as he describes the Alabama hurricane that blew down the stand of cedars in his brother’s yard.

“All of the wood that I have, I’ve picked up on my lot, or people have given me. I have never purchased any wood,” says Voth. “Ninety percent of what I make is from aspen because that’s what I can gather around my house. Aspen is a relatively soft and very forgiving wood, which is good since I’m constantly experimenting.”

The day that I visit Voth, he has a new batch of work ready to be boxed up for sale at Mountain Creations, a gift shop in Conifer featuring the work of local artists. Lined up on Voth’s kitchen table, each bowl and candle holder has a life of its own. Some are ornamented with a simple foliage pattern that Voth burns into the wood. Others have been shaped to reveal the natural patterns of the wood’s grain and spalting.

Spalting is the natural breakdown of the wood caused by bacteria and parasites, leading to different colorations. The decay results in unique rings patterns that seem to bleed into the wood, a bluish hue as in the case of pine beetle wood, and many other patterns created by Mother Nature herself.

“What I love about woodworking is you never know exactly what you’re going to get,” says Voth. “When I grab a piece of wood, I have a pretty good idea what I’m going to make out of it. But when I put in on the lathe and start taking the bark and outside layers off, I truly get to see the beauty of each individual piece of wood. Once I have a chance to see what the natural patterns look like, the wood may decide for itself what it wants to be.”

Sara Miller, a freelance writer and a resident of Evergreen, lives with her husband, two children and a dog.