And then again, sometimes you fall absolutely in love with something at first sight. You take one look at a piece of work — one of Avelino Samuels’ masterful woodturned bowls, for example — the marks of the wood like a subtle expressionist painting, and you know immediately, that, if money was not an object, Samuels’ wooden works would be all over your tiny apartment in Manhattan.
It was my Facebook friend David Knight who first brought Avelino Samuels’ work to my attention. Knight’s enthusiasm for Samuels’ woodturning skills was so infectious that I found myself researching the artist’s work. Surely the work could not be as fantastic as Knight was saying, I huffed and puffed to myself, or this wouldn’t be the first time that I was hearing about it. But the work was everything he had said it was. In fact, the work was not only as great as Knight had proclaimed it to be, it was better. In a word, Avelino Samuels’ work is masterful. I knew, in that moment of looking, that I would have to talk to the man himself, and try to discover the sources of his inspiration.
Avelino Samuels was born on the island of St. John, which is a crossroads, as he explained it, between being American and Caribbean. He was born in a place where there were no cheap plastic toys; if children wanted something to play with, it was most likely handmade. And this was how Samuels got introduced to woodworking: he wanted to make toys to play with. “From I was a child,” Samuels told me, “I was always making things. I started out making bows and arrows, then slingshots, before I graduated to making craft items. I grew up in a time when you had nothing. My father told me that if I wanted something, and especially if I wanted toys to play with, I was going to have to make them myself. And so I began. Before long I was making afro picks, mini sailboats, masks, all for the local market.”
He continued: “For the most part I worked with wood because wood was always accessible and all around me. And, in time, I came to appreciate the particular beauty of wood. To me, wood almost always looks good and it is one of the easiest, most natural materials to work with. I love even the imperfections in wood, how the grade and grain of various cuts differ, because all of this, to me, is a good representation of nature and life.”
In keeping with doing the things that he saw others around him doing, Samuels went off to train as a teacher and has a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Arts Education. “Growing up in the St. John that I grew up in, there were very clear ideas of what a person like myself could become. I could become a teacher, an electrical engineer, or something like that. I chose teaching.” And he taught in the schools on the island for several decades, until his retirement a few years ago. Though he still continues teaching a few days a week, his main job now is woodturning. When I asked him how he feels about this, he admitted it feels good to have more time to devote to his art, but that he also enjoyed being a teacher, and he has turned out a few students who have gone on to do really fantastic work in woodturning.
What was surprising to me in our conversation is that Samuels shies away from claiming the mantle of “artist”, preferring, instead, the title of “artisan”. But, he admitted, “It is the person who engages with the work who defines what it is. I have a particular relationship with my work and that is more of an artisan, someone who builds things, than what I would consider an artist to do.”
I refused to let the subject go, pressing him to give a clearer definition of his relationship to his work. This, of course, was all done in good humor, but it was illuminating nonetheless. I wanted to know if he didn’t consider himself an artist and his work fine art because his work was, at times, functional and decorative.
“I guess, yes, that would be one reason,” he answered frankly.
“Well, what about the work that is neither functional nor expressly decorative?” I asked him, reviewing his latest body of work.
“Well, those,” he admitted, “those are more artistic.”
What I find really invigorating about Avelino Samuels’ practice is that it has steadily become more expressive and less functional. He has increasingly moved away from the more naturalized bowls and vases, as gorgeous as these are, and into an arena that I would classify as fine arts. His latest works have rips and tears and holes in them when they do not have elegant climbing branches shooting out of their tops. They have subtle stippling following the marks on the wood and they come in the most mesmerizing of colors: From rich dark blacks, to beguiling reds, to the palest of blond wooden colors. In turns out that Avelino Samuels is not only a master woodturner, but a wonderful colorist, as well.
Naturally I wanted to know where he got the wood from to make his creations and his views on the environment. As ever, he was pleasantly frank. “I know where you are going with this,” he said, laughing, when I started this line of questioning. “And, yes, you are correct that in making these things one can have a negative impact on the environment. That is just one of the realities that I, as a woodturner, have to live with and face. But I love the environment, and I feel especially blessed to call St. John my home.
“Truthfully, I could not live anywhere else but St. John. I have peace of mind here that I just don’t think I could ever have anywhere else. And that peace of mind comes about in large part because of the natural environment of the island. The wood with which I make my work is almost all reclaimed. I use a lot of salvaged materials in my work, overwhelmingly so. Wood from old houses, old materials, trimmings and so on. That is the wood that I love working with. I love taking something old and making it new again. And I am conscious of the impact that I am making on the environment.”
Avelino Samuels’ work has allowed him to travel extensively throughout the mainland United States and Canada. Two years ago he got the fantastic opportunity to go to Tanzania. He looks forward to going to Australia for the first time in March of this year.
Contact Avelino Samuels at firstname.lastname@example.org
Until next time.
Photographs in the article were provided by Avelino Samuels and used with permission