Pick up a wood bowl turned by Donna Zils Banfield and you’ll find it’s lighter than you might expect. Some of her bowls are so thin they become translucent on the edges. Her newest works have cutout shapes, usually leaves, which create a contrast between the colorful painted outside of the vessel and the natural wood interior. Yes, she’s not your usual woodturner.
Banfield jumped careers mid-stream when the business of lawyering became less pleasant than the thought of staying home to work with wood. The turn began in 2002 when her husband gave her a boost by gifting her a lathe and a few tools. Within six weeks, she had outgrown the tools and was looking for more professional equipment. She worked even harder to perfect the craft. One day in 2004, before her husband had finished saying, “Why don’t you close your practice,” she was composing a letter in her head to notify her clients. It could have started, “I have decided to live a life less ordinary.” That’s the signature she puts on her pieces now that woodturning and carving are her full-time occupation. She was juried into the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen in 2010.
Banfield works in her Derry studio, using a gouging tool to shape the perfect curve from rim to foot out of bowl blocks. The 5-inch lengths of logs are about 6 to 15 inches in diameter. “I thought originally I would have to out-muscle the wood, but that is not the case,” she says. “With proper body mechanics, the tools become an extension of my body.” As the wood, inside and out, gives way to the sharp tool, she claims it is a Zen-like experience.
In addition to expert turning, Banfield often textures the surfaces of vessels and bowls with a technique called pyro-engraving. She uses a micro-ball wood-burning tip to render the surface of the wood black and mottled, which is in sharp contrast to the natural cherry or maple. A few bowls also have leaves on the inside burnished with 23k-gold leaf as a focal point — it’s a signature of her work. The leaf shapes throughout the piece are defined with sharp cutting tools. In fact, she says, keeping your tools honed is the key to success and an art in itself.
Banfield does most of the final carving when she wants time away from noisy machines, but still, most of her pieces at this time are purely functional turned salad bowls and natural edge vessels, each only as thick as practically demands. Her bowls can be found at most League of New Hampshire Craftsmen retail outlets across the state. Prices range from $100 to $350 for bowls to $1,500 for carved vessels. In addition, she offers private woodturning classes in her Derry workshop.