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POP Merit Award 2009: Merryll Saylan
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Honoring Merryll Saylan


With the same quiet purposeful­ness that permeates her art, Merryll Saylan has, over thirty-five years, worked her way into the ranks of the great woodturners. But to call Saylan a woodturner is to only be­gin to recognize her uniqueness. Although wood is the medium she has become most comfort­able with, and the lathe her most dependable tool, Saylan is neither defined nor confined by them.


As a young mother, Saylan wan­dered the Los Angeles County Museum of Art while her children took art classes, absorbing the clean and contemporary designs of Eames and Bauhaus. With children at home, Saylan returned to school, earning a bachelor's degree in de­sign from UCLA. Intending to pursue a career in architecture, she dabbled in wood and cooking classes and first put her hands on a lathe. Entranced with the possibili­ties of wood, Say Ian completed a master's degree in art and wood at California State University, Northridge.

Moving to San Francisco, Saylan set up shop with furniture makers, and met many emerging wood­turning giants of the early 1980s. Although her playful earlyworks­Jelly Doughnut and Barbells for Arnold (Schwarzenegger)-received critical acclaim and were included in gallery exhibitions, she remained on the outside of the woodturning community, de­veloping her own distinct artistic voice. Eschewing spalted and ex­otic woods used by other turners at the time, she sought unremark­able species. Rather than relying on figure, Saylan experimented with paint, stains, watercolors and surface textures. She put design and artistic perspective ahead of technical skills, learning only what was needed in order to make what she wanted to make.


Triptych (Shoreline series) 2004, ash, dye, oil color, graphite, 24" x 24" x 2"   Fiji Embassy Set of Bowls 2004, Various woods, polychromed

"I see the piece in my mind and then go looking for what I need to accomplish it. It is the same reason I need a pantry to cook. I don't start with the ingredient or the piece of wood. I start with the concept, and then go looking for the means and materials I need to make it real."

Saylan served on the Board of the Wood Turning Center from 1988 to 1991. She was awarded an Artist in Residence at the Grizedale Sculp­ture Park in Cumbria, England in 1991, where her playfulness aligned well with the self-deprecating humor of the British turners. There, Saylan gained confidence, loosened up artistically, and, she quips, "finally learned to use a gouge!" Upon her return in 1992, she enjoyed broad artistic accep­tance in the United States, serving on the Board of Directors of the  American Association of Woodturners from 1993 until 1995.

Hammered Bowl, (2) 2002, Ash, dye stain, oil glaze, 18" x 4"
Moon Over Marsh, (3) 2003 Mahogany, milkpaint, 28" x 28" x 2"
Vessel (4), 2002, mahogany, milkpaint, 21" x 18" x 2"
 Salad Bowl Table: Homage to Greens, 1988, Claro walnut, poplar, black bamboo, 29" x 22" x  22"

In the years that followed, Saylan contributed substantially as a leader in the woodturning field. Saylan has been a Master Member of the prestigious Baulines Craft Guild, an exchange artist at the Interna­tional Turning Exchange sponsored by The Wood Turning Center, and a teacher at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Colorado. In 2004, the Department of State sponsored Saylan in a lecture and workshop series in Fiji, to accompany her work on display at the U.S. Embassy. In 2004, Saylan acted as visiting artist and teacher at California Col­lege of the Arts in San Francisco.

With her artistic reputation well­established, Merryll Saylan, once odd woman out, is now odd wom­an in. While she has stood firmly planted in her own artistic vision, many in the woodturning world have gathered closely around her, embracing color, recognizing de­sign and concept over material, and appreciating meaningful artis­tic expression. We must be grate­ful for the key role Saylan has played in expanding the bound­aries of woodtuming firmly into the realm of art.
Bessomimbuchse (Spice Box) 2005, Various woods, polychromed. Bowl:Pine (wood from Bob Stocksdale), glass bottles, spices, plastic tubing, 12" x 12" x 47"
Tower of Bowls 2001, Various woods, polychromed, 77'' x 17" x 15"

Saylan's inspirations include modernist painters, ceramicists, designers, and architects. Her work demonstrates the modernist's leanness she admires, partnered with herown ebullient treatment of color Saylan's platters are a study in color and texture juxtaposed. In addition to her exploration of stains, watercolors and milkpaint, the wood is scorched, hammered, oversanded, wirebrushed, textured and incised with repetitive direc­tional carving. The subtle surface distinctions interest the eye, drawing the viewer in to examine the variations and transitions and answer the question of why this looks different from that.

Some ofSaylan's platters are more evocative, particularly work from her Shoreline series, which she completed while living on a salt marsh in San Rafael, California. The repetitive surface textures and sharp blocks of colors against subtly varied hues evoke channels, moonlight, floating docks, and the rusting sides of metal ships. The shoreline is suggested but never pictured. Her work transcends the materials of painted wood to trans­mit the essence of place.

In Saylan's explorations of multi­ple similar objects, she reveals the joy of pure craft as she explores the infinite possibilities of a mate­rial or form. Beginning with a set of parameters that she has given herself, her work progresses in a near scientific method, answering the questions, "What can I do to it to change it? In how many ways can it be different? How do the in­dividual differences relate to each other and change the whole?"

Beginning with familiar domestic forms-platters, cups,and bowls-and mundane materials, Saylan transforms them into meaning through the attention of her intelligence and tender consideration of her materials, much as a mother makes a fmily out of meals, washings and the plain details of life. Perhaps no work shows this more clearly than Bessomimbuch se (Spice Box) completed in 2005 after the death of Saylan's husband, Ed. Sweet spices are used in Jewish tradition to provide comfort at the time of loss as the holy Sabbath transitions to the ordinary week.

Saylan's work surrounds nitroglycerine bottles and tubing with sweet spices in a simple pine bowl and spindle tower. These pieces are not left machine smooth, but bear the lingering paint and toolmarks of a maker who is unwilling to finish. Merryll Saylan's work gracefully and regularly treads this boundary between the holy and the ordinary.




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