Bowled Over

Master Wood Turning by Kelly Dunn

Kelly Dunn lifts a sheet covering several recently completed wooden bowls and hollow vessels resting on a table in his workshop. "So the geckos don't poop on them," he says. He holds one exquisite example up to the light. "The shape of my pieces is particularly influenced by Greek vases, but this one's like a rice bowl." He angles it to let the whorls of grain in the turned Norfolk pine show more clearly against the darker patterns of natural bacterial coloration. It glows a honey yellow, a breathtaking marriage of art and nature.

It is difficult to imagine wood turnings more bewitching than the translucent treasures Dunn patiently crafts in Hawi, on the Big Island of Hawaii. Dunn, 46, is considered by many the finest wood-turning artist of his generation.

"Kelly's work is so incredible I opened an entire gallery in 1995 because of it," says Tom Stone, whose San Francisco establishment keeps about 20 pieces of Dunn's work on hand, priced from around $100 up to several thousand dollars. "Not only is he one of the rare artists working in Norfolk pine, but the translucent finish he's able to give his work enhances the beauty of nature with the eye of a true master."

Dunn didn't discover wood turning until he moved to Hawaii in 1979. His next-door neighbor, the late master turner Larry Trombly, gave him an old wood lathe and became his mentor. By 1989 he was making bowls full time. Today it's the thin-walled, nearly transparent Norfolk pine pieces for which Dunn is renowned; it's the only wood he "transluces." The process begins with pine slabs left to undergo spalting--the initial stage of bacterial decomposition. This lends character and color to the wood without significantly weakening it.

Dunn turns the aged timber on the lathe to a wall thickness of about an inch, then kiln-dries it. The roughs are coated on one side with a wax emulsion to discourage cracking, worked on the finish lathe until they are almost eggshell-thin, and finally submerged for up to two weeks in a bath of oil and resin that Dunn himself developed. It's that final touch that yields bowls that seem to incandesce with their own light.

Kelly Dunn's pieces are available at: Ackerman Galleries, Akoni Pule Highway, Kapaau, Hawaii; 808-889-5971; Nohea Gallery, 1050 Ala Moana Boulevard, Honolulu; 808-596-0074; and The Stones Gallery, 55 Third Street, San Francisco; 415-777-4999.