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Vol. 53, No. 8 April 20, 2001
[Sandia National Laboratories]

Albuquerque, New Mexico 87185-0165    ||   Livermore, California 94550-0969
Tonopah, Nevada; Nevada Test Site; Amarillo, Texas

Engineer-artisan Kevin Fleming to exhibit wood art at prestigious Smithsonian Craft Show next week

By John German

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Kevin Fleming the optical engineer seeks perfection.

But imperfections are what give "Kevin Fleming the wood turner" a thrill when he's roughing out a wooden vessel in the studio behind his kitchen or selecting that extraordinary chunk of stump in a New Mexico forest.

[Kevin Fleming's art]

KEVIN FLEMING with one of his finished pieces, a vase made of alligator juniper. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

"Imperfections make wood more interesting, just like people," he says. "Who wants to hang out with a perfect person? Forget it."

A few years ago Kevin (2554) got special permission to remove a felled juniper in the Cibola National Forest. The 200-year-old tree was twice struck by lightning -- once in the 1930s and again more recently -- according to its grain pattern.

"I won't cut down a healthy tree for woodturning," says Kevin. "Instead I use wood from dead trees or trees being removed for landscaping. To me there's a certain satisfaction in capturing the beauty in a piece of wood destined for the landfill or fireplace."

The lightning-scarred tree is now a vase on Kevin's living-room bookcase.

Next week Kevin exhibits 30 of his wood vessels at the Smithsonian Craft Show, the nation's most prestigious artisan show, in Washington, D.C., April 25-29. He joins 119 other creators in 12 categories, including nine top-notch wood artists, selected by an expert jury from thousands of applicants.

"I applied for the show with the same sense of hope and pessimism that you might buy a lottery ticket with," he says. "Thousands of good artisans try year after year and never get in. I thought maybe with a computer malfunction or something I might get lucky." To Kevin's surprised delight, the jury liked his work.

"The best works evidence a growth of ideas beyond the mere technical handling of materials," wrote one of the show's jurors about the selections. "There is an exceptional understanding of the principles of composition, color, design, line, texture, pattern, and form . . . an understanding of materials and their inherent possibilities and limitations . . . as well as a sense of feeling and caring that the maker has for the creations."

Influenced by New Mexico

Some of Kevin's pieces take months to complete.

The process starts when he finds an interesting piece of wood. He immediately seals the cut ends with wax and encloses the wood in a plastic bag to prevent splitting from sudden dry-out in the arid New Mexico climate.

He hollows the vessel and roughs out the shape on a lathe, then lets the piece dry slowly, sometimes for months, which results in subtle shape changes. When most of the moisture is out of the wood, he turns the vessel into its finished shape and seals it with a durable finish. He accents and enhances the wood with inlays of varying wood species, stain colors, and contrasting woods with interesting grain patterns.

He's also created unique cooperative pieces with renowned New Mexico gourd artist Robert Rivera, a friend.

"I try to base my work on shapes and forms found in nature and mathematics, blended with an intuitive feel for what, I hope, looks and feels pleasing," he says. "Being born and raised in New Mexico has exposed me to Indian vessel designs and shapes that have had a definite impact on my work."

Kevin began turning wood in his 7th grade shop class, beginning with small, simple pieces such as candlesticks. In 1994, after creating the latest in a series of vases, "My wife said, 'That's nice, but where are we going to put it?' " he says. "She was right. There were too many pieces to keep."

A friend sold her work at a gallery near Albuquerque's Old Town Plaza, so Kevin began taking his pieces there, and they began to sell.

Soon other galleries sought his work. Now he exhibits at three galleries: the Southwest Mercado in Old Town, the Torres Gallery in Santa Fe, and the Adagio Gallery in Palm Springs, Calif.

Today he struggles to keep up with demand. His larger pieces sell for $2,000 to $5,000. Small pieces such as ornaments start at $65. The smaller vases are $100 and up.

But, he says, he does it not for the money but for the love of wood.

"When I look at a twisted branch on a tree, a discarded piece on a woodpile, the fork in a tree, I can't wait to see what's inside the wood," he says. "It's almost like archaeology. Preserving and displaying the infinite variety and beauty in wood is a very rewarding part of my hobby."

Last modified: April 23, 2000

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