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An Artist By Accident Creates Wooden Vessels with a Wow

No two of the vessels Rich Nolan crafts from cherry and black walnut wood are alike. Some take weeks to make; others require more than a month of Nolan sculpting and shaping to refine the expressive pieces that have a wow factor to them.

“I go for elegance and always strive for perfection,” says the Binghamton, New York, artist whose work has been accepted into galleries known for their rigorous jurying process. Nolan will have a booth at Rose Squared’s Brookdale Show on June 18-19, and he’ll return to the area in the fall for the Anderson Park show, Sept. 17-18.

His woodwork is a hobby-turned-career that started accidentally after he renovated his dining room. Unable to find a sconce to accent the entryway, he opted to use the leftover cherry and black wood to make his own, inspired by a photo taken by his wife of a Celtic cross from a graveyard in Ireland.

“That was the first time I combined the cherry and black walnut and when I got done, I realized it was a piece of art,” he said.

While Nolan had never designed something like that, he was a skilled draftsman whose career in mechanical engineering focused on new product development. Whether designing injection molded plastics or metal castings, he cut no corners. Functionality was key, but aesthetics played a role, too.

“Product development engineering in a nutshell is problem-solving, and I thrived in that area,” he said.

After completing the sconce, Nolan was inspired to continue to experiment with wood, building pieces for the home and as gifts for others. What started as a creative outlet morphed into a business once he introduced his collection to the local artist community in upstate New York. He participated in his first show in Windsor, New York, minus an artist tent and didn’t take home a cent. But he knew the market was there.

“I realized I had discovered an avenue to keep building pieces and sell them not necessarily as a career but as a hobby,” he said. “I keep getting ideas. I don’t repeat any of my ideas. They’re all completely different. As long as I keep having ideas, I’ll keep going.”

Nolan starts with a two-dimensional drawing on the computer. He brainstorms for a creative, challenging and stable method for building the form, dimensioning every component. He thinks long and hard on how to execute the build before cutting the first piece of wood.  A 10-sided vessel means all 10 sides are physically identical. He’s never deviated from black and cherry wood because they share similar hardness while complementing each other esthetically.

Nolan dedicates 80% of his time to sanding and is at work on a current piece that has required a week of hand sanding. He favors the term vessel as he prefers to design pieces that look to be functional. While some can be adorned with dry arrangements, “Largely they’re to admire,” he said. “You want to have a special place to set the piece so it’s admired.”

Galleries have been good to Nolan. He was humbled to be one of 92 artists selected to participate in an international show at Philadelphia’s Wayne Art Museum, which received close to 1,700 entries. Drop by his booth at Brookdale Park to see his unique vessels up close and consider taking one of the treasures home.