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Meet the Artist Interview Series - Lanchi Vo

Updated: Dec 14, 2022

How did your journey as an artist begin? Frankly, I did not realize that I am an artist until people referred to me as one--especially when I started to receive requests for demonstrations and workshops. My woodworking started out as a hobby. Then it just took over. Before I knew it, I was waist deep in wood shavings, and had created for myself a woodturning business, licensed and all.

Tell me about your work. I specialized in hand turned boxes from a wide variety of timbers, often disguised as acorn, mushroom, etc... Instead of using dye or texturizing tools, I leverage the natural color and pattern of the woods themselves. A decidedly human "twist" is hidden in my organic design, in the form of a threaded cap. People are often caught by surprise to see the juxtaposition of the industrial looking screw caps with the natural shape and material of my containers. How do you develop your woodworking skills? I am not formally trained as a woodturner, but I am an experimenter at heart. I watched a few woodworking videos online, purchased a lathe, and then just had fun with it. At first, I tried many techniques such as segmented turning, offset turning, inlay, and carving. I tried different shapes and forms, making "artsy" vessels full of knots and voids. Then I discovered wood threading and practically "stuck in a groove". There is a demand for these threaded containers, so I always need to replenish my stock, while trying new designs. Nowadays, I am still fine tuning my technique and process. I formulated my own wood finish, and created my own cutting and hollowing tools for a fraction of the cost.

What inspired you? A natural theme permeates my art. I am intrigued by the shape, color, pattern, symmetry and chaos in the natural world. I am copying Mother Nature shamelessly, and hope I can do her justice by showcasing the incredible beauty of her creation. I like to keep my design simple, just to highlight the woods themselves. If I decided to fill a void or inlay a rather plain looking vessel, I would use another natural material with interesting patterns, such as the cross section of some palm nuts, seed pod, dried flowers or the lacy lichen I found on the forest floor. It's really fun to experiment! Do you have other interests or background that influences your art? Sure, I grew up in the tropics, where wood was the default material for many things. I love the look and feel of wood. Of course, wood became my selected medium. My technical background (and thus, a practical mind) dictates the functionality aspect of my work. In fact, I incorporate wood threading as an engineering solution to the portability problem of my containers. It turned out that threaded containers are perfect to share my love of wood with others. The threaded caps invite personal interaction. You need to operate them with both hands, so you, too, can appreciate the color, pattern, aroma, texture and density of the material up close.

What distinguishes your work? The screw-on cap is a feature not often seen in a wooden container. I cut threads with the traditional hand chasing tool, but in my own way. The method I developed offers me the flexibility to vary the size and the configuration of the threaded parts. It also allows me to make fine, clean threads in almost any wood. However, threading is still the most time consuming, challenging part, a serious "bottleneck" in my bottle making process. The wide varieties of timbers I employed--domestic, exotic, salvaged, all labeled with scientific names--also appeals to my fellow wood lovers and wood collectors. They can search for the name and know about the exact tree the wood came from.

You mention exotic woods in your turning, are they sustainable? Yes and no. I was a wood collector long before I became a woodturner, with almost a thousand wood species "hoarded" over the past 20+ years. Based on the small size of my turnings and the rate that I am working right now, my wood stock will last me...another lifetime. So yes, my turning is sustainable, since I will run out of time before I run out of material. However, if you were concerned about the availability of precious timbers in general, then the answer is a resounding "No". The Red List of endangered species are growing. Many timbers in my collection had become commercially extinct due to worldwide trade ban. At least, there are regulations to protect individual species and programs to ensure sustainable harvesting. So, excessive logging is only part of the problem. There are also habitat destruction, environmental pollution, and climate change that resulted in record breaking wildfire, flood, drought. Trees have been sustaining us since the beginning of time, not the other way around. If we are not careful about what we are doing to our environment and resource, then I am more concerned about the sustainability of us Homo sapiens as a species, rather than any of the woody trees out there.

Do you feel you need to have a degree in art to pursue an art career? I always tell my kids that having a degree is important. I better adhere to that narrative. However, it does not have to be a degree in the Arts. Obtaining a degree has trained me how to set goals, budget my time, optimize available resources, and develop the self discipline to see things through. These skills are important for anything you do. However, they are emphatically more important for a freelance artist, since you are not likely to be a cog, dragged along by a well oiled machine. All you need is a passion to create art, but passion alone is not enough if you want to turn art into a self sustaining career. So to you, what does it mean to be an artist? If you defined an artist as being original and creative, then there were a lot more artists around us than we thought. The moment you break out of the methodology that defines whatever field you are in, you start to enter the realm of intuition and creativity, anything after that threshold is "Art". So, when you excel in what you do, taking your work to the next level, you are becoming an artist. When you finally created something that justified its existence solely on its own conceptual or aesthetic value, you are a true artist. I think I am getting there.

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