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Academic "black sheep" creates unique furniture in Chatham County

By Forrest C. Greenslade
Posted Tuesday, July 10, 2012

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Pittsboro, NC - "I've lived in Chatham County for 23 years, and I finally have my studio here," notes Erik Wolken, who has just become a member of the Chatham Artists Guild; but Wolken's journey to Chatham has taken many twists and turns, with a few detours along the way.

"Looking back at growing up in Pittsburgh, I was sort of the black sheep in an incredibly creative and brainy family," Wolken recalls. "My father was a biophysicist and professor at Carnegie Mellon University - My mom was a fiber artist -My one sister who is a painter in California, and one who used to be a producer and director for the Chicago public radio station, and she now is executive director of Third Coast International Audio Festival - My brother became the founder of the athletic dance troop Pilobulus - and me," he summarizes. It was assumed that Wolken would become either an artist or a scientist, but he didn't show much artistic inclination.

Wolken pretty much grew up in his dad's laboratory at the Carnegie Mellon University. He admired the craftsman who designed and built the tools and machines that supported his father's scientific investigations. "Dad was a completely cerebral guy, living in his own head to the point that he didn't even drive," wolken observes.

He worked in his dad's lab while attending college, when a minor accident became the tipping point in his life's script. "I was pushing a cart full of culture bottles down the hall on the fifth floor of that old building on the way to the elevator to go to the sterilization room," Wolken explains. He hit a little bump. The cart tipped over. The culture bottles flew in all directions in a shower of broken glass. People came running out of all the labs. "Did they ask me if I was OK? Did they offer to help me clean up the mess? No - they inquired whether I had lost the samples."

"My dad didn't even come out of his lab." Wolken suddenly thought, "Maybe science isn't for me."

He pursued a bachelor's degree in geography at West Virginia University, most interested in classic mapmaking. A chance encounter in the library with a book by iconic furniture craftsman, Wendell Castle, again refocused Wolken's direction. He took courses in woodworking at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and then moved to North Carolina in 1988 to participate in the Program in Fine Woodworking at Haywood Community College. From 1989 to 1995 he worked as a cabinetmaker for Woodpecker Enterprises in Apex, NC. In 1995 he opened his own studio in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and has been working on private commissions and showing his work nationally since.

Erik Wolken builds functional sculpture, work that serves both a sculptural aesthetic and a utilitarian function. There is a rhythm and poetry in his pieces, a flow to the lines, a confluence of color and texture that makes a complete statement. "My pieces are often the result of a process of discovery," he asserts. "Seldom do I start with a plan written in stone, but just a series of rough pencil sketches and the belief that I can divine the meaning of a piece in the process of building it."

"All of me, even what is not so pretty, I try to put in my work."

The final passage in Wolken's journey to Chatham was catalyzed by a gift of a table saw. He had wanted to bring his studio home for some time, and had applied for a loan to fund its construction. While teaching at Penland, a fellow artist was offering an old saw that didn't have all the modern safety bells and whistles. Erik accepted the gift as an omen that his odyssey was complete. Two close friends helped him in the construction of a spare and functional workspace.

Erik Wolken is one of the many regionally and nationally recognized artists and fine crafts people who will open their studios the first two weekends in December at the 20th Annual Chatham Studio Tour. Visitors from all around enjoy Chatham's rural beauty and share with the members of the Chatham Artists Guild in the creative process. It is a holiday tradition, and an opportunity to purchase unique original art.

 
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Academic "black sheep" creates unique furniture in Chatham County
Erik Wolken in his Chatham County Studio
Photo by Michael Schwalbe
 
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