A Legacy in a Bowl
WORDS David Bentley | PHOTOGRAPHY Tim Sugden
Bowl Turner Dale Larson creates over 225 natural wood bowls each year, sending them to art galleries all over the United States, including downtown Portland favorite, The Real Mother Goose (901 SW Yamhill St.), with whom Dale has a long-standing synergistic relationship. Each gorgeous custom-made creation is made from local hardwoods, such as Pacific Madrone and Big Leaf Maple. The bowls make exceptional gifts or heirlooms, being both beautiful and functional. His influence in the Portland metro area is so keenly felt that the City and County call on him to collect downed trees as quickly as possible to turn them into bowls!
Dale’s passion for woodturning has also developed into a love for teaching and mentorship. A frequent demonstrator at American Association of Woodturners (AAW) symposiums and contributor to woodworking publications, Dale adds, “I encourage woodturners to start teaching as soon as they can, because when you teach somebody else, you have to explain why you do it, and it makes you, as the teacher, a better turner. My first teaching demonstration was in 1993. I’ve been teaching ever since.” Dale is a founding member and has served as president of the Cascade Woodturners, the local chapter of the AAW.
Where does your love of wood art come from? For me, it connects me directly to the trees I live around. I grew up East of Chehalis, WA, about a hundred miles north of here. I was surrounded by all these trees – Alder, Maple, Oak. We are fortunate up here in the Northwest to have all these beautiful woods, both native trees like Alder and Oak, and also planted trees, like Apple and Walnut. They all do really well here. We have lots of absolutely beautiful wood.
Who was your first mentor or teacher who got you into the craft? Or is this something that you had pursued on your own? Mostly, it was kind of accidental. As a Senior in college I took a class in Industrial Arts and Woodworking at Washington State University. My Professor said, “This semester you are going to make a footstool, you are going to make a bookcase, and you are going to turn something on that lathe over there.” I actually turned a nice bowl, about ten inches wide by four inches deep, which I still have to this day. I got an A- on it. That was in 1973.
In 1978, I was up in Alaska fishing, and the gentleman I was staying with had a lathe out in his shop, and I said, “Can I play on it?” And he said, “Yeah!” In fact, he had bought some wood for his wife twenty years earlier and had never turned it. I turned a salad bowl set for his wife. When I came south that fall, I bought a $220Craftsman lathe and a $115 set of tools, and started turning.
In 1989, I was living down here and I saw an ad in Fine Woodworking magazine that said some wood turners were getting together in Seattle for a symposium. I thought, “That would be kind of neat. I’ve never met another woodturner!” It was the 3rd Annual Association of Woodturners (AAW) Symposium. That really started my formal education. Since then, I have gone to over 20 AAW symposiums.
Who would have guessed all that would come from taking one class in 1973? That class changed the course of my life. This is my 39th year of woodturning.
Your specialty is turning wood bowls that serve as functional art. Speak to me about your approach to that process, from start to finish? Bowl turning is a craft that’s been around for about 6,000 years. The process now is pretty basic. I get a call – someone’s got a tree down, like during the ice storm this last December. People don’t want to just burn it. They want to convert this wood to something useful. We go over with chainsaws and cut up the tree into blocks and haul it home. Then we band saw it, it gets roughed out and then I have to go through the drying process. Once it is dry, I can put it back on the lathe, and do the finish work and turn it. So I’ve turned the bowl twice.
Even on your level, you are still learning, and excited, with a sense of discovery as you go further, year after year. This is an ongoing process. I see it this way – woodturning is a path through life. I will turn 65 this Fall, and I am still learning. My bowls today are better than my bowls from five years ago. My friend Wally Dickerman, who died a year ago in April, was 94 and he was still turning out gallery quality art work. So I am hoping that I will be turning for quite a while.
Wood is the oxygen that makes my life valuable. Every part of my life revolves around wood. If you took wood away from me, it would probably kill me. I had a lot of friends who were World War II veterans, and are now gone. As they get sick and go into the hospital, I always take wood art and leave it with them, because these are guys who spent their whole life working with wood, and then they go into this sterile environment and they don’t have any wood. Wood is critical to their mental well-being. For me, if you said to me, “Dale, you are done. You can’t turn wood anymore.” It would be crushing.
So it is a part of you now? It’s every part of me. All of my friends and all of my family cannot separate me from my wood art. Me and my wood art – they are the same thing. Every year for Christmas I make my family something special. You could go back 30 years, and every year I have done something different.
There must be an obvious sense of pride, as well as legacy, knowing your work is enjoyed by so many people in their homes. How does that make you feel?
That’s actually the word I use. I have a lot of pride that something I made with my hands is enjoyed by somebody who does not know me, who has no reason to be nice to me, and they write me a big check for it. I used to take stuff home to my mother. She of course, says, “Oh, Dale, that is a very nice bowl.” It is different when your mother says that, verses somebody writing you a big check for what you’ve made. Somebody values what I created. The exact word for mhow I feel is pride.
Watch for news about the American Association of Woodturners (AAW) Symposium to be presented in Portland next year!