Sculptor Virgil Leih Seeks Beauty in the Grain of Trees

Tuesday, February 5, 2013 - 6:00 am

Sculptor Virgil Leih Seeks Beauty in the Grain of Trees

“[Art] tends to [come from] people who work with a compass instead. Who have an understanding of true north and are willing to solve a problem in an interesting way.”
~Seth Godin, from “The Art of Noticing, and Then Seeing”

Artists are often defined by their product, by the thing they made in the world. But, being an artist is as much about figuring out how to make a piece of art.
Minnesota artist Virgil Leih embodies this idea that we’re called to create in ways that matter to other people. Mr. Leih is a woodturner who calls himself a “grain chaser.” A former minister and executive recruiter, he grew up in a construction family. He recalls his father admiring the rich smell of a two-by-four piece of lumber and passing along that love of wood. Mr. Leih creates impressive — and massive — sculptures out of felled logs, which can only be moved with a forklift and crane. His finished pieces, buffed to a shine with seven layers of shellac, look like fragile pottery.
He uses the largest production wood lathe that’s ever been manufactured in the United States to turn these 2,000 to 4,000 pound logs. He rescues the wood from local “tree trunk dumps” and then reveals the beauty inside. He takes chainsaws and hand saws to each trunk as it spins on the lathe, shedding away its outer layers. Ninety-five percent of each log ends up as sawdust, he says. Instead of using typical woodturning tools, he adapted auto-body and other heavy-duty tools to sculpt these logs.
Virgil LeihBut, one out of three or four pieces would crack, or “blow open,” each time he tried to dry them. After years of struggling with this problem, he created his own solution to his biggest challenge for his art. Near the end of the process, he places the turned wood in translucent plastic sheets and places it in a “microwave” oven — a green metal box over six feet tall that has a platform for the piece to spin inside for what he calls a “super defrost cycle.”
After years of experimentation in anonymity (from his wife’s kitchen to a “microwave” built out of a washing machine shell) he finally got it right, and then he got the call to bring his art into the world.

“When the arboretum invited me to come and do a show, I was so frightened and so scared. Doing a first public showing of something when you’re 64 years old, I didn’t sleep for weeks.”

Mr. Leih’s artistry isn’t just about the process or the unusual medium he works in, it’s the fact that it’s intricate, difficult, unguided, self-made, sometimes scary… and the necessary path to his goal. And though he might have been born into his passion for wood, he found his own course for expressing that passion. Seth Godin would approve.

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was an associate producer at On Being.

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