Pictured Above: Ted Thirlby with “Wu Wei,” the piece that got him started on a new direction with plywood.
Many sculptors believe that wood has a soul, and they spend a good deal of time getting to know what their material is saying before they begin to work with it.
North Fork artist Ted Thirlby’s most recent work, on view at East End Arts’ two galleries in Riverhead, is a conversation with a material many people would overlook — scrap construction plywood.
During 40 years working as a builder in Manhattan, Mr. Thirlby has seen more than his share of plywood. It’s a material he understands inside and out, from the way sheets of veneer are peeled off a log, revealing repeating grains and knots in the wood, to the way it ages in place, holding the memory of impressions of other materials that have been stacked on it — the faint imprint of a window unit air conditioner, a screed of concrete, or jagged tears in the wood generated by the stabilizer foot of an arborist’s bucket or the rolling tracks of heavy machinery. All these elements are part of the soul of the plywood.
“My process is very much one of living with a piece for a while, having a conversation with it and trying to reveal the energy in it,” said Mr. Thirlby as he gave The Beacon a recent tour of his current exhibition, “Regeneration,” on view now in the East End Arts Galleries at 133 East Main Street and 11 West Main Street in Riverhead. “My process is more one of a partner, trying to do as little as possible.”
The piece of plywood that sparked Mr. Thirlby’s latest direction in his work was sitting under a window air conditioner outside an office building he was renovating on West 38th Street in the mid-2010s, the finish on the plywood preserved from the elements underneath the air conditioner, but burnished black around its edges. He sat with the plywood for a while, appreciating the celestial imagery in the grain patterns in the veneer, then with a router traced a nearly complete circle complementing the air conditioner square, carving deep into the pure inner layers of the plywood, which took on the golden burnish of a halo.
Both the halos and repeating geometric imagery would prove to be a repeating motif in the plywood works, drawing parallels between the divine and perfect proportions, like those outlined in Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, or in religious works like the frescos painted in Tuscan monks’ cells by Fra Angelico.
Mr. Thirlby titled the first piece, finished in 2015, “Wu Wei,” an ancient Chinese concept of effortless action, and also a nod to his role as a partner with the wood.
“This piece landed, and it sparked me to keep going,” he said.
During the 2021 installment of East End Arts’ annual “Detour” show, where Mr. Thirlby was showing one of his plywood works, he met Sag Harbor master printmaker Dan Welden, who also had a piece in the show. The two hatched an idea to use Mr. Thirlby’s plywood as the print block for a series of prints, setting both artists on a path to creative experimentation with process and materials over the past year-and-a-half.
“I brought a piece of plywood to one of his workshops — it was a little out of the box, but we made it work,” said Mr. Thirlby. “He was very generous and inspiring to me.”
The jagged edges of decaying layers of plywood create landscape-like effects that pop with the vivid colors used in the series of prints that is also on display in “Regeneration.”
When combined with a series of inscribed ellipses, the works take on the feel of an etherial cityscape in the print “Time Remembered,” which is also an exercise in mood and color, much like the musical piece by saxophonist Gato Barbieri from whom Mr. Thirlby borrows the title of the work.
Throughout the printmaking process, Mr. Thirlby experimented with different types of plywood, including thin birch used in cabinet-making, making numerous prints of elliptical sections of plywood in a wide variety of color combinations, some cleaved apart and some joined together in an ever-changing regenerative process.
A selection of these works that Mr. Thirlby decided speak to one another are on view in the main East End Arts gallery.
“When I started working with prints, I realized the images were so much about fertility, life and growth,” he said. “That seems to be what comes out of the material, whereas the plywood pieces have an element of disintegration and death — they’re heavier.”
Mr. Welden and Mr. Thirlby will give a talk on their process, moderated by art critic Joyce Beckenstein, at the 11 West Main Street gallery (in the Peconic Crossing building) on Saturday, April 29 at 1 p.m.
“At its core, the process for me is about where you place yourself relative to the physical world,” said Mr. Thirlby. “Is it a resource for you? Do you cooperate with it? Does a piece of wood have an agenda? What is its life purpose? I let these pieces tell me what to do. They’re very much active and alive.”
“Regeneration,” on view through May 7, will be the site of two more events in early May — a “Sound Bath” in the 11 West Main gallery with meditation DJ Daniel Lauter on Saturday, May 6 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and a final closing tour in both locations with Mr. Thirlby and art historian Franklin Hill Perrell on May 7 at 10 a.m., followed by a salon discussion at the new coffee shop Mugs on Main at 33 East Main Street.
The galleries are open Thursdays from noon to 5 p.m., Fridays from 2 to 7 p.m., Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. To visit by appointment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To view the online gallery and a video of the printmaking process, visit eastendarts.org/regeneration-art-exhibition/