Turn, turn, turn in the Glebe

Larry Katz, woodturner extraordinaire.
Photo: Carol Sutherland-Brown

By Carol Sutherland-Brown

On a cool rainy morning in June, I walk under the canopy of trees along Craig Street to the home gallery of long-time Glebe resident Larry Katz, woodturner.

I had seen Katz’s bowls at craft shows, felt the smooth wood in my hands and heard him talk about his craft with customers. But this did not prepare me for the grace, beauty and warmth of the bowls rising from the shelves, their lines clean, simple and pure. I recognize the domestic woods: black walnut, cherry, sugar maple, white ash and butternut. I am drawn to the balanced and beautiful grain of the wood and ask him how it can be that the grain is so symmetrical. Katz looks thoughtful: “I just try to bring out what Mother Nature creates. My challenge is to allow the wood to reveal and speak for itself.”

Now I am drawn to the other turnings on display. A large platter is ornately carved and looks almost Japanese in its sensibility. There is a series of small, delicately carved round boxes fashioned from exotic woods from Asia, South America and Africa. There are vases and pendants and earring stands bursting with colourful earrings.

I hear music in the background and Katz tells me that as he turns, he relaxes to his favourite music: Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Eliza Gilkyson, Leonard Cohen and The Band. In fact, each piece bears his signature three circles in homage to “Turn,Turn,Turn,” the iconic 1950s song by Pete Seeger. It was Katz’s wife Tamara Levine who originally proposed the name Turn, Turn, Turn.

But what is woodturning? Katz explains that woodturning is the craft of using a wood lathe with hand-held tools to create a shape that is symmetrical around the axis of rotation. Like the potter’s wheel, the wood lathe can generate a variety of forms.

Katz speaks of the sensuous nature and Zen-like quality of his practice that is shaped by the wood he works with. As the wood spins on the lathe, the light catches the long, thin spiral shavings that fly from his tools and the workshop is filled with the scent of the green wood.

Katz points to a spindle cradle he built for his daughter Rachel more than 35 years ago and describes the pleasure of stripping the woodwork in his early 20th-century home to reveal the warmth of the wood trim. He reflects on how, following his early retirement as national research director of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, he was seeking a new purpose and direction. His lifelong reverence for wood and his admiration for those who work with it were the draw for what has become his passion.

Katz’s approach to his practice involves discipline, energy and balance. He works four to five hours each morning at his lathe followed by cycling and swimming at the Y. This exercise regimen enables him to maintain the physical strength required for woodturning, although he sometimes enlists his son Daniel to help chainsaw the logs. While Katz uses mainly fallen trees from Ontario and Quebec, he smiles and adds, “When I hear a chainsaw buzzing in the neighbourhood, I go out and investigate.”

Now, 15 years later, woodturning has become part of a new phase of his life. “I’ve gone from the fast lane into the turning lane,” he jokes. He is at the height of his craft and is considered an advanced turner, producing 80 to 100 pieces per year. They are functional and have found permanent homes across Canada and in many other countries.

I can’t decide which bowl I’d like to give my daughter. I decide that I will come back another time as a long-time Glebe customer will soon be coming over to purchase yet another bowl, this time for one of her adult children. I put on my coat and step back out into the cool rainy day and walk back under the canopy of trees. I decide to ask Katz to make me a bowl from a treasured tree in the neighbourhood that will soon be cut down because it is filled with pests. While my daughter will be disappointed that the tree she once climbed is gone, I’m hoping the bowl will serve as a treasured memory of the tree.

“I’ve been turning for more than a decade,” Katz says. “I love the creative process. I consider it honest labour. I find it personally rewarding, relaxing and challenging. I hope I can continue to turn for many years.” We very much hope so, too.

You can see Katz’s work at the Glebe Craft and Artisan Fair, November 15-17 at the Glebe Community Centre. You may visit his home gallery by contacting him at lkatz@sympatico.ca or visit his website at turnturnturn.ca.

Carol Sutherland-Brown moved to Holmwood Avenue in 1987 after years of travel, work and study in the Middle East and Europe. Since her retirement from a career in health policy at Health Canada, she has been delighting in writing memoir and short fiction, sharing her stories with all who will read them.

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