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Artisan Greg Corman

Author: Shawndrea Corbin
Issue: June, 2014, Page 26
An ironwood base supports this jewelry dish that is accented with a desert willow branch.

Greg Corman’s organic wood vessels reflect his love of the outdoors

Deep in the heart of Optics Valley—or the city of Tucson for any non-natives—artisan Greg Corman only has eyes for the inspiring forms found in nature. From native-bee habitats and outdoor furniture, to sculpture and ecologically sound landscape design, Corman’s work is cutting edge and polished with Grade A American grit.

A native of Stillwater, Minnesota, the artist describes the property lines and fences of his youth as no more than “figments of the adults’ imaginations. We were feral children there,” Corman remarks. “I spent a lot of my time enjoying the woods, lakes and riversides near my home, so I’ve always had this appreciation for the outdoors.”

Corman credits an elderly abstract painter and his own family’s crafty ways as two major influences in his career. His first watercolor painting depicted a cowboy sheriff, and unbeknownst to Corman, would hint at the dusty region where his life would later lead him.

“I was going to community college in Minnesota when my car broke down in January,” the artisan recalls. “After attempting some repairs with my numb bare hands, I spoke to a college advisor about finding a school someplace where palm trees grow.” Out of the various options presented, Corman settled on Tucson’s University of Arizona.

Photos - From left: Composed of a South American hybrid mesquite wood, this vessel features textured edges. • This bowl is made of mesquite burl wood that was salvaged from a firewood pile.

He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agriculture, and found worked for a time as a botanist in various countries before launching his own landscape design company—Gardening Insights—in Tucson in 2003. He also dabbled in art classes, including drawing, composition and sculpture. In addition, he worked a stint as a shop assistant for artist George Peterson, who mentored his protégé in the ways of power tools, paints and finishes, and in man’s popular pastime of “burning stuff.”

Corman became serious enough about his growing art business to uproot his wife and move to a 5-acre horse property on the west side of Tucson a couple of years ago. There, he converted the existing stables into a workshop and gallery. “It’s a full-time job now, and I’ll often work until 10 p.m. But I’ve never been happier to put in so many hours,” he reports.

His more recent sculptural work has expanded to include wood vessels. Corman is able to sculpt soft woods, such as pine and fir, into vessels in a matter of days, finishing the works off with a pearly coat of milk paint. Hardwood pieces crafted
from mesquite, ironwood and oak take much longer and require hours of sanding.

A longtime fan of using salvaged objects in his garden designs, Corman gets most of his materials from firewood lots and arborists who give him remnants of felled trees. “I put the wood in a stack and wait for inspiration,” the artist confides.

“When I’m ready, I’ll take a piece [of wood] and remove the bark, rotten parts or loose bits. Then I slowly take away more of the material to shape the piece while maintaining its character as well as its flaws and/or history—this can include saw marks, embedded nails, etc. Then I sand and sand and sand. Finally I apply an oil finish.”

Made from velvet mesquite firewood, this vessel is polished on the inside and fire-ebonized on the outside.
As for challenges, the artist notes that working alone sets limitations on the size of his pieces because large ones can be cumbersome. But he views the restriction as a welcome test to “think modularly.”

“When I get these old pieces of wood, they’re usually gray, dirty and covered in peeling bark. Their beauty unfolds slowly as I work, and it is such a thrill,” Corman relays. “I want people to share that, to see what miracles are locked inside otherwise unremarkable materials.”
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