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Steve Madsen: A World in Wood

October 9, 2009 – January 23, 2010

Interview with Steve Madsen
“The Momentum of the Moment”

Madsen’s retrospective, organized by the Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton, New Jersey, is a microcosm of early craft shows, the emergence of craft collecting and lathe turning as an art, the disappearance of exotic woods, the evolution of ideas and methods, and the survival of career artists.


Two 7th grade wood carving classes got him started—the shop classes were already full. He got good at it but by 9th grade his parents told him to “get serious…” so he studied math and science. He laments that kids aren’t taught to use their hands anymore.

Two years as a cabinet door and frame maker taught him construction and detailing skills. He watched the other steps of cabinet making across the shop.

Favorite Books:

– Janson’s “History of Art”

– Woodenwork

Catalog from the FIRST exhibit at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian, Washington, DC—
Included Sam Maloof, Art Carpenter, Wendell Castle, George Nakashima and Wharton Esherick

“Still gives me chills when I review it…” —SM


Art Deco, Architecture, Russian Constructivism, Klee, Miro, Kandinski, Max Ernst, Calder, De Chirico, H.C. Westerman, Joseph Cornel

“Nothing ever resembles the original drawings but is rather a journey to the final conclusion…” —SM


1970’s—Box Making & early Craft Shows

From cabinets, Madsen moved to fine boxes. They were fun and expressive — with over 50 easily available colorful exotic woods. They were easy to pack for customers and for craft shows. Madsen showed in company with David Ellsworth, Mel and Mark Lindquist, Giles Gilson, Michael Graham and Hap Sakwa at the early ACE craft show in San Francisco. Paul Smith included Madsen in several exhibits at the first two locations of the American Craft Museum in New York City. At Richard Kagan’s gallery in Philadelphia, Madsen’s boxes practically sold out before they were unpacked.

Madsen’s art deco-inspired boxes led to his 1981 National Endowment for the Arts grant. Sales were always best on the East coast in the emerging collecting scene, especially in the 1970’s and 1980’s. After awhile, the craft shows dropped their geographic requirements and Madsen also showed at early Rhinebeck, NY shows. He still has lots of drawings for boxes…

1980’s—Shift to Furniture

Madsen dropped boxes and moved to large functional furniture. Hat racks became playful metaphors and he used the lathe much more. Furniture, however, required more materials, more pieces and more work – and was harder to ship and sell. Wood was hardly available in his home state of New Mexico. Exotic wood became more expensive and less available, so Madsen bought maple and glued it up to turn bigger pieces. The colorful exotic woods were replaced by colorful dyes, then colored lacquers for stability. The first black and white piece — for high contrast — was created for the opening at the second location of the American Craft Museum. The totem and ballet pieces, with many turned elements, date from the late 1980’s. Given the costs of crating furniture for shipping and his pristine lacquer finishes, Madsen delivered most of his pieces by car so they would arrive safely.

1990’s—Change gears & Survive

By the late 1990’s, sales slowed at the Smithsonian Craft Show, Philadelphia Furniture Show,

SOFA Chicago and his Santa Monica gallery. Madsen had to lay down his art work to survive. Many commercial, custom units were designed and built for New Mexico museums and homes — everything from pedestals and sales counters to jewelry cases with drawers. He reinvented his artwork every time he started up again, using the lathe to create most of his geometric and organic forms. Playful forms and lacquer finishes facilitate his architectonic sculptures and social messages — a long colorful way from Madsen’s functional beginnings.

Interviewed by Tina C. LeCoff