Everyone's first job leaves an imprint on them in some way, but artist Bill Wolff's initiation into the workforce not only impacted him, it also got him thinking about humanity's impact on the Earth.
"One of my first jobs was working with a crew sealing a closed landfill, and the experience of standing on a literal mountain of garbage has been a profound influence on my work and worldview," he said.
This experience led him to focus on consumerism and to want to work with material that he has "a total understanding of."
Bill Wolff’s “O Ye”?sculpture, above left, and “Climbers” installation are seen on display. Wolff’s artwork will be featured in the “Natural Elements”?exhibition at the Gallery at Penn College from Thursday to Nov. 11. The opening reception will be held from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Thursday.
"I like knowing where the stuff that goes into my work came from, how it grew, how it died and what it did and influenced before it came into my studio, and you can't know those things with a lot of media," he said.
Wolff, a New York native, uses wood from trees to sculpt forms that toe the line between abstraction and figuration. The type of trees he works with changes depending on where he's living at the moment.
"I work with what is available and has good working properties," he said. "In Louisiana, that was primarily live oak, which is very, very hard and has wonderful shapes with a lot of curving limbs. In Japan, cherry trees are similar, hard and strong with great shapes. I also worked a lot with camphor, which is a great wood to carve - most Japanese woodcarvers use it exclusively - grows quickly and is available in large sizes, and has a wonderful and very pungent smell (anytime I touch camphor now, it sets off waves of nostalgia). In western N.Y., I work mostly with cherry, walnut and occasionally with basswood (which is too soft for my liking)."
Wolff spent time in Japan from 2005-09, when he studied at Tokyo University of the Arts (formerly Tokyo National University of Arts and Music), and said that getting lumber over there is a bit different from here.
"I have a lot of stories of wood acquisition from Japan, where wood is dearer," he said. "I took small logs on subway trains with a handcart and had a congenial relationship with the pruning staff at the forested cemetery I walked past on my way to the studio. I have fond memories of traveling to a wood dump in Yokohama with classmates and riding back in a grossly overloaded rental truck filled with logs through central Tokyo. And I have a lot of fond memories of traveling to lumberyards where drinking tea and exchanging small gifts before looking at the logs is part of the social norm."
Fittingly, Japanese aesthetics have greatly influenced his work, particularly "yosegi zukuri," which, according to the artist, is "a process developed in 12th and 13th century Japan to make sculpture of multiple, hollow blocks of wood."
In addition to his time living as a student in Japan, Wolff also had several solo exhibitions there, organized two group exhibitions at Tokyo University of the Arts, taught a wood-carving workshop at Yokohama Museum of Art and is currently represented by Gallery CoExist in Tokyo.
He said his time in Japan was "great and totally fascinating."
"Everyday was a learning experience; from learning to read labels in the grocery store, to navigating mass transit to simple societal interactions, your brain needs to work all the time when not in your home country, language and culture. I like that."
Wolff's studio was in Yanaka and Nezu, which is in "old city" Tokyo, and is near the larger Ueno, where he attended the university.
Wolff and fellow artist Marcia Wolfson Ray will be featured in the "Natural Elements" exhibit at the Gallery at Penn College. The opening reception will be held from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Oct. 11 and the show will be on display until Nov. 11.
For Wolff's part in the exhibition, there will be large and small, wood and bronze pieces featured.
"People will see a mix of small gestural bronzes and delicate woodcarvings with copper on the surface interspersed with large sculptures that have substantial presence," he said.
Wolff received his master of art degree in sculpture from Tokyo University of the Arts in February 2009, his master of fine arts degree in sculpture from Louisiana State University in August 2004 and his bachelor of fine arts degree in sculpture from Binghamton University in May 2000.