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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 8, 2009

Artist wields chainsaw to release soul from wood

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — A logger turned artist has created a new abstract sculpture for Farnsworth Middle School with the help of its students.

“You see lots of shapes in wood so you just start playing with it,” said Jim Petrillo who was an artist in residence this week at Farnsworth.

Petrillo arrived on the scene Monday with his chainsaw. He worked with advanced students in Peg Donovan’s studio art course.

“He talked about abstract work and brainstormed with the students about form and movement and then applied their thoughts to his sculpture,” said art teacher Michelle Romano who described it as “abstract, organic in form.”

A muscular man with a long white beard, Petrillo worked outdoors in a school parking lot on Monday and Tuesday. A mesh screen protected curious students from flying sawdust as he worked.

Petrillo started with a piece of wood that was six-and-a-half feet tall and weighed two tons.

“It’s down to about 900 pounds at this point,” Romano said on Tuesday.

“I ran into this gentleman by chance over the summer,” she said of how the residency came about.

Petrillo is one of 100 artists — 45 of them use chainsaws — who display their carving at Earthworks in Vail Mills near Amsterdam. “She liked my abstract sculpture,” he said, “and saw a connection she thought would work for her students.”

When Petrillo finished his work, students gathered around the sculpture to puzzle over it and admire it.

“I like shapes and movement; that’s what abstracts are,” said Petrillo. “They elicit emotions —happiness, sadness, anger, love.”

He said of the Farnsworth students and staff who looked at his work, “A lot of people saw people in the sculpture. I didn’t plan it that way.”

He went on, “One of the kids asked me if I had an idea of what I was going to do. I don’t draw it out. I go with the flow of the wood. I allow the wood to tell me what to do.”

“Wizard of Odd”

Petrillo is intimate with wood. When he worked as a logger, he looked for trees that were “big and straight,” he said. Then, when he began building rustic furniture and supplying world-famous builders of furniture with wood, he called himself “the Wizard of Odd.”

“You want trees that are crooked and crazy or different and stunning,” he said.

For the Farnsworth project, Petrillo chose a catalpa. “It’s not found in the woods, but planted in the cities for shade,” he said.  He gets his wood from logger friends or friends in the tree service business who have to take trees down.

Petrillo went on about the catalpa, “It flowers with white fragrant blossoms early in the summer. Its only drawback is it drops long beans; it’s a messy tree.”

Catalpa wood is known as “poor man’s oak,” he said. “It has a nice grain; it looks very pleasant.”

Petrillo believes it is good for youngsters today to learn about natural forms. “The kids actually see there isn’t just concrete and asphalt,” he said. “Things that occur naturally can be beautiful.”

He went on about his artwork, “They can see it and touch it. Without art, there is no soul. If you don’t have art, you don’t have an inner feeling of wonderfulness.”

Petrillo told a story to demonstrate the power of art. When Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, it not only leveled homes, it took down many trees.

“Some people called that Katrina wood,” said Petrillo.  Chainsaw sculptors converged on New Orleans, including some of Petrillo’s friends. He had wanted to go, too. “But I didn’t have enough cash to go down myself,” he said.

“They carved all kinds of sculptures and set them back up in the neighborhoods, so when people came back to their devastated homes, they were encouraged by what they saw,” he said.

“Begs to be touched”

The sculpture Petrillo created at Farnsworth will be installed in a newly reclaimed school courtyard.

Romano spent the summer, working with sixth-grade math and science teacher Tim Fry, revitalizing the forgotten courtyard.

“It’s been feral since the school was built,” said Romano. “We reclaimed it.”

Fry, who is a sculptor himself, made benches for the courtyard that sit in a circle, suggesting primitive stumps around a campfire.

“We put in a pond and a waterfall,” said Romano. They also made a stone path and planted gardens.

“There are chalkboards for lessons or it can be used as a quiet reading area,” said Romano. The project was supported by the Farnsworth PTA. More landscaping is planned.

The courtyard already has one abstract sculpture. “It was done for students 15 or 20 years ago,” said Romano, but the artwork was hidden, forgotten in another school courtyard filled with native plants, used to attract and breed butterflies. That sculpture had been overgrown, said Romano, but now is visible in its new installation.

Petrillo stayed an extra day on Wednesday to sand his sculpture, polishing it to perfection. Sanding, he said, is the hardest part of his work.

“The shapes are all there,” he said. “You have to smooth it out. People will sit on it. They’ll want to touch it and feel it, to run their hands over it. It begs to be touched.”

He concluded, “That’s OK. That’s what it is for.”

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