EDITOR’S NOTE: The Spring Trunk Show was so popular that it has been held over at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, and is now showing through Wednesday, May 13th. You can also check Virgil Leih’s website for additional upcoming exhibits.
Virgil Leih is a different kind of woodturner. Think there’s nothing
new under the sun in woodturning? You’d be surprised. Virgil
turns not pen blanks or 8″ x 8″ pieces of turning stock– he turns entire
tree trunks! And he turns these tree trunks into some of the most beautiful
pieces of wood sculpture you’ll ever see.
Virgil’s fascination with the whole tree began in the early 1990s, when he began building a log home in northern Minnesota. As Virgil peeled the bark and scribed the logs by hand, he began to see the unique beauty that belonged to each individual tree trunk. As his lake home (left) progressed, Virgil’s interest in the logs grew. He explains, “When I built our log home… the beauty of whole logs smote me. Sitting in the great room of our home, I kept thinking of other ways to show the beauty of the grain in a whole log when the idea of turning art pieces came to me”.
As a kid he had done a bit of woodturning with a small lathe, but something massive was required to accommodate the kind of turning stock he wanted: the entire trunk or crotch of a tree. Eventually, Virgil found what he needed in a 1917 Oliver Patternmaker lathe, which formerly had been used to make foundry patterns during both World Wars.
Virgil’s “woodshop” is a warehouse in Bloomington, Minnesota that houses the over-sized lathe and the automobile machinery and forklifts he uses to move the wood around. He’s also had to devise his own homemade 8′ x 4′ microwave for the drying function– a process that evolved the hard way after experiencing the heart-wrenching crack of many a finished piece.
All of Virgil’s stock comes from what he calls the “Urban Forest;” he saves downed trees from the woodchipper’s teeth, or from being buried in a landfill, and never cuts live trees for his creations. A rescued piece might weigh as much as a ton when he starts with it, and as little as 40 pounds by the time he has uncovered the beauty within the tree trunk.
And beauty is what Virgil finds. After as many as 120 hours of work, including ten coats of shellac and hours of meticulous hand sanding in between each coat, his labor of love produces something that can only be described as awe-inspiring. His creations are on public display for the first time ever in an exhibit called “Trunk Show: The Art of the Tree” at the University of Minnesota’s Landscape Arboretum, now through May 4th. Virgil himself will be there answering questions and talking about his pieces on Sunday, May 3rd, from 1:00 to 3:00.
Asked if he has a personal favorite piece, Virgil says, “My favorite is Exuberance [pictured, right]. I love the bell tops and the way they show the beauty and grain pattern in such a unique way.” The eighteen pieces currently on display at the Arboretum were chosen to showcase the artist’s capabilities in terms of dimensions, woods, shapes and finish.
With the time involved in each piece, one might think this showing would be the entire body of his work, but Virgil is quick to dismiss that, saying, “I always have product in process, so there are more in the works. I am also very interested in commission work. I love collaborating with individuals that have a family tree that has recently come down and has special meaning and want made into a piece to remember their home or special memories of the tree.” If you were unfortunate enough to lose a favorite tree, you couldn’t do better than to collaborate with an artisan like this, so obviously in love with what he does. For a stunning gallery of Virgil Leih’s work, and more details behind his process of turning trees to treasure, check his website at virgiltreeart.com .