A Life In Wood

Posthumous solo show celebrates the beautiful studio furniture of Virginian Sam Forrest.

The best description of artisan Sam Forrest just might come from signage in the new exhibit, “Atavistic Memories: The Studio Furniture of Sam Forrest,” currently at the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design. Forrest is described as “a man engaged in the delight and dilemma of the resistance of wood.”

Made by hand with limited machinery, his creations are as much sculpture as furniture, expertly combining beauty and functionality. His striking furniture synthesizes organic and geometric themes while breaking conventional rules and introducing eccentric, opposing forms. An enlarged black-and-white photograph of Forrest, tool in hand, working in his studio hints at the focus and passion the artist brought to his beautiful work (see below).

Forrest was a Mathews County, Va. native who attended Richmond Professional Institute (soon to become VCU) in the late 1960s. He made his home and studio in Church Hill before relocating to the Carver neighborhood, as did other RPI artists such as sculptor Myron Helfgott. Forrest eventually abandoned Carver for Louisa County before making his way back to Mathews and living at Hyco House, which he promptly renamed Haiku House because of his abiding interest in Buddhism.

Inspiration for the Branch exhibit followed in the wake of Forrest’s death in May 2021. Despite being prolific, his work was underappreciated during his lifetime for its place in the American Studio Furniture movement. The goal of the show was to set his work within that context.

Beginning in the 1920s with Wharton Esherick, woodworkers renounced the mass production of furniture, instead choosing to focus on natural materials while working in their own studios. Followers included Wendell Castle, who pioneered stack lamination techniques that allowed for more sculptural yet still functional works, and his student, Alan Lazarus, who taught Forrest.

To capture the more than fifty years Forrest devoted to his handcrafted woodworking, the Branch Museum brought together 38 pieces locally sourced from family, friends, collectors, and Sam’s last home, the Haiku House, in Mathews, along with portraits by William P. Kendrick, Erjun Zhao, and Catherine Venable. Kendrick’s expressive oil painting, “Angry Young Sam” from 1963, offers a window into the intensity of a man most of us never knew.

Fortunately for the viewer, many of those who did know Forrest were interviewed to share their memories for the exhibit. Among those who did were: friend and sculptor Ruben Peacock; mentor and notable furniture maker Alan Lazarus; friend and painter Catherine Venable; friend Zarina Fazaldin; friends Lloyd and Art Backstrom, who own several of his pieces; Tabitha and Joe Ramseyer, who worked with Forrest in his last studio in Mathews, Va. and currently manage his last home, the Haiku House; and the artisan’s son, Bo Forrest.

Between the group, they were able to help Branch staff develop a timeline of Forrest’s career and life and understand various influences on his work. Many of the pieces in the show were chosen from among work he left to his son Bo.

“Sam created works in three somewhat distinct time periods that we’ve been able to identify,” explains Sharon Aponte, the Branch’s Executive Director. The museum also sourced and identified works from others in the region made in those earlier periods. “We’d hoped to identify more works from the 1970s further afield, but time didn’t permit getting them here. In addition to date, we selected works with an eye toward representing the different forms, materials and techniques Sam employed.”

Moving through the exhibit reveals one sculptural delight after another and a masterful use of negative space throughout the pieces. There’s the “Sex Dragon Table” with its undulating supports breaking through openings in the top of the table. The “Chess Table” is completely unique, its square top sitting askew atop a base that appears to be turning, while the attached chess board is carved at an angle on the table, just enough of a mind-blow to make serious chess types crazy. “Leaf Table – Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony 2019” was Forrest’s last piece, left incomplete when he passed away. One round pedestal table is exhibited upside down so that visitors can see Forrest’s signature – a scallop-edged flower-like motif created by a series of soft grooves cut from side to middle – on the table’s underside.

A Virginia-centric path is precisely what led Forrest to his first solo show.

“The Branch Museum of Architecture and Design is a design museum and the American Studio Furniture movement is an important design tradition,” Aponte notes. “Based in Richmond, it’s important to us that we highlight the work of regional designers whenever possible.”

For those of us who didn’t know Forrest, the new solo exhibition leaves us feeling like we wish we had.

And for those wanting to learn more about the American Studio Furniture movement, the Branch Museum will be doing an in-person panel discussion on March 24 with panelists Alan Lazarus, a furniture maker and founder of VCU’s woodworking program; Holly Gore, the director of interpretation and research at the Wharton Esherick Museum; and Scott Braun, assistant professor of wood from the VCU department of craft and material studies.

“Atavistic Memories: The Studio Furniture of Sam Forrest” runs through April 17 at the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design, 2501 Monument Avenue. Branchmuseum.org


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