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Artisan: Forest of Ideas 

From the tree to the table, Barbara Dill works magic with wood.

Dill is a wood-turner, an artisan who uses a lathe, and she spins oak trees into goblets and applewood into bowls. Generations ago, wood-turners mostly made simple objects and spindles. But new tools and methods in the past few decades have helped the craft explode with possibilities, and Dill is here to explode, in her calm and focused way, along with them. As she stands at the lathe in her Hanover County studio, turning pine into a luminous sphere of resin-heavy rings, the wood shavings pop off like fireworks, steady and hypnotic against the whir of the machine. Dill leans in, a plastic face-shield covering her eyes, to listen and watch as the wood becomes art.

She came to this talent unexpectedly after the near burnout that 21 years as a psychiatric nurse can cause. What sparked an extraordinary shift in careers was a photograph of a fish-shaped wooden bowl in a copy of Smithsonian magazine. "The only way I could have a bowl like that," she recalls saying, "is to learn how to make it." A fish-shaped bowl of walnut like the one in the picture sits in Dill's studio now, a talisman of the hope that set her new life in motion.

Learning to use the lathe came easily. "It was a huge surprise that the moment I started working with wood, I felt compelled to continue," she says. "It wasn't a struggle to learn."

She studied woodcarving first, then wood-turning at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tenn., in the summer of 1990. "I lived in the dormitory and was in the woodshop from 6 a.m. until midnight every day working on that lathe," she says. "It was just magical."

Over time, Dill learned to create Brancusi-inspired candlesticks and tall vases, and bowls with bark roughly salting the rims. Drawing from a pivotal work experience in East Africa 30 years ago, Dill gives some of her pieces a textured, tribal character, while platters of cherry and silver maple are smooth and shimmering.

She looks at trees with reverence now, wondering what's beneath the skin and what colorful mysteries each trunk contains. She doesn't chop down living trees but seeks out fallen ones instead. Newly delivered apple logs from a neighbor's yard lie under the roof, ready for a project. "It's so addicting to go to the woodpile and pick out a piece of wood and put it on the lathe and make something beautiful out of it," Dill says, studying the stacks to make her next selections.

A forest surrounds her rustic, light-filled studio, and students come here to learn the craft, by working first in poplar and then moving to harder-grained woods. The place is called Two Sisters Studio, in honor of Dill's late sister Charlotte, and it is in her memory that the teaching and the work flow forward. Rocking chairs and porch swings and romping dogs may give off an aura of leisure here, but Dill is caught up in something more absorbing — being joyful again, and energized, and highly curious to see what
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