The vessels in Michael Young’s boathouse on Lake Martin are not the kind you can ski behind. They’re artful wood creations, sometimes figurative, often abstract, that express his vision of what pieces of tree want to be.
Like the sculptor who releases an imagined form from a block of stone, Young turns raw wood into arresting objects — literally turning them, on the lathes in his boathouse-turned-workshop. He’s a connoisseur of nature’s cracks and curves, of unusual wood grain, knotty burls and striking spalting (flaws caused by microorganisms and fungi acting on wood). Honoring the Japanese concept of wabi sabi (the beauty of imperfection), Young’s work takes many shapes, usually more eye-pleasing than functional.
“If it won’t hold soup, then it’s art,” he says with a smile.
As a teenager, he wound up in Wetumpka when his father retired from the Air Force and moved back to his native Alabama. Young studied art in high school, where he met Cindy, who would become his wife of 40 years. He went on to master woodworking as a successful maker of custom shutters and cabinetry. But he always made art on the side.
When the economic downturn began in 2007, business at his Wetumpka shop “slowed way down,” he recalls. “That gave me more time to do what I really like to do. I could focus on my artwork.”
After so many years, Young is expert at turning and cutting wood, sometimes using tools he’s fabricated. “You can go through the wall of a piece more than a few times before you get a feel for it,” he explains. “You have to listen to the wood – the sound changes as the wood gets thinner.”
For pieces with very thin walls, he may use an aid he created, a lightbulb on ball bearings that shines from within as the work turns.
While he sometimes buys rarer wood such as bird’s-eye maple, Young gets most of his material straight from nature. “I don’t cut it, I find it,” he says. “If you see me walking in the woods I’ll probably have my head down, looking for snakes and wood. Deadwood that’s almost rotten often yields beautiful colors and patterns in the grain.”
Wormholes add interest to a vessel turned from persimmon, “a very hard wood, hard to work,” he comments. “I made this” – a vibrant bowl – “from an oak log raised from the bottom of Lake Martin. It looked totally gray and dead, but this was inside it.”
Beyond vessel forms, Young makes sculptural pieces, sometimes seamlessly joining lathe-turned arcs into sinuous curves. Some works have a kinetic quality, incorporating rolling balls or an element floating on a pivot point. He’s made many fish – big and small, some meant to hang on a wall. “The fish pieces are very popular with lake dwellers,” he notes dryly.
He may preserve part of the bark, color the wood, fill cracks with metal inlay or stitch a gap with leather lacing. “I’ll push a piece till I get what I want,” Young says. “I’d rather blow something up than settle for less than it could be.”
Much of his creative process occurs in his lake-view studio, directly above the boathouse, part of the house where he and Cindy have lived for more than 15 years. Though wood is his favorite medium, Young also photographs, draws and paints, with each practice informing the others.
He may use a drone to capture a spectacular Lake Martin panorama or an infrared camera to highlight the primeval nature of the Sipsey Wilderness. His HDR photos (high dynamic range, combining multiple exposures) give landscapes a hyper-real, painterly quality, which he enhances by printing them on canvas on his large-format Canon printer. His photos often inspire paintings, usually in watercolor, “an unforgiving medium – you can’t get white paper back once it takes the color,” he says. For example, he based a painting of Lake Martin’s Children’s Harbor lighthouse on a photo.
Ultimately, his strongest connection is to wood, and trees. A favorite is the state’s largest poplar tree, which stands in the Sipsey Wilderness. “I’ve hugged that tree,” he marvels. “I love sitting in the peace and quiet of the woods.”
The artist finds a kind of serenity in his shop, despite the din of power tools. “Turning’s not like a drawing or painting,” he explains. “When you start, you have to finish it – if you stop for long, the wood can change and warp. Turning’s like meditation; you have to be in the moment, paying attention.”
His son, Heath, has taken over the family business, Custom Shutter & Millwork, in Wetumpka. Along with shutters, cabinetry and furniture, he makes fine segmented bowls, crafted from ingeniously assembled pieces of wood. “They’re beyond me,” Young says with pride. “Heath is a better woodworker than I am.”
Young sells his works on his website and at juried art shows, often local events, such as Arti Gras at Russell Crossroads and Lil’ Calypso Art Festival at Chuck’s Marina, but also at the annual fair at the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina. “An artist never stops improving,” he says. That’s true for all his artistic pursuits, especially woodworking.
“I love giving new life to old wood,” Young declares. “Sometimes I say it’s just making sawdust. Whatever you end up with is cool.”
This story was originally written for Alabama Power’s Shorelines.