By Dianne Sudbrock
Michael Bauermeister of Augusta won the Excellence in Wood Award at the 2016 Smithsonian Craft Show on Wednesday, April 20, 2016. The Smithsonian Craft Show is widely regarded as the country’s most prestigious juried show and sale of fine American craft.
Participation is by invitation only. This year, 120 artists were selected from over 1,100 applicants representing all facets of contemporary design and craft, including: basketry; ceramics; decorative fiber; furniture; glass; jewelry; leather; metal; mixed media; paper; wearable art; and wood.
Bauermeister has been in the Smithsonian show for the last seven years, and 10 times total, but this is his first award at that show.
According the judges’ remarks, Bauermeister's work stood out for his original forms and creative use of wood, his excellent and sometimes mysterious techniques, the mood and feeling created in and through his work, and the development of new series within his recognizable body of work. “To receive the award was a great honor,” Bauermeister said.
Bauermeister’s interest in art started in the sixth grade at Hanley Junior High School in University City. "I loved making clay figures," he recalls. "I remember thinking even then sculpting is what I am supposed to do." He studied art and sculpture at St. Louis Community College at Meramec and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design; but earned his degree in sculpture at the Kansas City Art Institute in 1979.
Bauermeister said, “After graduating with a degree in sculpture, I didn’t know how to make a living at it. They didn’t teach us that in school.” By then, wood was his chosen medium, so he started making custom furniture. “I had a lot of fun with that, and it allowed me to support my family. Then after about 10 years, I started making little wooden bowls, and that grew into the big vessels, and now I do all kinds of wood sculpture. So I’m back to what I learned in school and I’m just loving it.” Bauermeister said, “The key was to find a way to make a living doing it, and that was what took a while to work out.”
Bauermeister’s “break through moment” came when he was invited by Sam Stang (long-time friend and award-winning blown glass artist who also lives and works in Augusta) to participate in the American Craft Council’s show in Baltimore. He took the bowls he had been making to the show and people liked them. That show introduced Michael to galleries and people from all over the world who were interested in the kind of contemporary craft he produced; and were willing to pay for it.
Bauermeister said he expanded into larger pieces when one of his sons, who was about 8 at the time, asked him to make something as big as he was, “I sculpted a large vase. Then I wanted to make one as big as I was!” Bauermeister is now widely known for what he calls "human scale” wooden sculptures.
Initially Bauermeister’s work was produced exclusively using the natural wood tones, but eventually he began experimenting with adding color. "I like the colors to look as if they occurred naturally," he says, and he creates his own shades using clear or tinted lacquer enriched with pigment he adds himself.
After hearing comments from potential customers about a lack of floor space, Bauermeister started creating unique, undulating (gently curved/wavelike) wood sculptures that hang on a wall. By blending carving techniques with painting, he adds the illusion of another dimension.
In a piece called “Pebbles, Waves”, Bauermeister created the effect of waves transitioning to a rocky edge. Even though all the carving was done by creating concave (hollowed out) indentations in the wood, the paint gives the illusion that the rocks are convex (rounded up, rather than hollowed out.) Bauermeister said of these new wall sculptures, “It’s somewhere between a painting and a sculpture because it does have dimension, but also has color and paint that tricks your eye into thinking you’re looking at depth when it’s really fairly flat.” Commissions for the wall sculptures now comprise more than half his work.
Bauermeister’s studio is in an old general store along the Katy Trail west of Augusta. His workshop is on the lower level, where the original store counter and shelving now hold his tools and supplies. The upstairs, once living quarters for his young family, now serves as a gallery.
Bauermeister lives nearby, in a house he built, with his wife Gloria Attoun Bauermeister, an artist and musician in her own right. They have raised two sons, Ben, who lives in Memphis, and Zak, who lives in Seattle.
Michael and Gloria are both part of a local country folk music group, the Augusta Bottoms Consort. He plays the dobro, she plays guitar, banjo and mandolin. They enjoy getting together with friends to play and record music.
Bauermeister’s work can be found in museums and collections across the world. He has two pieces in the Smithsonian’s permanent collection of American Folk Art in Washington, D.C., two pieces in American Embassies in Abu Dhabi and Kiev, plus pieces in the Boston Museum of Art, Racine Art Museum, University of Michigan Museum, and other public and private collections. He’s also been featured in a number of publications, including American Craft, Woodturning, The Arts Live, Wood Art Today, Master-Woodturning, and more.