A Life in Wood | Art and Culture | Style weekly

Craftsman Sam Forrest’s best description perhaps comes from the signage in the new exhibition Atavistic Memories: The Studio Furniture of Sam Forrest, currently at the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design. Forrest is described as “a man concerned with the joy and dilemma of wood’s resistance”.

Handcrafted with limited machinery, his creations are both sculptural and furniture, skillfully combining beauty and functionality. His distinctive furniture synthesizes organic and geometric themes, breaking with conventional rules and introducing eccentric, contrasting forms. An enlarged black and white photo of Forrest working in his studio, tool in hand, hints at the focus and passion the artist put into his beautiful work (see below).

A native of Mathews County, Virginia, Forrest attended the Richmond Professional Institute (which would soon become VCU) in the late 1960s. He set up his home and studio in Church Hill before moving to the Carver area, as did other RPI artists such as sculptor Myron Helfgott. Forrest eventually left Carver for Louisa County before returning to Mathews and living in the Hyco House, which he promptly renamed the Haiku House due to his continued interest in Buddhism.

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  • Photo courtesy of the branch museum
  • Sam Forrest, a native of Matthews County, Virginia, handles the wood.

Inspiration for the Branch show followed Forrest’s death in May 2021. While his work was prolific, it was underestimated during his lifetime because of its place in the American studio furniture movement. The aim of the exhibition was to place his work in this context.

Beginning in the 1920s with Wharton Esherick, woodworkers eschewed the mass production of furniture and instead focused on natural materials while working in their own studios. Adherents included Wendell Castle, who pioneered staple lamination techniques that allowed for more sculptural yet functional work, and his student Alan Lazarus, who taught Forrest.

To commemorate Forrest’s more than fifty years of crafting woodwork, the branch museum brought together 38 pieces from family, friends, collectors and Sam’s final home, the haiku house in Mathews, along with portraits of William P. Kendrick, Erjun Zhao, and Catherine Venable. Kendrick’s powerful 1963 oil painting Angry Young Sam offers a glimpse of the intensity of a man most of us have never known.

Luckily for viewers, many of those who knew Forrest were interviewed to share their memories of the exhibit. Among those who did were: friend and sculptor Ruben Peacock; mentor and well-known furniture manufacturer Alan Lazarus; friend and painter Catherine Venable; girlfriend Zarina Fazaldin; friends Lloyd and Art Backstrom, who own several of his pieces; Tabitha and Joe Ramseyer, who worked with Forrest at his last studio in Mathews, Virginia and currently manages his last home, the Haiku House; and the craftsman’s son, Bo Forrest.

Working with the group, they were able to help Branch staff create a timeline of Forrest’s career and life and understand various influences on his work. Many of the pieces in the exhibition were selected from work he left to his son Bo.

“Sam created works in three quite different time periods that we were able to identify,” explains Sharon Aponte, the office’s general manager. The museum also sourced and identified works from others in the area that were made in these earlier periods. “We had hoped to find more works from the 1970s further afield, but time did not allow us to bring them here. In addition to the date, we selected works to represent the different shapes, materials and techniques Sam used.”

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These include round bases and a table by Sam Forrest

  • Renee Scott Photography
  • Round plinths and a table by Sam Forrest are among “more than forty works from family, friends, collectors and Sam’s final home, the Haiku (Hyco) House, in Mathews, Virginia” on display through April 17 exhibited are.

As one moves through the exhibition, one sculptural delight after another is revealed and a masterful use of negative space throughout the pieces. There is the “Sex Dragon Table” with its wavy supports breaking through openings in the table top. The ‘chess table’ is utterly unique, its square top sitting askew on a base that appears to be spinning, while the attached chessboard is carved on the table at an angle, just enough of a brainwave to drive serious chess players mad. “Leaf Table – Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony 2019” was Forrest’s last piece to remain unfinished at his death. A round pedestal table is displayed upside down, allowing visitors to see Forrest’s signature – a scalloped flower-like motif created by a series of soft grooves running from side to center – on the underside of the table.

A Virginia-centric path was exactly 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,” notes Aponte. “Based in Richmond, it’s important to us that we highlight the work of local designers whenever possible.”

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

And for those interested in learning more about the American studio furniture movement, the branch museum is hosting an in-person panel discussion on March 24 with panelists Alan Lazarus, a furniture maker and founder of the VCU’s woodworking program; Holly Gore, Director of Interpretation and Research at the Wharton Esherick Museum; and Scott Braun, assistant professor of wood at VCU’s Department of Craft and Materials 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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