Kathy Towley followed a natural progression started in childhood by family, love of nature, the reverence for her gifts and what those gifts add to our lives.
Kathy recalls her grandmother's garden back in St. Croix Falls, Wis., and the field of peony and gladiolas. She recalls growing up around flowers as both grandmothers and her mother nurtured her nascent gift of creating beauty from nature and the ability to share with others.
Towley managed a greenhouse for Linder's Garden Center in the Twin Cities for 10 years, honing her skills while training and mentoring new hires. The skills she began to study as a child have come full circle as is evident by the professional appearance of her gardens and potted arrangements in and round her home and studio and the wooden art she creates for everyday enjoyment and use.
Kathy will showcase her creations in her studio south of Bemidji during the third annual First City of Arts Studio Cruise Oct. 22-24.
"I watched (husband) Dave (Towley) turn for 30 plus years and I wanted to be more a part of his business," said Kathy. "I saw the scraps of wood left over from his bigger pieces. I was giving him suggestions and told him not to throw them away. I was thinking of all these things we could make -- tree ornaments, napkin rings, bottle stoppers, appetizer forks. I didn't want those pieces to go to waste because there was so much beauty in them. He asked me if I wanted to turn, and about two years ago I said yes."
Kathy turned her first simple bowl, took it along to a craft show, and it sold. That first customer was the person who literally kept her on the path to learn the craft of woodturning. She admits to spending at least 12 hours a day out in the shop almost every day and would spend even more time if that were possible. It is a constant learning experience and she describes it as similar to a child on Christmas morning opening a present because she gets so excited at the process and eager to learn and experiment.
"It's very satisfying," she said. "I've found something that I can do, that others like and want to have a piece of my artwork. This past spring I made a large lidded bowl and someone bought it without even asking the price. I had to turn away because I was crying from joy. We don't have a lot of our own work at home and we love sharing it with others."
Both Towleys go to purchase their raw material (lumber) and work almost exclusively in northern woods: cherry, maple, oak, walnut and birch. Kathy describes trips to lumber yards as adventures because sometimes they come home empty handed and other times there is so much potential there. They look at the pieces, see what magic nature has wrought, and wonder at what they will find beneath the bark. Sometimes that bark becomes incorporated into a bowl and other times the tracks left by a worm give distinction to a piece.
"To me, when I am turning a piece of wood, it is like Christmas as a child," she said. "You are waiting and waiting in anticipation for that beautiful gift. I start opening the gift which is called layering, taking off layer upon layer until I get to the inside of the box which is the piece. And then I apply the mineral oil and that's when I see what it wants to be. The grain in the wood pops out and I see what I've been given, it gives me chills, goose bumps, and I can hardly wait to see the final product."
Her pieces are from nature and will live on for generations; transformed yet still part of the original. Kathy claims that eating popcorn out of a wooden bowl is a unique experience. There is warmth in wood that cannot be matched by plastic or even a piece of crockery. She uses a natural finish of beeswax and mineral oil, with the goal of keeping everything she does natural. The knots are left in as are the worm holes because they are a gift. The selection of pieces range from small ornaments like snowmen or trees to butter spreaders, napkin rings, candle holders with glass inserts, flower holders with floral pin inserts to larger Ikebana wood vases, diamond willow bud vases, plates, bowls and lidded bowls. She has not yet been able to explore jewelry making but promises that is in the back of her mind, wearable art. In wood turning there are no two pieces alike because of the type of wood used or the imperfections that give character. Sometimes she uses a freshly cut log for green turning as the shape will continue to form while the piece dries.
A natural edge cherry bowl with bark nested in a deer antler was in the current wood show at Bemidji Community Arts Center. It is no longer there as gallery patrons on their way back to Canada stopped by to see the exhibit and bought the piece for their collection.
This year the Studio Cruise tours are color coded in the brochure for easy traveling and planning. The purple tour includes the Towley Studio, potter Josh Boock, fabric artist Mary Therese Peterson, fine art photographer Vivienne Morgan, contemporary artist Paula Swenson, metal worker Paula Jensen and glass and jewelry artist Sandra Fynboh.