Behind a rambling brown-shingled house in Boulder, Colorado, a thick hedge of Norwegian pines nearly conceals a 16- by 16-foot work shed. Half of the space is furnished with a cot, a plain wooden table, an electric skillet, a washbasin, and a portable toilet. On the other side of a makeshift partition is a workbench, a stool, a lathe, some rough-cut logs, and a large pile of wood shavings. A young artist bends over the lathe.The year is 1977; the artist, David Ellsworth.
For more than three years he has been supporting himself by making wooden salt and pepper shakers. He has turned out nearly 5,000 sets, manufacturing 50 at a time. This work occupies him from sunrise to late afternoon. Each evening, however, he stops, carefully places a plastic sheet over the salt and pepper sets, and then takes up a curved tool and experiments with a new art form, creating wooden pots on his lathe.
One afternoon he receives a check in the mail. To his surprise, his pots have started to sell. Today David Ellsworth is one of the nation's most acclaimed wood sculptors. The wooden pots he began creating more than 20 years ago in Colorado have become his signature. They are extraordinarily delicate, with thin, satiny walls that rival those of an exquisite ceramic vase....
David Ellsworth is one of the thousands of artists, writers, and musicians, who, in recent years, have been struggling to express their understandings and experiences of the sacred in their work, and who in turn are creating new ways of thinking about and practicing spirituality.
Some have been working quietly within religious traditions, keeping alive the skills of iconography, creating Christian music, or depicting themes rooted in Jewish experience. Others are pushing the edges of religious traditions by asking questions about language and representation, incorporating narratives of brokenness and redemption into their work, and confronting the ambiguities of teachings about God.
It is through their life stories as much as through the objects they produce that artists' insights about the life of the spirit come into view. Their position in society, as has often been true in the past, is not enviable. Although a few make fortunes, most earn only marginal incomes. Many have been drawn to artistic careers by personal trauma or by extreme disruptions in their families and communities. Such experiences necessitate personal reflection and often result in new perspectives on life....
From the beginning, Ellsworth's art has been closely connected to his deeply personal sense of the spiritual aspects of life. His pots are neither traditional shapes nor free form. He denies that they have any utilitarian value. Indeed, they cannot easily be defined. This is the essence that he is most intent on expressing. "Without a definition," he explains, "we're left with wonderment and in some cases with a sense of loss. When we do not have a language about an object, we reveal ourselves very quickly in our emotional response to that object. It was that emotional response as an artist, as a creative person, that I was most interested in."
....Being without definition is the key to Ellsworth's understanding of spirituality: "I believe in God, in a higher order that is above the human species. We are not at the top of the chain. There's something bigger than us. But it cannot be defined. If we could quantify it, identify it, catalog it, it would lose its value. It would cease to be what it is.
His sense of what it means to be spiritual is so encompassing that he has difficulty describing its exact place in his life: "I'm not certain I can spell it out. I don't get up in the morning and say, 'Well, how spiritual can I be today?' When I am done making an object, I give myself as much
time as I possibly can in order to understand the spiritual connection between me and it. Why did it come out? Where has it come from? Where is it going to lead? What influence is it going to have? And if I don't like it, can I feel free to smash it and get it out of my life and experience the smashing so I can go on?"
After a moment he adds, "Spirituality is my work. The two are inseparable. When I'm doing it, I'm not thinking about it. There is a connectedness with it that is immediate and direct. I'm like a pianist. I'm not concerned about the technique as I perform. So working at the lathe is similar. It is an avenue through which spirituality can express itself."