by Grant Moser
Beginning July 11 and meeting six times, Woodmere Art Museum is offering a woodcarving class by Mt. Airy resident and artist Kathran Siegel. Though this class is open to adults as well, it is based on a course that Siegel taught to 6th graders at Wagner Middle School in West Oak Lane in 2004. Their finished pieces, scale model chairs, were exhibited at Woodmere in 2005.
Her goal with the middle school class was to get the children thinking. “We learned about math because we were working in scale and used ratios and measuring. We learned about culture because we looked at how different parts of the world had different ideas about what a chair is,” Siegel said.
“And I got them thinking personally because I wanted them to incorporate imagery into their design, so something could be a flower and a structural piece, because that’s where my background came in.”
Siegel’s formal background in art goes back to Bennington College in 1962, where she studied painting. Noted art critic Clement Greenberg had a lot of influence over the teachers. “He was very dogmatic about what art was; that it doesn’t refer to anything outside of itself, so even a realistic painting wasn’t good. After some time, I started to feel very confined by the aesthetic I was being taught,” she said.
Siegel, who requested that her age not be mentioned, left Bennington after three years and finished her Bachelor of Fine Arts at the University of New Mexico in 1966. There she met Paul Brach, an abstract artist, and his wife, Miriam Schapiro, who was involved with feminist art. Siegel followed them to the University of California, San Diego, to help them start a fine arts program and taught several design and color theory classes herself.
Her own paintings also began to change and “became much more playful. I was making something and then cutting it into pieces and rearranging it. It was my own evolution as an artist.”
Siegel spent a short time there before moving with her husband, a fellow art student, to Gainesville, Florida in the early 1970s to teach at the University of Florida. By 1974, she was a mother and divorced. The adjunct professor jobs that she had were proving unreliable in terms of income, so she enrolled in the college’s Art Education program to become certified to teach in public schools.
She was still making her own art and had begun trying to make her paintings three-dimensional by building wooden skeletons for them in an attempt to play with their shape and perception. She did this without any formal training in woodworking, so when she found out that her Art Education program offered a woodworking course, she took it in hopes of finding a better way to build those structures.
In 1978, after completing both the Art Education program and a post-graduate program to earn her Master’s degree, Siegel moved to Jacksonville and began teaching high school art in the county’s public schools. In her spare time, she began working on a series of wooden bowls and began carving them.
This urge to carve came from her mother, also an artist, who carved soapstone constantly during Siegel’s childhood. When she began doing it herself, she found “peace. It’s just so relaxing and wonderful.”
Then she decided to make a really, really big bowl. Once she had built it, she started carving it. It turned out abstract, with a piece that swung out and another piece that came in, so it folded around itself. Siegel could barely put her arms around it. She entered it in a competition at the Jacksonville Museum of Art in 1982 and won the grand prize: a one-person show at the museum.
For her one-person show, Siegel created a series of wooden boxes with carved, undular surfaces. Her final piece was a table carved to look like driftwood with lots of holes in it, and sea creatures that went through the holes and landed on the ground. Looking at it from above, it was like looking down into an ocean scene.
The table had a profound impact on the rest of her career. First, it got her noticed and invited to show at more prestigious galleries and museums. Secondly, it began her period of carving her unique style of furniture, full of color and fluidity and whimsy.
But even when Siegel was getting invited to show at galleries and was selling work, she still had trouble making ends meet. So she kept teaching in Florida, and continued to teach when she moved to Pennsylvania in 1998. She first lived in Upper Bucks County and taught at Montgomery County Community College, Bucks County Community College and the Art Institute of Philadelphia. After three years, she moved to Mt. Airy and began teaching in the Philadelphia public school system, a job she kept until she retired last year.
Secondly, her lack of professional training as a woodworker hurt her credibility when she began showing in the early 1980s, but her pioneer spirit just might be her biggest strength. “Among furniture designers … the fact that I’m self-taught in terms of how I put things together and not having any sense of tradition in terms of furniture helps me. Everything is out of my own imagination … I’m not bound by any preconceived ideas. I want to reinterpret, I want to make it my own, to find my own vocabulary.”