Stowe reflects on 40-year career in woodworking

Tuesday, November 29, 2016
Doug Stowe sits in his woodworking studio. (Photo by David Bell/Carroll County News)

Doug Stowe knows a thing or two about woodworking. Stowe, who recently released his latest book on the topic, celebrated 40 years of creating practical art with wood at a reception recently.

Stowe moved to Eureka Springs in 1975 and began his career in woodworking a year later. He had been working with pottery, but Stowe said he felt woodwork would be a more practical way to go.

"There was more of a demand for fine woodworking, like making cabinets for shops," Stowe said. "All up and down Spring Street, I can still walk and show you things I've made in the different stores ... cabinets and doors and various things."

Though he has created many pieces with wood, Stowe has become known for making boxes. He has written several books about how to make boxes, furniture and cabinets. What drew him to woodworking, Stowe said, was the nature of the wood itself. Stowe described how special the woods in Arkansas are to him, saying he considers trees one of our most precious resources.

"If they're a precious resource, that means you have to do important things with them, and those important things are to make tables that families gather around ... to make things that hold precious objects," Stowe said. "You do things that remind us of our natural forest and how dependent we are on nature, and you treat the wood with a degree of reverence."

He continued, "That means you would think about the kinds of tools and techniques and methods of joining wood that would make it last for a long time, so it's given a life that goes beyond our own. These are the things I think about, and the foundation of what I want to accomplish."

Wood is such a good material, Stowe said, because every piece of wood is a little different. He pointed out that there are many kinds of wood in and around Eureka Springs and said all of them are unique.

"They're all interesting and beautiful. It's not a Plain Jane kind of material. It's not like sheet goods where every piece of paper is the same," Stowe said. "The woods all have different working qualities, and there are different things you can choose to do with them and different colors and different textures."

Another neat thing about wood, he said, is its thermal nature.

"You touch a piece of metal and it'll either be hot or cold. A piece of wood is always just right," Stowe said. "The density of the wood is very compatible with our own sensory perceptions. You think about working with glass and you think about getting cut or it being hot if it's blown glass. Wood's not like that."

Of course he has received a few splinters throughout his career, but Stowe said he's learned how to work through that.

"Your hands become toughened and you become more watchful and careful of splinters," he said. "Wood is absolutely a wonderful material."

Stowe added that wood is available in many states, saying he prefers to work with a piece of wood that is rough around the edges.

"You can't even see what it's going to look like. You can see the surface effects, but you can't see what it's going to look like," Stowe said, describing the way wood looks as he works on it. "It becomes shiny. You get all this tactile feedback and the visual feedback of exactly what you've done."

Doing this kind of work, he said, can help people relieve depression or anxiety.

"One of the things that happens when you do really interesting things is it awakens you," Stowe said. "If anybody wants to know how to feel better in their life, I say pick up a piece of wood, take a piece of sandpaper and work on it until it's smooth. You'll find you're altered in a way by your engagement with the material."

He's always loved working with wood, Stowe said, and he enjoys writing about it and teaching others how to do it even more. Stowe started teaching in 1994, around the same time he began writing for magazines. In 2001, he joined the teaching staff at Clear Spring School. Stowe said teaching at Clear Spring has enriched his life more than he ever could have imagined.

"That has been an incredible experience. I'm watching kids start out woodworking in first grade, and I'm also seeing in 12th grade the projects they're doing," Stowe said. "They've grown up with me. I have seniors in high school now that were in my first-grade woodshop class. I really think that people need to be enabling their children and grandchildren to do creative things that are absolutely real that have real consequences and real value using real tools and materials."

Stowe remembered when he moved to Eureka Springs, saying he was drawn to the town because of its artistic community.

"When I came here, it was just myself and my dog and my little Toyota pickup and my cheap apartment," Stowe said.

He introduced himself to other artists in town, Stowe said, and quickly made many new friends. The best thing about these friends, he said, is that they encouraged him to work on his art as much as possible.

"Some of the artists were really influential in my life as a very young person just starting out in the arts. To find there were artists in their 50s, 60s, 70s and even 80s who related to what I was doing ... that's a very powerful thing when that happens," Stowe said. "You get encouragement from people who have been around the block several times."

He continued, "They know about art. They know about creativity, and they offer you a sense of kinship as though you are one of them, and that makes a difference."

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