The Art of Ron Kent
Ron Kent is an artist who is constantly challenging preconceptions by exploring new mediums and approaches. While he is known to many as a master craftsman in the realm of wood art, with work in leading museums from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to The Louvre, he has never accepted that he should be limited to any particular medium, process or form. The currents in the artists work can be traced back to when he and his wife were starting out and he designed and built the furniture for their first apartment. Soon after, he won an award for a small futuristic sculpture, featuring nine tiny neon bulbs blinking at random, presented on a mirrored base, framed in spalted wood in an acrylic case. While the furniture was the beginning of a relationship with wood and the challenges of craftsmanship, the sculpture made clear that the artist was interested in a progressive exploration of self-expression.
The discovery of woodturning came about when his wife Myra gave him a $35.00 toy lathe for Christmas in 1975. Not knowing what to make of the gift, but not wanting his wife to feel that he wasn’t pleased with it, he walked down to the beach and found a piece of driftwood. Fitting it on the lathe, he turned a form from it with a sharpened screwdriver. It was a humble beginning, but Kent was intrigued. The toy lathe fell apart while Kent was exploring its potential and he bought a larger one… only to be followed by a progression of larger and more professional models.
For the first year, Kent created bottle forms on the lathe. Originally made from ocean driftwood and logs he picked up on local mountain trails, they were created for the sheer enjoyment he got from exploring the secret hidden beauty often found under the weathered exteriors. Initially form was a minor consideration, but it soon occurred to him that he could explore the same characteristics of wood in aesthetically pleasing silhouettes. The elongated necks allowed the artist to experiment with the form, creating a sense that they were being pulled beyond their traditional threshold.
Another early shape the artist explored was the egg, a form both simple and familiar. The form first came to him while experimenting with the bottles. The thought came to him that he could remove the neck altogether and round the bottom. Usually created in roughly the size of an ostrich egg, the ovoid form became a favorite way of preserving a particularly striking piece of wood.
“The wood egg always gets a reaction,” the artist offers, having kept one on his office desk for years. “Any Freudian psychologist could spend hours discussing the deep psychological implications of utmost comfort of this shape.”
As much as Kent enjoyed creating the bottles and eggs, it was the bowls that followed these initial explorations that were responsible for the creating the artist’s reputation. The wood turning aesthetic that Kent employed was not so different from other leading artists such as Bob Stocksdale, who sought to create the perfect marriage of form and material. Yet, Kent came to concentrate on creating bowls in Norfolk Island pine, a wood that offered striking knot patterns and highly figured wood that spalted in beautiful abstract patterns. He also brought something new to the pedestal: light. Ron Kent’s bowls, thinly turned and oiled, glowed under gallery lighting. The effect was quite unlike what anyone else was doing.
Within a few years Ron Kent was entering local fairs and mixed media art shows with his wood pieces. Exhibiting at local galleries, he was discovered by collectors who saw something special in the artist’s approach. His reputation grew quickly, as the work was both original and strikingly beautiful.
Perhaps the greatest breakthrough for Ron Kent came when four of his pieces were included in the historic Edward Jacobsen Collection of Turned Wood Bowls that toured the United States and were presented in the first book to document the viability of turned wood bowls as collectable. Inclusion in similarly important exhibitions and books followed, including Craft Today: Poetry of the Physical (1986), The White House Collection of American Crafts (1993) and Expressions in Wood: Masterworks from the Wornick Collection (1996).
Classicist & minimalist
Norfolk Island pine is a timber that grows throughout the South Pacific, allegedly planted to provide a ready material for itinerant sailors. Ron Kent’s translucent bowls are turned over a period of time, so that they can be slowly taken down to the required thinness. Repeated oiling and sandings are an important part of the process, as the original moisture in the wood is displaced with the oils, providing the translucence. Like many of his contemporaries, Kent is entirely self-taught and this has led to several technically unorthodox approaches to turning on the lathe. Some of his aesthetic approaches are different as well, as he prefers to turn the bowls so that they are at least slightly and often greatly off-center, providing patterns considerably different than what most woodturners strive for.
“My mission is to create and select the silhouette that best interacts with the natural characteristics of each log, highlighting the intrinsic beauties that nature had provided, seeking a harmonious blend.” Kent once said of his approach to integrating form and the woods natural beauty.
Ron Kent had not only reinvented himself as an artist, he had created a new tradition for the island he had come to call home. Hawaii has craft traditions that involve wood bowls (Calabashes) that have existed for generations, with classic examples exhibited in their museums and new versions created for sale to tourists. Following Kent’s exploration of the translucent potential of Norfolk Island Pine, there are a number of artists making their living by creating similar work and selling it in Hawaiian galleries today… a Hawaiian craft tradition that will undoubtedly last for centuries.
Ron Kent has been referred to as both a classicist and a minimalist. His intuitive sense of form certainly points to the former, while the remarkable simplicity of the forms suggests the latter. Yet, there is more to suggest that his forms lean toward a minimalist aesthetic. While the key to the translucent bowls is their thinness, he has in recent years rebelled against being pigeonholed and has explored going in the opposite direction, creating forms much thicker than other leading artists, often weighing almost a hundred pounds. In fact, the bowls are of so thick that it is often difficult to consider them as bowls at all, as they are essentially pure form. Yet, they maintain the same purity of form, with sloping curves and expanses that reveal the beauty of the material.
The minimalist label also works when one considers that the work is quite often not about the physical object at all. When illuminated and displayed in a darkened environment, Kent’s work concerns light and form, rather than the turned wood bowl itself. When exhibited in this manner, the work has more in common with Light and Space artists such as Larry Bell, than with other wood bowls. This effect is dramatized when the artist employs a chalice foot, creating the illusion of the form drawing down to a point that hovers just above the surface it is displayed on.
Though totally dependent upon nature for line, gesture and coloration, it is worth noting the relationship between Ron Kent’s work and abstract painting. The expanse of Kent’s bowls and his platters take full advantage of the natural formations that are often quite similar to the canvases of the abstract expressionists. In the case of Kent’s work however, there is also line and form, which has been largely dictated by the natural abstraction found in a particular piece of timber.
A larger context
For those who are only familiar with Ron Kent’s translucent wood bowls, the work that he has been quietly creating for the last two decades presents quite a revelation. More than anything, it provides a larger context for considering his bowl forms. Although celebrated as a “woodturner”, the artist was never as interested in the craft and material as he was in the potential for expression it provided. Of course, it’s not that Ron Kent hasn’t enjoyed the experience. He loves working with wood and the process involved in creating his trademark bowls. His work sells for high prices at the finest art galleries, although he has often admitted that he would gladly do the work without monetary reward.
“I’m like a nymphomaniac working as a Park Avenue call girl,” he has said, with unabashed enthusiasm for the process.
In 1997, Ron Kent took an early retirement from his financial profession to concentrate exclusively on his career as a studio artist. His wood bowls were already in numerous museums, sold in high-end galleries and written about in books and periodicals. His reputation had been built upon the translucent Norfolk Island Pine bowls, but the collectors who bought them and the galleries that exhibited the work were unaware that the artist’s oeuvre was actually much larger. While continuing to create his trademark bowls, he had for many years been making forays into sculpture, working with metal and laminated wood. He’d created environmental installations of multi-colored spheres and a four-story-high wind sculpture.
“Many, if not most, of the sculptures I create started as an abstract idea that had to be transformed into solid physical reality just so I could see if the idea was really as appealing as I thought it would be,” Kent says of these works.“In 3-dimensional reality the two simplest forms are the sphere and the equilateral tetrahedron (the three-sided pyramid). Does this fact explain my fascination with these forms? I don't know, but ‘fascination’ indeed is the right word, and I have revisited these forms again and again in a broad variety of media, scale, color, and texture.”
Although fascinated, Kent is not satisfied in exploring the simplicity of these forms, as evidenced by his interest in the trilon, a form that begins as an equilateral pyramid, but is extended in one dimension. Still triangular in cross-section, the form reaches loftily toward the zenith, stretched out in the same manner as his bottle forms.
“This invokes some other psychological manifestation,” the artist offers. “Even while I bask in the comfortable basic ‘rightness’ of the fundamental forms, I welcome the nagging discomfort of the ‘stretched envelope’ of the unexpected.” Considering this particular form, the artist adds, “I sometimes wonder if there isn't a subconscious influence from the Trilon and Perisphere symbol of the 1939 New York World Fair of my youth.”
Respect for complexity
The artist’s love of simplicity is equaled by his respect for complexity. This has led to his many variations on the concave/convex saddle-shaped Wave sculptures, the organic Seaweed forms in laminated wood and patinated brass, the interwoven randomness of his capillary-tube sculptures and the open-sided inner-mirrored pyramids.
This artist’s intentional exploration of artistic discomfort is obvious in his exploration of the inside of the pyramid, leaving one face open and using mirrors on the interior of the remaining three walls. This results in awe-inspiring complexity of reflection and re-reflection, particularly when two or more such pyramids are displayed with the open sides facing each other.
Primordial Soup, a pivoted diamond shaped sculpture featuring organic tendrils that change color as they flow past each other was created in response to the artist’s own sense of challenge. He found himself wondering if he could do an artistic rendition of the fascinating children's toy comprised of three panes of glass, with the two thin spaces between them filled with viscous colored oils and water-based liquids. The resulting sculpture is quite unlike the artist’s other work, yet relates to both the pyramids and seaweed forms.
One of the artist’s most impressive works was, in many ways, considerably different than anything else he’d ever created. It was a large scale commissioned kinetic sculpture, which survives only in photos taken soon after its creation.
“Windsong was one of the very few commissions I've ever accepted,” the artist explains. “A shopping-center on neighbor-island Kauai wanted something to hang in an existing pole structure, to complement their overall funky-color motif.”
Kent’s kinetic concept won out and the five sets of Calderesque forms, each counter-rotating with respect to the next, more than met expectations. That is, until Hurricane Iniki arrived with 200-mph hurricane winds that spun it to pieces, then snapped all four of the supporting telephone poles.
“I suppose wind sculpture is the operative phrase here,” Kent says.
In the case of his large-scale Wave sculptures, the artist felt that bronze would be the best medium to realize his vision in. To meet the challenge of producing bronze work without a foundry, Kent used powdered bronze mixed with minimal amounts of epoxy to produce a metal-rich "stucco" that he applied to a fiberglass shell. While the resulting surface could be polished to a blinding metallic sheen, Kent preferred a rough-texture, using muriatic acid, later enriched by the patina offered by Hawaii's ocean-salt air.
In the artist’s Hour-glass Series, pyramid forms and fundamental simplicity were once again explored, with the largest work in the series realized as a 60” pivoted-stand model.
One of the ways Ron Kent has satisfied the creative hunger is to collaborate with other artists. One such collaboration involved a cracked Norfolk Island pine bowl, laced together with pig’s gut by Hawaiian fiber artist Pat Hickman. This unusual combination of his chosen material and one that Hickman was well-known for working with, won an award in a Honolulu exhibition in 1996 and is now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Craft & Design.in New York. While Kent was interested in further exploring the idea, Hickman decided to take a sabbatical. He experimented on his own, purposely cutting into his bowls and lacing the fissures together with patinaed copper, creating what came to be his Post-Nuclear Series. The works are jarring when compared to the classical beauty of the bowl forms he is known for. By adding elements that are the antithesis of the purity of his work, the artist in a sense rebels against his own aesthetic, releasing him from it’s limitations and challenging the way he is perceived as an artist.
Similarly, Kent’s recent experiments in mass allow him to further rebel against the limitations that success brings. In other recent bowl and platter forms, the grain and pattern of the wood are boldly covered with paint. Like others who have explored similar approaches, the artist is no doubt courting criticism. Just as it was experimentation that brought the artist critical acclaim, it is experimentation that will free him to follow his muse. With Ron Kent, one never knows where that might lead.
Written by Kevin Wallace, an independent curator, writer, and long-time friend.
Selected Permanent Collections
21st Century Museum
of Contemporary Art
(Musée des Arts Decoratifs)
det Danske Kunstindustrimusee
Hawke's Bay Cultural Trust
Hawke's Bay, New Zealand
The White House
Art Museum (SAAM)
Victoria and Albert Museum
National Design Museum
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Museum of Art + Design
Museum of Fine Arts
Yale University Art Gallery
Mobile Museum of Art
Mint Museum of Art + Design
High Museum of Art
The Detroit Institute of Arts
Carnegie Museum of Art
Arizona State University
Los Angeles County
Museum of Art
Selected Special Presentations
Dr. Thomas Klestil
President, Republic of Austria
by J. Hans Strasser,
Consul General of Austria in Hawai'i
Emperor Akihito of Japan
by Kensaku Hogen,
Consul General of Japan in Hawai'i,
and the Japan-America Society
President William Jefferson Clinton,
by Congressman Neil Abercrombie
President George H.W. Bush
by Congresswoman Patricia Saiki
His Holiness Pope John Paul II
by Drs. Roger and Maria Brault
Crown Prince Hitachi of Japan
by the Hawaiian Japanese Chamber of
Senator Daniel Inouye,
by Hawaii Democrat Party H.R.H.
Sultan Iskandar of Johor,
Agong of Malaysia
President Ronald Reagan,
by Hawaii Republican Party
Supreme Court Justice
by the University of Hawai'i
School of Law
Governor Hikaru Kamei,
Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan,
by the Hawaii State Senate
Selected Traveling Exhibits
USA, New Zealand
International Turned Objects Show
Out of the Woods