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Robert Wuthnow

The Visibility of the Invisible: Creative Spirituality

In her brilliant new book, The Art of Arts: Rediscovering Painting, Anita Albus says this about a detail of Jan van Eyck's painting of the Rolin Madonna: "The hidden meaning of the symbol, like everything in the painting, hints at the visibility of the invisible." With this special section, we introduce an occasional series devoted to art and religion, art and spirituality, and the visibility of the invisible.

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 artform, 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. Ranging from four to 20 inches in diameter, some are hemispheric cups with burnished edges and brightly polished interiors; others are perfect spheres, mysteriously hollowed through minuscule openings. They exude what one critic describes as "a serenity, a natural grace and an elegant simplicity," providing what another ...

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