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The Roberts Studio

by Reed Carpenter

June 13, 2011

The Roberts Studio sits atop a hill five and half miles northwest of Sevierville, Tennessee. Judy Gale Roberts, perhaps America’s most acclaimed intarsia artist, runs a school and gallery here in a T-shaped building fronted by a porch lined with rocking chairs and the treasured finds from years of yard sales. Above the door, as you enter the building, hangs one of her early intarsia panels illustrative of the distance she has traveled as an artist since she and her father began working with intarsia in the late1970’s. At that time they did not know the art form had a name; they called them wood murals.

Intarsia, an ancient art, reached a zenith in early Renaissance Italy where flat wooden pictorial pieces decorated the cathedral in Siena, and were prominent in Orvieto and Florence. The Roberts’ early work, by contrast, further developed the art with form and texture prominently taking advantage of light playing off shaped wood pieces as well as the innate color and grain of the wood itself and in the process established a revival of the art form.

Judy Roberts’ parents were Houston, Texas-based artists and in the 1970’s she abandoned studying sculpture in an art school to work with her father on large wood art commissions in Houston. Judy and her father developed the construction techniques for these pieces from scratch. Many of the early works were based on her father’s designs and were cut using a bandsaw rather than the scroll saws more commonly used today. Their work was identified later by others as intarsia. Because of her instrumental work and design talents Judy became one of the first inductees into the Woodworkers Hall of Fame.

Because of my good fortune in a drawing last August at Swede’s Workshop, I had the opportunity in early May of this year to take a second class from Judy Gale Roberts in her Tennessee studio. Judy teaches a series of three progressively more sophisticated three-day classes on intarsia at the studio and because I’m still early in my development I decided to start with the beginning class. To some degree this repeated a great deal of the material that we covered last August when Judy taught a class in Swede’s Workshop, but repetition reinforces good habits. The class last August compressed the three-day class into a day and a half and required us to forgo the first day on sawing. This class in early May was worth every foot of the 950 mile drive I made to the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee.

First, Judy and Steve, her marketing assistant, had great things to say about the class organized last August by NorthStar Scrollers. Steve said it was the best organized of the classes they have done thus far. They were pleased with both the facilities and crowd we provided them at Jefferson High School as well as at the class at Swede’s. They look forward to working with us again. At the class this past May memories of that class at Swede’s workshop came flowing back along with many new insights. Here are a few of the things I learned on my first day at the Roberts Studio.

In the studio along with me were seven other students, two assistants and Judy. During the first day of the class, after introductions, we covered working with patterns, wood selection, preparation and sawing. Judy introduced the project we would be working on, a duck, and then outlined the process we would follow. She teaches by introducing a topic to the entire group of students, showing how she would complete it and then sends you back to your individual work station to complete it yourself. This usually took a few minutes to a half hour and then we would reconvene as a group to go through the next topic. Watching and doing was a wonderful method to reinforce a technique. That first day provided me with a number of new insights on wood preparation, applying patterns and setting up in front of the saw.

Although this is not new to the many experienced members of the NorthStar Scrollers, it bears repeating that matching the right grain pattern and shade of wood to go with a pattern goes a long way in determining the quality of an intarsia piece. Beyond selecting an appropriate shade and color, the piece you select had better be flat or adhering it to the backer board may be difficult. This admonition by Judy led me to ask how she was using one of the pieces of equipment in her studio, the ‘Sandflee’ made by R.J.R. Studios.

Judy said she uses it in preference to a thickness planer for flattening boards. She explained that while thickness planers will smooth a board to a specified thickness, they will not eliminate the warp in a board. When a warped board goes through the planer it is pressed flat on its way through but it will deform after passing through the planer. Using a drum sander, such as the Sandflee allows you to end up with a perfectly flat piece of material at the proper thickness. You can also accomplish similar results with a jointer, but a drum sander allows you to work with a wider board at a lesser, but not insignificant, cost.

When Judy was in Minnesota last August she mentioned that one of her students had recommended a device used by ‘crafters’ to apply a pattern to a piece of material. Since then she as adapted its use to intarsia. In the class, each student’s work station was supplied with a Xyron model 9 School laminator. The Xyron model 9 will apply re-positionable adhesive to patterns up to 9 inches in width which can then be applied to wood. The machine comes with a glue cartridge but it is not the re-positionable type. Judy recommends ordering the #AT 906-40 Acid-free Repositionable Adhesive cartridge. Xyron also makes another 9 inch model, the model 900, and a twelve inch model (model number 1200). The Xyron is available from Michael’s and other craft stores but Judy’s staff researched suppliers and found good prices at ‘Professional Binding Products’ online at http://www.probinding.com (1-800-443-7557). Pro Binding’s ID number for the Xyron model 9 School laminator is #33334-00

The same cartridges fit both Xyron 9 inch machines. While more expensive, the use of these machines eliminates much of the mess inherent with the use of spray adhesive or glue sticks. Prices do vary, so check around for promotions before you buy.

One of the things you notice when you see Judy’s work in her gallery is her reliance on one primary species of wood, Western Red Cedar. She explained that it is one of the least expensive woods available and its range of shading provides a palate most useful in providing contrast in a piece of art. When she goes to the lumber yard she looks not for the clearest piece of wood but rather the ones with the most interesting grain patterns and shading. These are often the least desirable for other purposes but the most useful for intarsia. She values most those pieces with the darkest shades, which she said are the most difficult to find.

On the first day Judy had two volunteer assistants available to help us as we began to saw out our ducks. One was Dr. Pete Ricci an Ohio-based retired orthopaedic surgeon. Pete, as everyone called him, just completed his 400 th intarsia project and he provided many helpful tips on sawing techniques. But his real value, for me at least, was his role as my posture consultant. Pete took one look at me hunched over my scroll saw with my head cocked to the side to get a clear view of the blade and then completely changed the way that I address the instrument. I later told him his advice was worth its weight in gold. Here is what he did.

The saws at the Roberts Studio were all set up with the tables level. Each of the saws was equipped with a lighted magnifying lens. By contrast, I work at my saw at home with the back legs raised so that I am looking at the table tilted up toward me. First, Pete elevated my stool and moved me as close to the saw as possible. When I say moved me up, I mean way up. He also moved a box under my feet for the foot switch because my feet could no longer touch the floor. I now found that I looked straight down at the blade, the best view I’ve ever had! Sitting up I now found that my neck and shoulder muscles were much more relaxed, which was exactly what he wanted to see. It’s nice to have a orthopaedic surgeon handy when you are going to be sawing for seven hours. I recommend it highly.

That was the first day. Next month we will cover the last two days of the class.