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Volume 26, Number 4 — April 2019

Turning Wood into Art: Bill Tillson

A knotty vase by Bill Tillson of Kingsport, Tenn.
A knotty vase by Bill Tillson of Kingsport, Tenn.
Additional photos below »

Hand-Turned Artistry


Bill Tillson has been interested in woodworking since childhood when he was allowed to explore his grandfather's workshop. "He always had a project of some sort in the works and didn't mind that I helped or built something right alongside of him," Tillson recalls.

"In the absence of PlayStations, wood and trees held a special fascination for me. They were the source of endless hours of discovery and entertainment. Whether climbing the tallest tree I could find or creating everything from a go-cart to a bow-and-arrow, wood was the primary creative outlet that followed me into my adulthood."

Today wood turning is Tillson's number one hobby, and he spends all his free time transforming wood into works of art. He creates bowls, plates, goblets, vases, and more — and most of it looks like pottery instead of polished wood.

Tillson says, "One of the attractions I have with wood is the discovery of beauty that is hidden deep beneath the rough surface. It lends itself to shape and sculpture that is unique to its medium. I find that I am able to express myself artistically while uncovering the beauty of each individual piece of wood. Each one is different and special. I'm constantly amazed at the never-ending designs and beauty that I find. Wood is forgiving. If there is a mistake or an odd grain pattern that developed somewhere along its growth, it only serves to enhance the piece and give it character. It has become the perfect outlet for the frustrated artist I have living deep down inside of me."

He signs his creations on the bottom, identifying the type of wood and where it came from. In addition, he usually etches a tree or some type of scene on bottom "just because I enjoy doing it," he says. "For example, a heart on a tree will contain the name of the piece or the names of a couple. It's a nice way to personalize a piece for someone or a way to identify the piece. I always try to make the piece meaningful to the owner or potential buyer."

Tillson continues, "There is a component of attachment and human sentiment that is connected with wood, or should I say trees. There is a deep sense of satisfaction that comes from taking a piece of an individual's history — "I grew up playing in that tree' or "we planted that Christmas tree when I was only eight years old' — and creating a beautiful vase or bowl for the owners that they can look at and remember with warmth and pride. Wood connects us with history. I've created pieces for individuals from family trees that have become priceless to them, and it's hard to explain the pleasure and satisfaction I receive from those times. You can't get those feelings from a piece of glass or painting."

Tillson's work may be seen at The Gallery of Local Artists in Kingsport, Tenn., and at the Martha Washington Gallery in Abingdon, Va.

— Robert Sproll: Artisan Woodworking

Topics: Art, Crafts

Knots in the wood give this vase by Tillson character.

Silver maple bowl

Bill Tillson's work is available at two area galleries. Shown, from left, are vases and bowls made from sweet gum, silver maple, and spalted maple. Photo courtesy of the Martha Washington Gallery in Abingdon, Va.

Maple vase

Closeup view

Tillson's signature on maple wood.

Tillson's signature on a sweet gum piece.