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For anyone who has ever looked at the layered edge of a piece of plywood and thought, Wow, that’s beeyoootiful, this is the show for you. This is also the show for anyone who has ever wondered how far the uses of this versatile material can be stretched.
Ever seen plywood that looks like a piece of limp seaweed?
Nancy Sansom Reynolds’ undulating sculptures, on display at the American Institute of Architects on New York Avenue NW until Nov. 3, culminate a personal plywood odyssey that has been evolving since 1976, when she first began sculpting with the material. “A lot of people think I take plywood and bend it,” she says of her work. Quick tip: “You can’t bend plywood.”
It sure is hard to tell from her sculptures. Reynolds’ 14 abstract plywood wall hangings make plywood seem as thin and flexible as ribbon, and the pieces range in appearance from huge 8-foot twists to small, delicate seashell-like shapes. The formstinted with aniline dye in subtle reds, yellows, blues, and brownsseem to grow plantlike out of the walls they hang on, reflecting the slow, organic process through which they are made.
“It’s just laminated plywoodsheets of three-eighths-inch shop-grade plywood, the heavy utility construction stuff,” Reynolds says, describing her medium. “It chips easily. Chunks fall out of it. It’s hard to work withbut that’s what I like, because it’s impossible to control.”
In what Reynolds calls a “ceramic-pot-coil method,” she cuts curves into numerous slabs of plywood by using a scroll saw, then glues the flat layers together and grinds them down to a smooth surfacesometimes as thin as one-thirty-second of an inch. This gives the plywood unearthly folds and ripples. Her White OH!, for example, has edges that swoop out to slightly resemble a human ear, even to the point of conveying the luminous glow of cartilage when light shines through it. “I start by drawing it from the inside out…mimicking growth, a sort of concentric growth like a leaf, or a natural form,” says Reynolds.
As a child in Cumberland, Md., Reynolds would fill sketchbooks with drawings of plants and leaves. “These are at the root of my art formpardon the pun,” she says. “Then, really, landscapes influenced it a lot. I lived in L.A. for 10 years and [spent time] driving out into the Southwest and those beautiful undulating hills. My art has a real topographical quality to it.”
Reynolds worked as a graphic designer and a printing manager for 17 years in California, before moving to the Washington area with her husband, a graphics editor at USA Today. Four years ago, Reynolds began teaching design at Montgomery College and the University of Maryland, College Park. Like so many artists, she worked on her art during her spare time. “This year, I have a lot of shows coming up, and I sold a lot last year, so I took a big leap,” she says. She recently quit teaching and now hopes to support herself solely through her art.
“I really enjoy being in the studio. That’s the only time I’m truly calm,” says Reynolds. “It requires a huge amount of patience, and it requires that you let the plywood define itself. It’s the other part of art that is difficult: getting shows, sending slides out, that sort of thing.” Robin Bingham