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Sleight Of Hand: These Sculptures Of Draped Cloth Are Made Of Wood

Artist and woodworker Tom Eckert magically transforms hard material into fluid compositions.

The success of a magic trick depends on its presentation. The audience knows that a rabbit can’t actually teleport from the inside of a top hat, but it wants to go along for the ride anyway. Essential to selling the trick is the showmanship and flair that obscure the choreography behind the legerdemain. An easy way to do that? Use a cape or veil.

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For artist Tom Eckert, the veil is the illusion. For years, Eckert has been carving exquisite wood sculptures that push the limits of the material. They feature props such as a book, playing cards, and plates that are draped in delicate flowing sheets. But, hold the applause–the sheets themselves are actually made of finely wrought wood.

Eckert’s works have been called hyper-realistic for a reason. The undulating “sheets” are painstakingly crafted to capture the thinness and elegant folds of cloth. The wood is whittled down until it’s translucent enough to reveal the objects buried underneath. The surface of the wood glistens with the sheen of real silk.

Even so, Eckert’s set pieces are arranged in ways that are more imaginative and artful than “realistically” bound to the laws of gravity. The would-be cloth supports far heavier objects, such as stones and a bowling ball, in impossible poses that manage to be both gestural and structural. Eckert describes the acrobatic compositions as “plastic”–not a property you’d ascribe to something as seemingly stiff and dry as wood.

It takes much work and a tremendous amount of time–Eckert estimates around 200 hours per sculpture–to render the wood planks in such expressive terms. As he tells Co.Design, the process is extensive and begins with a “mental image” of how the sculptural components will be arranged: “From that, I assemble a model that I can work from. This “model” is a combination of actual objects–real cloth, real fruit, real book, etc.”

As Eckert gradually reduces the material “chip by chip,” the forms begin to emerge with each successive stage. “From this model, I draw to make templates (patterns) that can be traced onto the wood and then band-sawed to rough shapes. These shapes are then glued together (laminated) to produce the structure of the carving.”

The carving is undertaken using traditional tools, Eckert says, though he isn’t averse to electric machinery. Once the wood has been significantly formed and begins to resemble cloth, Eckert switches over to rifflers, which give him better control over the details. He then sands the wood until it’s perfectly smooth. Once he finishes the final step–painting the pieces in pearl-whites or reflective blacks–the piece is complete.

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The finished sculptures leave you with a sense of mystery, just as a well-delivered magic trick would. It’s as if Eckert had charmed the objects upwards into the air and had frozen them there. Eckert says that even if you know what they’re actually made of, the realism of the individual pieces add up to a successful visual deception. “Hopefully and intentionally, you are fooled, tricked into thinking you are seeing something other than wood and paint,” he says.

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About the author

Sammy is a writer, designer, and ice cream maker based in New York. He once lived in China before being an editor at Architizer.

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