Richard Altenhofen  |  Wood  |  Phoenix, AZ

Artist Statement

My love and appreciation for wood goes back to my roots growing up in Oregon. My father was a sheet metal worker, but he did a lot of woodworking around the house and I learned much from him. But I never really got serious about woodworking until much later in life when I could afford the power tools that are required to do the precision work I wanted. 

The furniture that I built is much appreciated by my family members. The Shaker style dresser with hand-cut dovetails will become family heirlooms. While I enjoy making furniture, I did not feel that I could make a living doing it, especially in Phoenix. The financial cost to enter the market was too high, and I just did not have the room in my present home for a production shop. So I looked around for other ways to express my desire to create wooden objects. 

One day I was reading an Arizona Highways catalog and noticed they were advertising pens made from mesquite. That launched me into building a business plan and buying my first lathe. It was a Sherline lathe, actually a small metal-turning lathe. I modified it for making pens. A few market tests and I was confident I had made a good choice. For those of you reading this who have purchased lathes, you know that it does not end there. Making pens led to making wine stoppers which led to making small bowls. And soon I had exceeded the capacity of my little Sherline. Time to buy a bigger lathe! 

My next lathe was a mid-sized lathe made by a company in New Zealand. Now I could make all sorts of objects! And then I got a call from a friend who lives in Tucson. He told me he had a dead ironwood tree on his property and I could have it if I wanted. I had never cut ironwood before. So I showed up with my trusty bow-saw and started sawing on a limb. My friend came out, saw what I was doing, and exclaimed, “Didn’t you bring a chainsaw?” I sheepishly replied that I did not own one. He brought his out and I proceeded to cut down the tree. After I made a few pens out of the wood, I was hooked. This wood was so beautiful. Ironwood displays a reflective property called chatoyance – meaning it reflects sunlight just like Tiger's Eye. Better yet it sold! 

My full-time woodturning career began when my corporate career ended in 2007. I began doing street fairs around Phoenix and the rest of Arizona. And it was not long before I needed yet a bigger lathe. So now I have a full size lathe made by the same New Zealand company and I use it to create everything but pens, for that I still use my Sherline. The lathe is a tool that spins a mounted piece of wood. By applying chisels of various configurations the lathe allows one to take raw logs (firewood to anyone else!) and create useful and decorative items. And although most people think of bowls when they think of a lathe, there are many other objects that can be created, and not all them circular! 

Now I specialize in creating useful and decorative items out of ironwood. This wood only grows in the Sonoran Desert which extends from southern Arizona into northern Mexico. The tree is protected so I rely on private landowners as my source of ironwood. I only cut dead trees. I use other woods too. The Sonoran Desert is also home to other attractive wood species, such as mesquite in many varieties, and palo verde and its cousins. And every time there is a big windstorm here in Phoenix, there are always new species that become available from our urban forest. These are wood species that are imported from other countries for landscape use here, such as weeping acacia from Australia and olive from Europe. 

Lately I have been creating bowls that retain the natural edge of the wood. This is a bit more difficult to create than a straight-lipped bowl, but the extra effort is worth it. The natural edge of the bowls gives them a much richer look. The sapwood always provides a nice contrast to the heartwood which is normally much darker than the sapwood. So what you end up with is nice undulating, contrasting border along the lip of the bowl. Sweet! But as I mentioned before there are many items that can be created on a lathe that are not circular. In the years to come, I plan to explore those shapes. And I hope you will come along on this journey with me.

Q&A with Richard Altenhofen

What process/materials did you use to create your artwork?  My primary tool for creation is a lathe. Most of my pens are created from wood, but I am migrating into metal as a media.

What inspires you to create and what inspires your work?  A pen is such a specific tool that ergonomics take precedence over most other considerations. I take inspiration from the patterns and textures of the woods I use.

If you had to describe your artwork in 5 words or less, what words would you use?  Useful. Attractive. Unique. Reliable. Affordable.

What other artists inspire you?  What's your favorite art work? Grayson Tighe. David Oscarson. Josef Rusnak. Stefan Fink.

What do you want your viewers to know about you as an artist (if anything?)  My customer's satisfaction take precedence over everything.

What's the best advice you've ever been given?  Persevere

What is your favorite artist tool?  My little Sherline lathe. It does everything I've ever asked it to do. In return I only have to provide some occasional maintenance and TLC.

What is your dream project?  A pen made from mammoth tooth. And I'll do it too. But it will violate the last of the 5 words I used to describe my work.

What do you like about your work?  I receive the most pleasure hearing from customers.

How has your practice or process changed over time?  In the beginning (sounds Biblical, doesn't it?) my goal was to make pens. When I purchased a larger lathe, my work expanded into other realms of utilitarian and art objects. A year ago, I decided to return to my roots of making pens. It's been a great journey - one which I have few regrets and many fond memories. But the journey continues...

What memorable responses have you had to your work?  In 2012 I was honored to present one of my desert ironwood natural edge bowls as the Governor's Art Award. One of my customers gave one of my pens as a gift to her brother who is a judge at The Hague. Her brother made a trip to New York and showed my pen in one of the high end pen stores. He needed another cartridge. The owner remarked that my pen was the best handmade pen he had ever seen. Kyrsten Sinema bought one of my pens to present to Japan's ambassador to the United States.

Why art?  It satisfies a deep seated need for me to create.