Sculptors branch out with driftwood

They see the potential in a tumbled-over, dried-out, gnarly piece of wood kicked up on a beach by the tide, or found in a pile of rotting cedar in a high mountain pass.

They're driftwood artists, and don't let them hear you call them wood carvers. Rather than carving a block of wood into a representational object, they find their wood and clean, sand, shape and burnish it, the result usually an abstraction streaked with natural wood tones.

Their work will be on display during the Northwest Driftwood Artists' 40th annual Driftwood Sculpture Show on Saturday and Sunday at Country Village in Bothell.

The show will feature 100 sculptures as well as smaller treasures, such as jewelry, in the second-floor Courtyard Hall. Attendees will be able to vote on awards.

Don't expect to see hippies in dreadlocks there. This abstract, sculptural art form — achieved without cutting or nailing — is largely dominated by women. They teach and take driftwood-art classes, usually at senior centers, from Lynnwood to Tacoma, Seattle to the Eastside.

"The wood talks to me. You just have to let the wood speak to you," Lillian Kenison of Kirkland said as her pieces were being judged recently before the upcoming show.

A piece of alder root at Lake Keechelus spoke to her one day, and she estimated she spent between 200 and 300 hours transforming it into the finished piece, "Acceptance," which resembles nothing so much as the intricacies of Kenison's imagination.

The association's founder, Lucile Worlund, set the standards as an art form when she created the group in 1963.

She even lent her name to one of the most accepted restoration techniques: LuRon. Named after herself and her son Ron, it's a natural finish that's a mixture of beeswax and turpentine.

The driftwood artists use it only after many hours working with a small drill to scrape away dead wood and shape the remaining hardwood. Scraping is the most important step, Jo Marsh of Redmond said. "It will squeak like chalk on a chalkboard, which is music to us because that means you've got to the hardwood," she said.

While this step may seem tedious, driftwood artists said they take some pleasure in it.

"I put the ballgame on, start going, and it's good therapy," said Lois Karr at the Redmond Senior Center.

Driftwood artists then usually sand and burnish. Burnishing brings up more color and natural oils and also closes off the wood cells. The result is often a rich mahogany.

The aesthetic is beginning to fetch buyers. The Willows Lodge in Woodinville, for example, bought two of the artists' sculptures: Tom Hager's "Northwest Spirit" and Kenison's "Quinault Rainmaker."

Hager and his wife, Mary Louise Hager, teach at the Lynnwood and Northshore senior centers.

Field trips are at least as important as the classroom instruction.

Art merges with the thrill of the hunt as folks pore over shorelines, forests, hiking trails, clear-cuts and dried-up reservoirs.

"You never take a walk the same way again," Marsh said.

The driftwood artists never met a knothole they didn't like.

"We work with the wood that survives out in the forest," Tom Hager said. "Mother Nature has left the skeleton of the tree for us to discover and find what pattern she has hidden in the wood."

Karr, who teaches all over the state, expressed some anguish that those patterns would remain hidden if driftwood artists didn't teach and proselytize.

As recently as five or six years ago, driftwood artists were facing extinction, she said, though there's since been a resurgence.

"My real concern is teaching so we can pass it on."

J. Patrick Coolican: 206-464-3315 or

Driftwood show

Northwest Driftwood Artists celebrates its 40th anniversary with a sculpture show Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Courtyard Hall at Country Village, 23712 Bothell Highway in Bothell. For more information on driftwood art or the show, go to or call 425-883-7141. Admission is free.