Peter Dellert has a studied air, a deliberation that is often evident in those who are highly advanced practitioners of a craft. It doesn't seem like reserve so much as care when he gestures toward a sculpture or crosses his arms to study something. He is a craftsman, but in Dellert's case, the craft of furniture-making is only part of the equation. His furniture evidences sculptural concerns, but he also pursues the making of objects that are pure sculpture, without the practicalities that must be addressed in a functional object.
That may be easier for Dellert than for many, because he's self-taught, a guy who's pursued many paths, from studying biology to building boats and apprenticing to a potter. He seems like someone for whom taking action is the way to enlightenment, though it's clear in the way he talks about his sculpture that plenty of thought goes into his processes.
"I think of this as post-industrial, post-apocalyptic detritus," he says, "the stuff we've left behind, morphed into something new."
One of the central pieces of Dellert's current exhibition, Finding Work (in the fourth floor gallery of Holyoke's Open Square, itself a tough place to find), is a welded monolith, a vaguely Vermont-shaped conglomeration of catalytic converter covers Dellert has found on the street and reclaimed. Other works use found objects, and in one case the object is enormous, a corroded old metal door. Dellert's bent for careful craft gets incorporated, too, blooming in unlikely places. The panel which holds the old door is covered with fall leaves, ruddy purple, cut up into small squares and assembled into a pixellated collage.
Such obsessive touches distinguish Dellert's work—he seldom stops at the easy point of placing a found object on a gallery wall and declaring it art. Instead, he works the material for all it's worth, creating something that's an outgrowth of the concentration and precision necessary to furniture-making.
Many of Dellert's sculptures resemble biological forms, and that's no accident. " I thought I would become an oceanographer—Jacques Cousteau was an early hero, and I liked the fact that he was also an early environmentalist," says Dellert. "He got the whole picture. Nature has always been a big part of my life, from growing up in Maine, spending my summers on a lake, in the woods, engrossed in nature every day. Studying biology was a way to look at those interests more closely, literally, sometimes, through a microscope."
He didn't continue in the field, Dellert explains, because he became disenchanted with the state of the post-Vietnam world, and particularly the U.S. That led him to become "a dropout, albeit a smart one," and, on the heels of studying with potter Ron Burke, to his more artistic pursuits.
"Now biology fuels my sculpture in the ideas for the pieces," he says. "Many are pod shapes, shell shapes, nature-inspired, with curves and information in them all derived from the natural world, or the human one. We are part of nature, too."
In addition to those sometimes austere pieces made mostly of wood and metal, Dellert carries the idea of careful crafting to extraordinary ends in a set of works using the pages from old atlases and sheet music. He's undertaken something that must be extremely demanding: portions of the pages are cut into very small strips, then twisted, turned, and otherwise assembled into flowering or scintillating forms. The results seem unassuming at a distance, but the closer you look, the more astonishing they become.
In his furniture-making, Dellert pursues, in some respects, an opposite course. His tables and chairs look like tables and chairs, but many of his wall boxes—cabinets made to hold jewelry or other small items—look, when closed, like matched pieces of rough-cut, varnished wood. Open them up, and they seem more like reliquaries. They hold painted images, and sometimes distinctive objects (a gilded egg, for instance). Though function is primary, the urge toward the more purely artistic is clear.
For Dellert, the relationship between crafting sculpture and furniture is, as he says, "the crux."
"Furniture making came first," he explains, "although I think I made some sculptures when I was a potter, in my 20s, but even then, mostly I made functional pots. But I think some of my ideas were sculptural, even then."
His furniture was "a logical progression from carpentry and custom cabinetry. I took an intensive class at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, made a table using bent laminations and some tricky joinery, and got hooked on the idea of developing my own furniture ideas. That was in 1987."
After landing his work in the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York City in 1995, Dellert took his work to festivals and shows. It got him "some major commissions... and lots of exposure." Enough, in fact, that he stopped doing shows around 2006.
Sculpture had, by then, become part of his portfolio. After residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, Dellert says he was "looking for a new focus. I was single again at 50, had moved into my loft studio in Holyoke, and was ready to dedicate some serious time to exploring new ideas."
That new focus seems to have brought Dellert from being primarily a furniture maker to considering himself more of a sculptor and collagist. "I still make custom furniture pieces and occasionally a spec piece, and I am still selling furniture in galleries [including Lauren Clark Fine Art in Housatonic]," he says. "But I am applying to outdoor sculpture shows every year, all over the country."
Among other scores, he's recently landed a sculpture in the contemporary sculpture show at Chesterwood, the Stockbridge home of sculptor Daniel Chester French, who created The Minute Man in Concord and the sculpture of Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial.
In the end, Dellert is very clear about the difference between his main forms of expression: "The difference for me between making furniture and making sculpture is function," he says.
"Furniture, or good furniture, has to function. My tables work, and I want people to use them every day. My chairs feel good when you sit in them. I would have trouble designing a chair just to impress. My cabinets mostly work, to store things, to use."
On the other hand, "The sculptures have no function other than to be sculptures, to make people look at them, to provoke thought, reflection, to incite conversations about what I might be trying to say. If I can help people to see the connection between art and nature, then I have been successful."
Finding Work: through July 31; closing reception: July 20, 5-7 p.m., Open Square Gallery (fourth floor), Holyoke, dellertfurniture.com.