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This story by Pat Summers was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on April 29, 1998. All rights reserved. A change was made on September
Is It Rustic, Or Is It Magic?
Tall and reserved, at least on first meeting, with
an accent that gives away his New England origins, David (not
please!) Robinson gains animation talking about wood and what he does
His large landscape structures, including settees, arbors, gates,
and gazebos, are fixtures in places as far-flung as the Appalachian
Trail, Central Park, a Colorado ranch, and garden shows around the
country. From his studio in an industrial neighborhood in Trenton,
Robinson also turns out beds and headboards, chairs and benches. His
rustic furniture is both sturdy, as might be expected, and fanciful,
as might not be; sometimes it’s organic looking, sometimes geometric.
Invariably, it looks natural in its setting.
Robinson’s work, in all its variety, goes on exhibit at the Stony
Brook Gallery of the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association in
Pennington from May 1 to June 13. The show opens with a reception
on Friday, May 1, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. A couple of the woodworker’s
sidelines will also be on view: his one-of-a-kind bird houses (more
aptly called bird mansions); and his "fine" or unrustic
often made with dark Brazilian wood.
"Rustic" can mean a range of different things. But for
think Adirondack. Think twig furniture. And think "functional
art" — one way Robinson’s work has been described. He uses
three or four basic woods, sometimes in combination, for his outdoor
pieces; and he may leave the bark on or remove it, or both. "Once
it’s outside, what you see is the silhouette, not the details,"
he says. Furthermore, "all woods eventually turn silver from the
Although the Victorian era is often associated with rustic furniture,
Robinson says "rustic" is a universal concept that applies
to many styles and time periods. Today’s range of rustic furniture
encompasses sandblasted and distressed pieces, as well as bent willow
and log constructions. It all has to do with the level of refinement
desired. For instance, a rustic arbor in his shop, soon to be
in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, could have been left bark-covered or made
from milled lumber. That’s the range.
Lilac, rhododendron, and mountain laurel may not sound like key
of "rustic" furniture. But they are. Gnarled, curled, and
twisted branches from these shrubs add interest to small sections,
such as the backs of chairs. And Robinson adds a touch of finesse
to chair seats that few others do: he curves them, to be more
and accommodating to the human form. To appreciate the difference,
try sitting on a straight-slat chair without a cushion.
It all starts in the yard behind Robinson’s workshop,
an old red brick foundry off Clinton Street in Trenton, within sight
of the projected sports arena. Red cedar logs, about 12 feet long,
some with bark, some without, lie on the ground. Elsewhere in the
yard, curvy limbs of Osage orange, with sinuous and striped bark
lean against the building. Bins of wood slices and chunks, and bunches
of crooked bent twigs complete the picture.
This is Robinson’s raw material. Some of it comes from occasional
day-trips to Columbia County, New York, where he acquires the cedar.
He picks up other pieces trimmed from trees or gardens, and even from
vacant lots near his shop. "Character" is what he’s after:
the uniquely bent pieces, and those with burls and other
For instance, seen in cross-section, the red cedar logs often have
asymmetrical, clover-like shapes, the result of deep, vertical grooves
in the trunks.
Pointing to the cut end of a cedar log, Robinson differentiates
heartwood (at the core of the tree) and shorter-lived sapwood (on
the outside). And for his purposes, the more heartwood the better.
He knows which woods easily release their bark, and when, and whether
it’s best removed through power hosing. All this goes into
memories for tomorrow," as Robinson describes his mission.
He regards his finished products as "kind of magic,"
that from humble origins many of his pieces live out their days in
the lushest gardens of the poshest private estates. Owner since 1986
of Natural Edge, a full-service design and build firm, Robinson works
from both his own designs and those of other designers and landscape
Robinson makes his low-tech-looking furniture for the 21st century
in 21st century ways. He unapologetically uses modern tools and
asserting he’d be crazy not to, and he takes advantage of wood
too. "Scientists have been developing these treatments for wood,
so why not use them?," he says. "For awhile, I didn’t want
to have to breathe in this stuff, and I’d say wood’s naturally
But it does help the wood, so I use it, specifically where there’s
Reportedly hesitant to describe himself as an artist, Robinson
between work that’s "art" and pieces that result from his
just being a contractor — "a man with a chain saw, trying
to make money." Even so, earlier this month he spent a week as
"artist-in-residence" at Princeton’s Johnson Park School.
There he showed some 400 elementary schoolers how to make their own
"cedar men," which will figure in a school event later this
spring. His Stony Brook exhibition includes a two-session workshop
on how to build a rustic garden gate.
Aware that some parts of the trees he uses could be put to better
use than, for instance, firewood bundles, Robinson says if he were
ever to receive a grant, he’d use the time to explore ways of using
the whole tree — bark, chips, sawdust, and so on. For now, his
ongoing projects keep him too busy to do much more than look ruefully
into a barrel of trimmings that he’ll probably throw away eventually.
(He welcomed a reason to save cedar pieces for his residency at
Robinson was born in New Hampshire in 1953, one of three children.
He earned an industrial arts degree from San Francisco State
in 1979, and for about four years worked with a San Francisco
sculptor, working mostly in concrete. Here he met his wife, Abby
an architect, who now helps with the family business. They are the
parents of a son and daugher, ages 6 and 12.
Returning to the East Coast, Robinson worked with the New York City
Parks Department, where he gained familiarity with rustic structures,
helping to restore masonry bridges, stairs, walls, and gazebos in
Central Park, ultimately becoming director of restoration there. This
experience was a turning point in his career path, prompting him to
move into rustic wood-working exclusively and to start his own
Since then, Robinson’s work has been featured in picture books and
periodicals, and installed at numerous public sites, from the Biblical
Garden of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and the Central Park
Children’s Petting Zoo, in New York, to private homes and gardens
all over. Well, almost all over. Asked if the family’s home in
is stocked with her husband’s furniture, Abby says, "We’re a
like the shoemaker’s children. But I do have a spectacular dining
— Pat Summers
Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, Pennington, 609-737-7592.
Opening reception for the exhibition of rustic furniture. Show runs
to June 13. Free. Friday, May 1, 7 to 8:30 p.m.
hours are Wednesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.
to 4 p.m.
31 Titus Mill Road, Pennington, 609-737-7592. With woodworker David
Robinson. Second session is Saturday, June 6, at 9 a.m. Preregister.
$60. Wednesday, May 27, 7:30 p.m.
609-799-6706. "Here Comes the Sun" featuring paintings by
Gail Bracegirdle, Ruth Crown, Jim Grabowski, Ed Hicks, Phil Meade,
Bill Blank, and Sydney Anne Neuwirth, with sculpture by Stacie
To June 13. Gallery hours are Tuesdays to Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6
p.m.; Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; and by appointment.
new gallery specializing in the art of children’s folklore and
Russian-born illustrator Gennady Spirin shows 40 works from his
books. To May 2. Gallery hours are Tuesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5
p.m., and by appointment.
609-452-7800. "The Creative Lens," photographs by Robert A.
Parker. The gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. To May
Nassau, 609-921-6748. "Practical Photographers: The Rose Family
Studio," images from the awesome collection of 10,000 glass plate
negatives, dating from shortly after the Civil War to the early 1950s.
The Rose Studio was founded in Princeton in 1873 by Royal Hill Rose
whose commercial photography studio stood on Nassau Street through
three generations of family owners, until its closing in 1951. To
December 30. Free. Museum hours are Tuesday to Sunday, noon to 4 p.m.
Street, 609-497-4192. Oil paintings by Etzer Desir. Sales benefit
the Medical Center. To June 18.
Palmer Square, 609-243-9663. A show and sale that benefits the
Education Foundation. Curated by Marsha Child Contemporary and Pringle
International Art, the show features painting, drawings, prints, and
sculpture by notable emerging artists from more than a dozen
To May 23. Exhibit hours are Thursday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.;
Sundays 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
609-921-2330. Alumnae Art Show, works by 22 graduates, to May 10.
Gallery hours are Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Lambertville artist Annelies van Dommelen shows oils, watercolors,
and monotypes. To May 8.
Digital Artist: Art, Abstraction, and Algorithms," a digital art
show featuring Charlotte Sommer-Landgraf, Manfred Mohr, and Roman
Verostko, each a pioneer in the field and all of whom develop their
own software programs to make their work. To May 16. Gallery hours
are Wednesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
in the Art and Painting of Late Imperial China," a world-class
landscape exhibition featuring works from the permanent collection,
the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and private
Also "Central Europe in Princeton: Old Master Drawings by Flemish
and German Artists from the Collection of the Art Museum." Both
shows to June 14.
609-258-4790. M.F. Husain’s "Chine Colles: Where Gods Roam."
Born in 1915, Husain is one of India’s best-known contemporary
His innovative lithographs, with Chinese rice paper overlays, explore
world religions, Indian mythology, human emotions, and nature. To
"Sing Whatever is Well Made," an exhibition of Irish poetry,
celebrating the library’s acquisition of the Leonard Milberg ’53
of Irish Poetry, comprising more than 1,000 printed works by 50 poets.
To September 20.
Year-end show of student work. To May 6. Gallery hours are Monday
through Friday, noon to 3 p.m.; also Thursday 7 to 9 p.m.; and Sunday,
1 to 3 p.m.
Street, New Brunswick, 732-846-5777. Victor Vasarely Retrospective,
an exhibition by the father of Op Art — "the pop of op"
— and pioneer of the development of every kind of optical device
for the creation of the new art of visual illusion. $2 donation. To
September 27. Museum hours are Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.;
Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m.
732-257-4340. An outdoor contemporary sculpture gallery. New additions
to the stable of 85 sculptors include Sara D’Alessandro, Neal
Ralph Greco, Barbara Harrison, Cornelia Kavanaugh, Pat Lange, Jane
Schneider, and Donna Weiser. The outdoor venue remains open through
streets, New Brunswick, 908-932-7237. "Paul Robeson: Artist and
Citizen," a major show in observance of the centennial of the
birth of the Princeton-born scholar, athlete, singer, movie star,
and political activist. The multi-disciplinary show features 150 items
on loan from collections around the world. By placing Robeson’s life
within the context of American history during the first half of this
century, the exhibit interprets major themes of social, cultural,
and intellectual history. To July 31.
Also, "Riding the Wave: The Japanese Influence on the Depiction
of the Sea and Water in Western Art," to July 5. "Russia as
Seen by Foreign Travelers" to July 31.
Museum hours are Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday
and Sunday, Noon to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays and major holidays.
$3 adults; free for members, children under 18, and Rutgers students,
faculty, and staff. Free on the first Sunday of each month.
Line Road, 609-252-6275. "Art Heals the Spirit: Creative Center
for Women with Cancer," a show of work by 21 professional women
artists with cancer. To May 25.
Founded in 1994, the Creative Center believes that while "medicine
may cure the body, art heals the spirit." Through workshops in
the visual, performing, and literary arts, it cultivates a creative
outlet and a community of support for women with cancer. Gallery hours
are Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday to 7 p.m.; weekends
& holidays, 1 to 5 p.m.
800 Scudders Mill Road, Plainsboro, 609-282-1281. Newly dedicated
outdoor sculpture "Girl Chasing Butterflies" by Kristen
In the gallery, works by Louise Nevelson, Helen Frankenthaler,
Bartlett, Nancy Graves, and Pat Steir. Open seven days a week, 10
a.m. to 4 p.m. To be directed to the gallery, sign in at main
609-895-7307. "Lenses & Light: Personal Perspectives," a joint
exhibition of photographs by the Princeton Photography Club and the
Princeton-Trenton Chapter of the Ennis Beley Project. Show continues
to July 17. Gallery hours are Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free.
The Ennis Beley project, a national program that teaches the art and
business of photography to teens and preteens, began in this area
in 1997, supported by Young Audiences and HomeFront. It is named for
a young South Central Los Angeles teen with a gift for photography
who was slain in a gang shooting.
Taylor Oughton & Peter Petraglia. To May 3. Gallery hours are Friday
through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Joanne Augustine’s floral watercolors, and Pamela Malabre Miller’s
pastel portraits, still life, and landscapes are featured. To May
31. Gallery hours are Wednesday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
609-397-3349. "Body Language," an exhibition of portraits
by the Lambertville artist Paul Matthews. A graduate of Cooper Union,
his subject is people, their relationships, attitudes, and psyches.
To May 3. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; Sunday, noon
to 5 p.m. Closed Tuesday.
609-292-6464. Mel Leipzig Retrospective, a major retrospective show
by the Trenton realist painter and MCCC faculty member featuring more
than 60 works made from 1950 to the present. To June 28.
Family, friends, and everyday life are Leipzig’s central themes. He
does not offer up allegory, political agenda, or myth. Instead he
presents the viewer with domestic genre scenes, images of people and
moments that are unseen, ignored, or considered commonplace.
"My paintings are done by working directly from life. I never
work from photographs," says Leipzig. "I feel that the use
of photography would dilute my feelings and undermine my
His models include his wife, Mary Jo, children Francesca and Joshua,
as well as students and friends.
Also an exhibition of 12 sculptures by Walt Swales who teaches at
Montclair State. He works with welded steel and rock to create minimal
works that draw upon universal symbols and signs. To May 10.
Also "New Jersey’s Dinosaur Turnpike: Treks Through New Jersey’s
Piedmont" uses maps, fossil specimens, minerals, and models to
explore the rise of dinosaurs to become the largest and most
animals on Mesozoic Earth. Two hundred million years ago, deeply
in the interior of a giant supercontinent, New Jersey was a crossroads
for early dinosaur migration to and from such far-off regions as
Renowned for its fossils, the red sediment of the Piedmont contain
footprints of early dinosaurs as well as fossilized evidence of other
Museum hours are Tuesday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.; Sunday,
noon to 5 p.m.
Bronze sculptures, paintings, and porcelain by Hungary’s Laszlo
whose works can be found in the Vatican, the Smithsonian, and the
White House. Also bronzes by Charles McCollough, and paintings by
Karen Pauline and Janet Purcell. Hours are Tuesday to Saturday, 10
a.m. to 7:30 p.m, Sundays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Road, 609-921-3272. "Fact and Fiction," a show of opposites
featuring nationally exhibited artists Stephen Guild, Ayshe Ozbekhan,
Madelaine Shellaby, and Leyla Spencer. In the Upstairs Gallery,
Artists Group members’ show features Jane Adriance, Connie Gray, and
Darlene Prestbo. Both shows to May 2. Gallery hours are Tuesdays to
Fridays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sundays, noon to 4 p.m.
908-725-2110. Work by 30 student printmakers and photographers from
Middlesex County College and William Patterson University. To May
15. Gallery hours are Wednesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and
Saturday, 1 to 4 p.m.
206, 609-924-1875. Lorraine Skidmore, a consultant to corporate and
private art collections for 15 years, opens a gallery space with a
show of new works by Patricia Davis-Ganek. To May 8. Gallery hours
are Thursday to Saturday, 1 to 4 p.m., and by appointment.
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