Friday, 02 December 2016 09:48

Collaborating with the Wood: Kate Joyce


Woman standing in a purple blazer, shirt and black pants, facing the camera with her hand on the top of a sculpture, in a small gallery of her work.
Kate Joyce
 is an expert woodworker, furniture designer, and artist. Unifying all her work is a deep and careful attention to wood, her material of choice.

“I feel like I’m collaborating with the wood,” Joyce said of the artistic method she has pioneered, of carving into the “rivers of grain” in the wood’s surface. Joyce then paints into those channels, creating what she calls “textural drama” that emphasizes the fluid imagery in the wood.

The effect ranges from the vivid and striking, as in her fiery “wood paintings,” to the extremely subtle. More than a few visitors to Joyce’s studio, in the Mine Safety Appliance building in Point Breeze, have remarked upon viewing one of her tables or shelves that they’ve never seen wood quite like that.

Photograph of a handmade wood wardrobe with multiple shelves and drawers.Joyce refined the technique while working on a wardrobe for a client. The client provided a range of colors he’d like her to work in, and Joyce drew up some samples of what the cabinet’s exteriors might look like. A few of these samples remain in her studio, a reminder of where the technique originated.

At first I’d paint and then sand it down, then paint it again, and at first I thought, ‘I hate this,’” said Joyce. But she kept at it, watching the subtle changes in the color and texture of the wood. “And I'd end up loving it. That’s where I’m collaborating with the wood. I’m pulling out the grain with color, not obliterating it by painting over the grain.

She has used the technique in her own work, which she has shown at the Borelli-Edwards galleries in Lawrenceville. One series of wood paintings, “Lengthwise A River,” depict riverscapes using the grain of poplar boards. Another series, “Crosswise An Island,” show islands in a river.

Two vertical panels of wood that have been stained and painted to bring out their original wood grain.
The titles are lines from “Behold the Wood,” a poem by the Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson that Joyce etched into a piece of wood that hangs in her studio.

Joyce took sculpture classes while an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, but at the urging of a famous furniture designer, she traveled to Switzerland to undergo a grueling apprenticeship with the Blatters, a multi-generational Swiss family woodworking business. 

Wood paintings are just one facet of Joyce’s work as an artist. Her environment at the Mine Safety Appliance building, where she has had a studio for the past three and a half years, provides her with inspiration in the form of found objects that artists and craftspeople in neighboring studios set out, free to take.

A waist-high table made out of wood and old pulley parts. Next to it is a smaller, triangular table made out of wood.“Pulley Pedestal Table,” a mahogany table fashioned from a found pulley, was part of the recent Re:New Festival’s local juried show. And “Tractor Prie Dieu” was fashioned from white oak and the grille of an antique Case tractor.

A corner of her studio space is occupied by doors, antique wooden pieces, and assorted other objects she’s collected but has not yet figured out what to do with. Since her gallery show, several people have given Joyce objects to work with, such as the women who brought her several pieces from an old piano.

Joyce was also recently commissioned to contribute a piece to “A Second Home,” an installation at the Mattress Factory. She created a chair from two salvaged headboards, which she meticulously joined together at an angle.

Joyce’s flourishing artistic career has come as a surprise to her.

“I moved to Pittsburgh to retire,” she said of the decision to relocate to Pittsburgh in 2011 from Seattle, where in 1980 she founded the still-functioning NW Gallery of Fine Woodworking with five fellow woodworkers. In 1985 Joyce joined Davidson Galleries, where she quickly rose to become the gallery’s director. She also worked as an art acquisitions consultant, helping the Seattle University School of Law acquire more than 80 pieces for new buildings.

During the entirety of her successful career as a woodworker and designer, gallery director, and art consultant, Joyce wished she could focus on her own artwork.

“I always said, ‘I want to do sculpture,’” Joyce said. “I envied the artists I worked with because they weren’t confined by any specifications.”

“Doors make themselves available,” she said. “It’s up to you to walk through those doors.”

“There are just so many opportunities and exhibitions, peer groups, and tremendous resources in Pittsburgh,” Joyce went on. “The interconnectivity here is really exciting.”

Adam Reger is a writer, editor, and teacher.


“Wardrobe System” by Kate Joyce. Polychromed poplar, aromatic cedar, and steel.

“Fire #1” and “Fire #2” by Kate Joyce. Polychromed poplar demonstrating Joyce’s method of carving into the wood’s grain and painting in its channels.

“Pulley Pedestal Table” by Kate Joyce. Carved mahogany and found pulley, recently show in the Re:New Festival’s recent juried show of local artists.


Published in The Arts Blog