Visiting Artist, Tom Kealy

Written by Dorrie Higbee on .

We were pleased when Tom Kealy, a highly skilled and accomplished furniture maker, agreed to join us for the Visiting Artist position. This program encourages professional makers to explore new directions in their work. Tom heeded the challenge and decided to depart from his work in functional furniture to explore a sculptural form during his one month with us. Employing his rich knowledge of technical skills and drawing from various inspiration from the natural world and artists’ work in other mediums, Tom set out on his ambitious path.


Visiting Artists share the Jackson Building with other makers in the Fellowship program, and in this case the creative synergy was abundant with David Upfill-Brown and Yuri Kobayashi in the building. It was clear that their combined presence catalyzed a creative interchange on campus. Visits to the building by students, faculty, and staff became daily occurrences to watch the progress of each of their projects. Tom was extremely generous with his time as he explored and created his life-sized form, offering insights into his processes, explaining techniques, and documenting the steps to completion. The three were also briefly joined in the Jackson Building by Aled Lewis, lead instructor of our Nine-month Comprehensive

KealyblogallstarsThe all star crew! From left to right: David Upfill-Brown, Aled Lewis, Tom Kealy, Yuri Kobayashi. Photo by Mark Juliana.

Slated to teach the Chair Making workshop following his stint as a visiting artist, Tom had a hard deadline to complete the piece and submit it for the Faculty show in the Messler Gallery.


KealyblogsquareExploring form and space through sketch, layout, and sample staves. Photos by Tom Kealy.

Kealyblogsquare2Testing form, profile and texture. Photos by Tom Kealy.

What inspired you to explore this form?

Once offered the position of visiting artist at the CFC I knew that I had no intention of designing and making a piece of furniture! I wanted to explore form and texture without the restrictions of it having to be comfortable or practical. I also wanted to try and create a sculptural piece that, if successful, people would connect with in a positive way.  I am not sure why I chose a vessel as the basis for the form, except that it may stem from my long friendship with some highly experienced potters. I have drawn on many influences, potters, basket makers, textures from both nature and artist’s work, and, of course, trees. In particular I have always loved the work of Monica Young, a potter whom I never met, but whose work has always been a favorite of mine.

Kealyblog3Steam bending jigs. Forms for one quarter of the staves needed. Photo by Tom Kealy.

Kealyblog4Some of the lovely partially air dried white ash used to make the Vessel. After machining Tom cut a cove that was the same depth all the way along, but whose width went from narrow to wide 2/3 up then narrow again. This was done first by routing out the bulk of the waste, then with a jig, he used the biscuit jointer, rotating the orientation of the blade as it travelled down the stave. This produced a changing radius coving with a constant depth. Photo by Tom Kealy.

Kealyblogsquare4All 32 staves were steam bent after coving, and then set on the drying jigs. Photo by Tom Kealy.


Kealyblogsquare3Next up was tapering on the adjustable angle jig, through the thicknesser. Some variable angles required, as the vessel is not circular. Photo by Tom Kealy.

Was this an enriching experience as a maker?

The whole experience of working in the fellowship building, alongside David Upfill-Brown and Yuri Kobayashi was so much more energizing than I had expected. However, I was a little nervous to start with. Being the visiting artist working amongst other highly respected designer makers and creative people, I knew that both my strengths and weaknesses would become more apparent.

The support of the school staff, and the positive connections that the three of us had, made for a very special atmosphere of creative energy from which we all benefitted. It was a privilege to experience. There was plenty of blood, sweat and tears at various stages, but the support from those around us carried us through.

Kealyblogsquare7A variety of gluing methods, depending on the number of staves being glued. ‘Sharpened’ spring clamps. Small clamps with angled blocks. Cable ties. And soft padded quick release clamps, themselves cramped together, to adjust their relative angles to get pressure in the correct direction. Photos by Tom Kealy.





 What did you learn during this process?

As ever when working with others, I learnt many useful practical tips. Most significantly, the time spent working on my piece and watching those around me develop their work gave me more confidence in myself. I feel more able to develop and trust my intuitive sense of shape and form whilst continuing to build and draw on my own experience of processes.

Kealyblogsquare6Vessel parts coming together. Planing to fit and lots of scraping.....such a wonderful versatile tool. All the forms and profiles are looking good. Photos by Tom Kealy.Kealyblogsquare15






Kealyblogsquare23Shaping the top with the trusty versatile angle grinder!

Kealyblogsquare18Late night exploration of finish - burnt black or bleached lime waxed. Inside colour decided through trial and error with lots of help from Yuri! Photos by Tom Kealy.





Kealyblogsquare25The final glue up. Photo by Tom Kealy.

How do you feel and think about form and space now that you have worked in this sculptural realm?

Being away from my own workshop and the usual daily distractions of home, it has been a real pleasure to be able to immerse myself 24/7 into designing and making. As my piece developed it was described ‘irreverently’ as a canoe, a sarcophagus, a chrysalis and a seedpod amongst other things, which made me smile as I had no idea what it might represent! I am actually really touched by the degree of positive responses this sculptural vessel, called Affinity, has received. A lot more than I dared hope!  I returned home feeling very fired up by my time at the school, both by the two weeks teaching and the four weeks as visiting artist. I would like, whenever possible, to explore doing more sculptural work, but quite how and when I am not sure yet. So don’t hold your breath.

Kealyblogsquare27Affinity in the Messler Gallery. Photo by Tom Kealy.

KealyblogtallPhoto by Mark Juliana.