Art in Wood and Paper
Vinecroft Studios - History, Evolution and Philosophy of Vinecroft Studios (not necessarily in that order)

Fred Bivins, Artist and Proprietor

Long involved in the arts community and in the creative process my collection of tools and materials has become very large. Since the sale of my first piece, a water color painting, to Mary Jane Anway when I was still in high school, I have been selling my art and fine craft in a variety of media. Anway was the head of the art program for the Grand Rapids Public Schools and very supportive of developing talent. Her purchase, as well as the support of Henrietta DeLoof, my art teacher through six years of junior high and high school, set a course for the rest of my life. Throughout my marriage (35 years this summer), during my 31 years with General Motors, between and after the birth of our three children, David, Christina, and Eliza, and especially since my retirement in 1999, art has been an important part of my life. I have been a woodworker since my youth. Growing up next to Grand Rapids Carvers factory where my father worked for seventeen years, I had access to a whole woodworking factory. I taught myself m any skills and learned many more from the artisans who worked there, many from Eastern Europe and displaced by WWII, who created beautiful carvings as sculpture for churches or for the furniture factories of the area. Though sometimes sporatic during my apprenticeship and years as an Industrial Electrician, I kept a hand to the wood, so to speak, but mostly in cabinet work.

Knowing my interest in having a building, and sharing in my desire to take most of the detritus of the creative process out of our home, my wife, Gina, scanned the want ads for years looking for suitable property. We were getting ready for a function at the Public Museum of Grand Rapids, where she works, on a Friday evening when she spotted a new ad for a concrete block building at 1614 Vinecroft NW. We had to leave for the museum, but after we arrived I stole a moment to call the number in the ad. I made an appointment to see the place the next afternoon. Negotiations completed, we closed on the property on November 7, 1997.

That is when Vinecroft Studios was born.

It was the fulfillment of a life’s dream. As long as I can remember I had wanted a large studio space where I could create without having to move something in order to work on something else. I had spent a number of years working as a potter and thought Vinecroft would serve well as a pottery studio. Having had to give up pottery throwing a number of years ago due to sever tendonitis in both elbows, the 4000 sq. ft. promised room for my two wheels and three kilns, and as my elbows were pain free, it seemed to be a good plan. An insufficient supply of electricity held that project up and in the interim the place started to fill up with other tools of creativity. I have long admired the work and the organization of Roycroft Studios. The Arts & Crafts Movement, with artists taking raw materials and producing finished products, has been a goal for my own work. I hold Roycrofters like Dard Hunter, who made his own paper, designed and cut his own type, printed and bound his books, in the highest esteem. The fine crafts of Roycroft inspired a whole movement in both Art and Fine Craft. Their legacy of design is still visible in products offered by many artists and companies today. One need only pick up a Restoration Hardware Catalog to see the Roycroft influence.

Antique Printing – It all started with a proof press that had to leave the garage belonging to one of my wife’s co-workers. I thought I would be able to use it in the planned pottery studio as a slab roller. However, it came with a box of type, but without a means to hold the type in place to print. In a short time I was musing that if I had a chase I could at least print a few signs for use around the place. That thought coincided with the retirement of Bud Beute and the closing of his print shop on Alpine Avenue at 11th St. On an afternoon in the late summer I stopped by to see if I could buy a chase and quoins, (a frame and locking devices that hold type for printing) to use with the type that I already owned. Instead I ended up buying two antique Chandler & Price letterpresses and several cabinets of type. Over the course of several months I moved most of Bud’s shop to Vinecroft. I also bought letterpress stuff from several other printers who have gone out of business in the Grand Rapids area.

Wood Engraving for printing – It was a short jump from carving to wood engraving. As I had a long exposure to the tools and methods of carving I thought this process could not be too hard. It really isn’t, but it does take a certain amount of dedication and a lot of patience. The tools are different and while I bought some of them on-line, I was very pleased to find Edward C. Lyons Company, in New York that still manufactures and sells the gravers, and all the other tools needed for the process. Sharpened well, the tools glide through the end-grain hard maple that I use. Originally boxwood was used, but as the process was so long ago replaced with the photographic methods of image printing prep, boxwood engraving blocks are not a standard offering anywhere that I have found. This is another wonderful artistic medium in which to work. It is very satisfying to make a smooth block of wood into a printable image.

Other methods of image making – While wood engraving is very satisfying, it is not only method I use to prepare images for letterpress printing. Another fun medium is etched copper. Not having done the actual etching myself, yet, I cannot elaborate on the actual process, but the preparation is a combination of the very old and the very new. When I find an image that I want to use on the press I scan that image into my computer. As I have a variety of graphic design software packages I can work with virtually any image. After scanning, the image is cleaned up and possibly altered, resized, and then saved as a new image. It is then sent via email to Owosso Graphics in Owosso, Michigan. A couple of days later I receive the etching, mounted type high for letterpress printing, at my front door. Technology is such a wonderful thing. The irony is not lost on me that I am using the latest technology to product printing images in a medium that was largely abandoned over half a cent ury ago.

Occasionally an antique "cut" (engraving) finds its way to my studio. I like to print with them as well and several of the note cards in my lineup are printed with cuts made nearly a century ago.

Wood turning – My grandfather, Peter Steenwyk had been a cabinetmaker. His woodworking knowledge was kept secret from me as he died when I was only six. Only through his tools, a few of which my grandmother gave me over the years, have I shared his trade. My hands are much bigger than his were, but I can still feel the impressions of his fingers in the handle of a Record Plane I now possess. My grandmother lived alone for the next few years, but after a long illness, my family moved in with her. As with most things in life, tools and other durable items are only held in our trust for the time we are here or while we legally own them, to be past on to the next caretaker when we sell or die. In the case of my grandfather’s basement shop, it, and all his tools, were mine while I lived in the house.

My Grandfather's Shop included a lathe and a few chisels and gouges. I found a motor and mounted both it and the lathe and proceeded to play. Between bicycle rides, hikes in the fields and woods, adventures in the creek and the ponds, ice skating, sledding, and skiing in the winter, school and the discovery of girls, I would play in my grandfather’s basement shop. I can still smell it, the combination of dust, coal, and shellac. I taught myself enough that I knew it was fun and I even sold a few items, pool cues were what I did best with. Little did I know that the hours whiled away with my grandfather’s tools, combined with the years of access to GR Carvers, an almost unlimited supply of discarded wood I could salvage from the burn pile, would imprint my brain, hands, and psyche with desires that would resurface many years later. There is nothing like the feel of working wood, and no part of woodworking has given me the same pleasure as turning.

While I had had and periodically used an old cast iron bed lathe that I bought from Tom Surofchek’s dad, it was not until shortly after I bought Vinecroft and my friend Wayne Edwards brought over a lathe he had in the garage, and in his way, that I really rediscovered the feel of turning. The successive years of turning have transformed my use of Vinecroft and the way I fill my days. After retiring I started alternating printing and turning. I now turn more than print making Christmas ornaments and napkin rings, platters and toy tops, boxes and vases, bowls small and large, candle holders and oil lamps, and all kinds of functional and artistic pieces. I have advanced to a Powermatic 3520 that can break tools and arms in an instant. It is a wonderful tool that I bought from Joe Osolnik, the son of the great woodturner Rude Osolnik, the legend of Berea, Kentucky. Osolnik Machinery

On occasion I pick up my grandfather’s plane, just to feel it in my hands. I lovingly run my fingers over the letters of his name, stamped into the body for all eternity, a testament to his years of stewardship of that tool. What I feel more than the cold steel, however, is the connection. The connection to him and my uncles who shared his shop in their youth. A connection to my father, who gave me the run of Grand Rapids Carvers while he worked alone almost every night. And a connection to everyone who has worked with wood. It is a fine craft and as I create I occasionally think that what artists make will be around long after we are gone. Christmas ornaments and bowls, vases and platters will become heirlooms. What we create is not only art, it is immortality.

What's new in the Vinecroft kitchen
View the new stove.