Driving through the countryside several years ago, artist Philip Hultgren was stunned to see a massive cherry tree, roots and all, lying on its side in a plot of land being cleared for development. A sign reading “Firewood – You Cut” sat alongside it. He couldn’t believe his luck. Cherry, with its gorgeous grain and unique color, is a favorite of woodworkers. But since cherry trees rot from the inside out as they age, running across a piece this large was almost unprecedented.
“I took every bit that I could,” says Philip. “The root alone was 12 feet across. And it was going to be firewood. They could have sold it.”
Once he got the wood home, Philip’s real dilemma began: just what to do with it. But instead of making a snap decision, he spent time with the wood, noting its grain, dark knots and irregular shape.
“I call it listening to the wood,” he says. “With patience, it does tell you what to do with it.” Eventually, Philip transformed a portion into a freeform side table, a gigantic decorative bowl and an abstract sculpture. Within each piece of art, the wood’s dark spots, gaps from branches and holes bored by insects have been incorporated into the design. It’s Philip’s way of offering respect for what the tree was.
Gazing at the pieces and hearing the story, one thing is immediately clear: Philip’s artistic soul inhabits the body of an extraordinary craftsman. The table, its jagged edge contrasting with smooth grain, is not only beautiful, but it’s also so sturdy that it can easily hold the weight of a person. The deceptively simple slope of the bowl is decorated with the swoops and swirls of grain; its undulating rim gives the impression of motion. They’re endlessly fascinating.
Philip credits his Swedish grandfather, a retired loom repairer who spent his spare time crafting tables, chairs and toys in the basement of the family’s Connecticut home, with his own love for woodwork. “My grandfather could make anything,” he says. “He began to teach me how to make things from wood, and before long it became a shared passion. I’d spend hours every week deciding what we’d create together that weekend.”
Today, Philip realizes that basic woodworking skills were just a small part of what he learned from his grandfather.
“By teaching me an appreciation for the usefulness and beauty of wood, as well as giving me confidence in knowing that if I can conceptualize something I can make it, my grandfather laid the groundwork for giving me faith in my own abilities,” notes Philip. “Those lessons really do flow into other areas of your life.”
Philip followed his faith when he moved to the Caribbean island of St. Croix in the late 1980s as a Lutheran minister. It was there, working on pieces of mahogany felled by Hurricane Hugo, that he refined his artist’s voice and set about further exploring the harmony that he finds naturally exists in a tree. He also met Chris, his wife. After a stop in Lexington, Ky., where Chris finished her Ph.D., the couple moved to Camden, where they’re in the midst of renovating a 1970s bungalow. Although it’s only about two-thirds complete after nearly two years of work, it’s clear that there’s an artist in residence.
“I’m so anxious to have all the work finished, but I’ve learned to be patient,” says Chris. “Everything he does is a piece of art. When he finishes something, it’s like he’s giving me a gift.”
Throughout the house, Philip’s works are a testament to the diversity of his talent. Wall sculptures – City Geometry depicts a city from the air, City Scape is a silhouette – have been fashioned from triangles, squares and rectangles cut from different varieties of wood; another sculpture is set into the wall on a screw so it can be rotated.
“It’s meant to be art from any angle,” Philip notes.
An ornately carved mask shows a completely different side of Philip’s skills with wood.
A Questionable Leg table – one of the legs has been chopped into blocks and strung back together in what has become a signature look – holds a place of honor in the dining room. He created it for Chris, who had seen a table with an odd-man-out fourth leg in Paris and felt this piece would be more interesting with a similar touch.
“I didn’t expect him to chop it up, but it ended up working perfectly,” she says with a laugh.
Fortunately, there’s plenty of room for more.
“I’ve got ideas in books, in my head and floating around on paper scraps all over the house,” Philip says. “The ideas come easily. Someday I hope I’ll have the time to create them all.”