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Western Springs woodworker truly combines art and craft

Barry Newstat’s award-winning foyer table that marries figured cherry, Ceylon satinwood and ash.
Western Springs furniture artist Barry Newstat at work in his Chicago studio. | Photos courtesy of Barry Newstat
A table from artist Barry Newstat’s winning furniture collection at the 37th Annual Philadelphia Museum of Art Contemporary Craft Show.
A cabinet from Western Spring artist Barry Newstat's award-winning furniture collection at the 37th Annual Philadelphia Museum of Art Contemporary Craft Show.

There are no wood combinations found in nature like the ones in artist Barry Newstat’s work. 

Take, for instance, a foyer table that marries figured cherry, Ceylon satinwood and ash into a delicate yet arresting asymmetrical piece. The table is part of a collection for which Western Springs resident Newstat was recently awarded the Wharton Esherick Prize for Best in Show for Woodwork at the 37th Annual Philadelphia Museum of Art Contemporary Craft Show.

The show, a top-ranked American craft exhibit, featured 195 of the nation’s finest craft artists selected from more than 1,000 applicants. A surprising aspect of Newstat’s win at such a venue was that, although he’s practiced his craft for 28 years, he’s still a newcomer to national shows.

“I am finding that with this much experience I’m making more visually appealing pieces,” Newstat said. “That’s why I’m going to shows, to find an audience for these pieces.”

Newstat’s emergence on the national show scene follows the arc of his career. Early on, his handmade furniture stressed function over form, in practical pieces such as dining room sets, buffets and bedroom furniture. 

“Back then I was more of a mechanic than an artist,” he said. “But I always wanted to be an artist.”

Today, at age 55, Newstat is more prone to putting artistic expression first — an evolution he sees as common among professionals immersed in their craft.

“Musicians are a good example,” he said. “You’re so curious about what you do and what you can do, you find yourself going in different directions.”

Paul Eisenhauer, Executive Director and Curator of the Wharton Esherick Museum in Paoli, Penn., was the Philadelphia Contemporary Craft Show judge regarding Newstat’s prize. Eisenhauer’s museum recognizes Wharton Esherick, a Pennsylvania wood artist cited as the link between the Arts and Crafts Movement and the resurgent interest in furniture making following World War II. 

Active as an artist from 1920 until his death in 1970, Esherick, known for his organic forms and curvilinear free-forms, is considered the foundation of the current Studio Furniture Movement.

“Barry is part of a tradition that goes back to Esherick, or at least was popularized by Esherick, of respecting the wood and working in non-traditional forms,” Eisenhauer said. “He’s very good at what he does.”

A key element of Newstat’s furniture, Eisenhauer said, is curves that look like straight curves until one touches them and realizes their intricacies. 

“His work has a really nice, organic feel,” Eisenhauer said. “He very subtly uses carving to bring out the best in the wood. You don’t really notice until you feel it. He really respects the wood.”

For Newstat, the question is about the possibilities in a given piece of wood. Newstat patronizes several lumber dealers nationwide who know him and share with him interesting, unusual selections.

“I can see a piece of furniture in a piece of wood,” Newstat said. “That’s the way I like to design.”

Newstat, who holds a degree in industrial technology from Illinois State University, has nurtured an interest in woodcraft since shop class at age 12. After a brief stint as a teacher, he turned to furniture-making. Today, his studio is located in Chicago at 2031 W. Fulton St.

The handful of national shows at which Newstat has exhibited include the annual American Craft Exposition held in Evanston, and the Sun Valley Center Arts and Crafts Festival.

Shows, he said, put his work in front of a “narrower audience” that appreciates his furniture, which he refers to as “three-dimensional functional art.”

“They aren’t flashy,” he said of his fans. “They’re typically very appreciative of all the arts. They have nice homes but they’re understated. I can always tell when someone serious comes into my booth because they’re quiet. They look at a piece like they would a museum piece.”

Next, Newstat will exhibit April 10-13 at the Smithsonian Craft Show of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. 

“There’s a lot of satisfaction in that secret place in your mind where you brag to yourself about how good you are,”  he said, reflecting on his award-winning status. “But it’s definitely humbling. The other work is so good. To win is a little hard to comprehend.”

Newstat’s work can be seen in Chicago at the Pauline Grace Showroom, Sawbridge Studios and at his studio by appointment.

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