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New West artisan turns scavenged wood into unique handcrafted bowls

Timothy McGowen will be one of the artisans participating in the New West Cultural Crawl this weekend, Oct. 15 to 16.

The smell of oak fills the air as woodturner Timothy McGowen guides me through his shop adorned with shelves of handcrafted vessels. Fascinated by the sight in front of me, I’m careful not to get any splinters.

McGowen says his journey as an artist began in Southern Ontario, where he spent his early childhood near a wooded ravine, developing a fascination with trees in his formative years. He recalls spending days working with small pieces of wood while his father and carpenter grandfather built a cottage.

Now, he calls himself a scavenger for wood, cruising the streets of Vancouver for beautiful hardwood.

“I see a piece of wood on the side of the road, I load it up in my truck and bring it back to my shop to cut it with my chainsaw,” he said.

The look and feel of the wood speaks to him, he said, with its grain, density, colour and feel suggesting what the end product will become — whether it's a bowl or a vase or something in between.

While a lot of woodturners like working with smoother pieces of wood, “cracked tree branches, in my opinion, add character,” he said.

Woodturner's roots

It was a trip to Vancouver Island during a “job exploration” phase that he found his calling, he said.

“I built my mother a blanket box,” he said. “The box rolls underneath your bed. When you pull it out, it is lined with aromatic cedar, and I was really happy with it.”

This was the turning point for McGowen as he made a full-time switch to turning wood. 

It hasn't always been easy, and the process of turning wood on a lathe is tricky and sometimes dangerous. His work has left him with a few scars on his arms —.which he's proud of.

And, like many artists, he takes such pride in his work that he sometimes finds it difficult to part with his creations. One of them, a “giant cookie jar,” is a personal favourite. It's one he would rather say he “put up for adoption” as opposed to saying “selling.”

“There’s different kinds of favourites,” he said. "There's one that broke my arm. I won't sell that one. It was one of those things that I couldn't let an inanimate object beat me, so I continued on it."

Woodturning process

On his website, McGowen says he considers it a shame to throw trees to the chipper when they so much more to offer, and through his vessels, he believes that a little tree heritage will be preserved. 

First, he begins by finding wood from the streets of Vancouver that has been recently cut or fallen. Bringing the wood to the shop, McGowen begins by checking for cracks or big voids. He said he'll typically start with a piece of wood that resembles a chunk of firewood. After which, he "greenturns" it — cutting into wood that has a lot of moisture. 

"I get it to the basic shape," he said. "But I leave the wall thickness on bigger pieces up to, say, two inches thick."

For bowls, which could potentially explode on the lathe, he waits for up to six or eight months and fills them up with resin before turning the wood again. 

Every piece changes over time, he said, with natural transformation of the wood over the years and his own cutting and shaping of it combining to make a one-of-a-kind creation.

McGowen's handcrafted works will be on display at the New West Cultural Crawl, a two-day visual art and cultural event that celebrates the city's creative character and diversity, 

Organized by Arts Council of New Westminster, the map for the Cultural Crawl can be found here

2022 New West Cultural Crawl

Where: City of New Westminster

When: Oct. 15 to Oct. 16; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.