Arts Around Town

For artist Tom Laudenslager, it's a vase lovely as a tree

In talking with Coopersburg artist Tom Laudenslager, that most famous and simple work penned by American poet Joyce Kilmer comes to mind: "I think that I shall never see A poem lovely as a tree." Kilmer held such fascination for this creation in his art of the written word. Laudenslager artfully translates his own fascination into interpretive sculpture of bonsai-inspired vases.

At his Flint Hill Studio in Coopersburg, Lehigh Co., Laudenslager focuses primarily on bonsai, or bonsai-like trees for his unique creations in stoneware or porcelain clay. His work is currently on exhibit at The Gallery at the JCC (Jewish Community Center) in Allentown, through Sept. 14. Laudenslager is sharing gallery space with award-winning landscape and wildlife photographer P.B. "Buddy" Eleazer, and his works of the Lehigh Valley themed "Stories Along the Road.

"I've always been fascinated by the study of trees," said Laudenslager, who refers to them as "the most noble of subjects." He's spent nearly four decades in drawing, painting, photography and sculpting, but it's only been the last 20 years that he's been perfecting techniques with clay as his primary medium of expression. The last eight years have been occupied with sculpting bonsai vases which he exhibited locally at Stahls' Pottery in Zionsville.

The Lehigh Valley native admits he's no green thumb when it comes to growing bonsai. He said it was during a family vacation in Montreal eight years ago when he was inspired after visiting botanical gardens filled with bonsai. His fascination surfaced in the many sketches and photographs he brought back home. He said his first attempts with bonsai imagery were "so labor-intensive" that he backed off for a while before investigating different ways to make the process work for him. He recalled that attempting cutaways in a piece created monumental problems regarding its strength, but he refused to give up. "The whole process of invention, tweaking and revising still goes on for me as an artist," he said.

Laudenslager's work begins as a vase form, perhaps with its front face removed to reveal an interior back wall of glaze. Eventually it will be transformed to pure sculpture, perhaps resembling sky or a waterfall. Works become little more than ground, trunk, and delicate lattice work of branches and foliage. Constructed with traditional hand-built slabs, Laudenslager's forming techniques resemble those a metal smith or fine woodworker might use. Fuse-colored glass, stains, paints and patinas are just some of the materials that may be used.

Laudenslager has been an art instructor for more than 30 years, primarily in ceramics, photography, art history, and drawing. Twenty of those years have been in the Souderton Area School District, Upper Montgomery County, currently at Souderton Area High School. A graduate of Saucon Valley High School, he obtained bachelor and master's degrees in education at Kutztown University and pursued further studies at Tyler School of Art, University of the Arts, Art New England, and Moravian College.

Most recently, he's been creating, or "calibrating," flat wall pieces that incorporate bonsai trees, carved clay, photography and wood, while cutting away negative space. He admits there are many traditional ways of working with clay, but the real challenge is "the interplay between different media, where boundaries are broken down." That's something he likes to instill in his Souderton students regarding the creative process.

"It's a passion of mine that students see the work you do as an artist outside of the classroom," he said. "If we want kids to be excited about art, it's important for them to see adults passionate about what they do. Sometimes I'll bring in a piece from my studio, where I feel a certain technique I'm tackling ties into an assignment of theirs. I want them to think creatively and problem-solve. It's all part of the creative process."

Laudenslager will be exhibiting for the first time at the 42nd annual Peters Valley Fine Craft Fair at the Sussex County Fairgrounds in Augusta, NJ, Sept. 29-30, and at the Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsmen Holiday Show at the Lancaster Convention Center, Nov. 12-13.

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Arts Roundup

The Great Allentown Fair kicks off its 160th year on Tuesday, through Sept. 3, and marks some milestones in its offerings. In honor of the City of Allentown's 250th Anniversary, the culinary arts area will feature chef demonstrations as part of the fair's Farm to Table series.

For history buffs, the Pennsylvania Civil War 150 Road Show traveling museum will be on site and will be manned by staff and volunteers of the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum in Allentown. The multimedia unit is the same one that was featured last month at the Kutztown Folk Festival. It was developed specifically for the 150th Anniversary of the American Civil War. For its Allentown appearance, the unit will be personalized with a substantial number of rare and impressive Lehigh Valley Civil War stories, artifacts and photographs assembled by the Heritage Museum.

According to Sarah Thayer, curator of education programs at the Heritage Museum, these will include the story and items belonging to a local soldier imprisoned at the notorious Confederate Libby Prison, a Medal of Honor awarded to Lehigh County Civil War soldier Ignatz Gresser for saving the life of his fellow soldier while under enemy fire during the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. There also will be several rare advertising broadsides, or posters, intended to recruit local men during the war. Thayer said the broadsides have not been publicly displayed since that time.

She added that the public also can view a unique gold-plated, 1862 Cavalry saber and learn why the Southern townspeople of Key West Florida presented it to Allentown's Colonel Tilghman Goode of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment.

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The Baum School of Art in Allentown is featuring the work of its faculty and staff in an exhibition running through Sept. 7, in the David E. Rodale and Rodale Family Galleries. Also ongoing is an annual Juried Exhibition through Sept. 21, in the Fowler Community Room.

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