Ted Thirlby

“I’ve been getting these pieces of old discarded plywood. I find they call to me.” It’s a call Ted Thirlby has been answering for decades. He’s worked wood, carved it, bent it to his will and found creative inspiration in its grains, textures and surfaces since his early exhibitions in the 70s and throughout a career in construction and cabinetmaking. Lately it’s become a process of rescue, respect, reuse and resurrection. Through a push-pull, yin-yang interaction between the found and the formed, his abstract paintings on salvaged plywood breathe new life into old material.

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“I get these pieces that are very destroyed, and I’m moved to then paint on them. I describe it as a sort of gentle process. I try to be respectful to what they are and their history and all the history and energy that they already have accumulated…I not so much alter the energy as merge with it. There’s a great paradox which is the randomness of our lives. If you think about science and the origins of the universe, there’s a randomness…we’re just specks…but then, we’re human. We think. We do things with intention. So it’s somehow gently putting some intention on all this randomness.”

Duality and dichotomy are central in Thirlby’s work. Large, battered, discarded sheets of wood are tinted and topped with fluid, elegant lines and elemental shapes, then crowned with touches of gold. They transcend their original selves and speak to one’s salvation and redemption.

Gravitational arcs, planets, stars and orbits come to mind through his use of circles, lines and ellipses. “I think these geometric shapes have something to do with our brains and the way they work. They carry with them meanings for us.”

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Biblical and religious references inspired by Fra Angelico’s frescoes in the convent of San Marco in Florence enter the conversation through titles like “Lamentation,” “The Transfiguration” and “Visit of the Magi.” Through that lens, Thirlby’s golden circles recall halos or arches on altars. “The Ninth Mode” references St. Dominic, the patron of astronomers and his method of prayerful walking. Thirlby’s incised lines suggest deeply traveled spiritual paths. His works embrace time and eternity, randomness and precision, the mundane and the sacred.

“The process of making them is meditative, and I think looking at them is meditative. This is an artistic process that can bring me, and hopefully others, into a place where those parts of reality are conjoined…it can take weeks or months, but when I finally get one right and the rhythms and the colors, the relationship of the shapes to what the plywood has presented to me, all somehow start to flow together, there’s an ecstatic place there where you’re experiencing those things together.

“I want people to be able to see the inherent beauty in these pieces of plywood and thereby start to look around and feel the energy of things around them and understand the place of those objects in the universe and our own relationships to them…I believe that there are levels of communication and thoughts that cannot be verbalized. There are things that can’t be said in words.”