Woodworker by trade, artist by choice
On a recent bright November morning, William Rhodes relaxed at the West Baltimore home of his friend and fellow artist, Joyce J. Scott.
As the pair chatted about art and life, sunlight streamed into the artfully decorated living room, softly illuminating an intricately carved wooden bookcase accented with hues of red and gold. While its glass shelves are functional, the overall look is somehow mysterious, mythical.
That’s by design.
“I created this piece especially for Joyce,” Rhodes said with a smile. “It combines her astrological signs of Taurus and Scorpio. With client commissions, I try to infuse elements of their personality using my own interpretation to bring it to life.”
Welcome to the world of Rhodes, a Baltimore-born mixed-media artist and master of furniture art — or art furniture. Whichever term you prefer, suffice to say that his unique designs aren’t what one might find at mass retailers.
Instead, there are lofty folding screens with materials that include carved wood, glass and copper. Shimmering mirrors with gold leaf and stones. Doors that open to reveal tiny drawers and hidden compartments.
His work has gained a following, and one of his pieces has been selected to become part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s new African-American Museum of History and Culture, which opened in September in the nation’s capital.
“I am a woodworker by trade, an artist by choice,” the 50-year-old said. “I strive to blend fine craft, sculpture and design with meaning and function.
“My work explores themes of hidden knowledge, iconographic imagery and forms and how they can change meaning in a given cultural context,” he added. “I also explore the contrast between traditional cultures and our modern one, which give depth to the narrative quality of my work.”
Not long after Rhodes began studying at the Baltimore School for the Arts in the 1980s, one of his instructors recognized immediately that the reserved, polite young man had special talent.
“He participated in a mural project that I did with the students,” recalled James Phillips, now an art professor at Howard University in Washington.
A painter and member of the 1960s African-American art collective AfriCOBRA (or African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), Phillips taught his young charges important fundamentals such as painting techniques and the use of bold colors.
After high school, Rhodes left Baltimore to attend college, earning a bachelors degree in furniture building and design from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and, later, a master of fine arts degree from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Along the way, he began to travel widely. Africa, Asia, and Central and South America were all part of the journey as his formal education and global experiences melded to inform his creative process.
“In every work, I choose to start with reclaimed wood as my structural material. I enjoy the process of carving wood into a variety of shapes and sizes,” said Rhodes, who typically uses a chisel and other traditional carving tools. “And interacting with the people, art and cultures of different societies inspires me to consider nontraditional approaches to art and sculpture.”
One of his mirror sculptures — “The Middle Passage” — is made of wood, glass, stone, paint and gold leaf. The back of the piece has a window that holds an embedded stone from the “Door of No Return” in a former slave trading post on an island off Dakar, Senegal, in West Africa.
“The stone came off the walls of the slave prison on Goree Island,” Rhodes said. “The collector who purchased it — a white gentleman — said it spoke to him in a powerful way.”
Another bold work titled “Womb to Tomb” is a folding screen made of materials including carved wood, glass, paint and copper. It stands almost 7 feet tall, with smaller figures fit into the larger carvings.
The centerpiece is blue and green, which Rhodes says is meant to represent earth and water. The smaller figures fold out and conjure up human beings, while glass panels on each small figure depict the different seasons. When folded into the larger figure, they create a symbol of both the womb or a tomb.
“It represents the cycles of life that every human goes through: birth, death and the seasons,” Rhodes said. “The smaller figures are all different shades showing the diversity of ethnicities — colors — that humans come in, but we all come from the same source, the earth.”
“Womb to Tomb” is the piece selected for the new Smithsonian museum’s collection.
“It’s an unbelievable honor,” Rhodes said.
And one that’s long overdue, at least according to collector Eric Collins. He owns the piece and brought it to the attention of the Smithsonian curators.
“William is midcareer, but his conceptual design and mastery of his craft is a particular talent,” said Collins, a Virginia native who now lives with his partner, Michael Prokopow, in London. “He continues to wow me. I believe he should be a primary figure in the art world. Perhaps he’s now on the verge of that.”
For years, Rhodes ran a small gallery out of his house in Charles Village. He and his wife now live in San Francisco, where he owns and operates a studio.
He returns often to Baltimore to see his mother and other relatives, meet with potential clients and stay connected with his inner circle of artists.
“William is an old soul whose beautiful art reflects the wisdom of the ages and our ancestors,” said Scott, a jewelry maker and sculptor who received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in September.
While she loves her Rhodes bookcase, her favorite piece made by him is a bust he created in her likeness some years ago. He calls it simply “Joyce Scott.”
“It’s a carved wooden head with a bronze cast, and the face has a door which opens up. There are three small drawers on the inside which can be pulled out,” he said.
“You will have to ask Joyce if she thinks it looks like her,” he said with a smile.
It’s a busy period for Rhodes. Besides volunteering his time to community-based art education projects, he’s creating new works and preparing for exhibits.
Locally, he has shown his work at venues that include the Baltimore Public Works Museum, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, Meredith Gallery, The New Door Gallery, the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Maryland State Arts Council.