Raised on Landon Avenue in Wilmington, graduate of Wilmington High School and the Dayton Art Institute, and an artist extraordinaire, Wendell Robinson lives with his wife Carol in north Dayton in a spacious house full of beautifully crafted miniature Shaker furniture.
Carol is also a graduate of the Dayton Art Institute and is a stone carver.
By miniature, Wendell does not mean doll house furniture – his work is generally 50 percent of full size, an unusual size for miniatures.
The craft is not a means to livelihood, it is essentially a hobby, an undertaking primarily for self-satisfaction – an outlet for creativity. His craft is realized in a basement full of exotic machinery and a forest of beautiful lumber.
To make a living he has been a boiler operator in Dayton for the past 24 years.
Although Shaker miniatures in wood has come to dominate his life, he also worked in other modes. In a show at Wilmington College in the early ‘70s he displayed painted welded iron and steel.
WC professor of art Phil Hodge commented, “Wendell Robinson uses carefully chosen colors as an integral part of his designs. We take great pleasure in presenting these significant examples of his work to the public in his first one-man show.”
At an Afro-American Art Exhibit held at DePauw University later in the ‘70s he continued his metal sculpture. In a description of his work, the program stated, “He is one of the most productive young artists in the Midwest. Most of his waking hours are consumed with the act of thinking about, designing, and producing his art or looking for acceptable materials to express himself. His creations are embodied with an inner sense of strength and poetic balance.”
In an article in the Dayton Journal Herald also in the ’70s, the columnist comments about his work in metal.
“Robinson also is concerned with precise, carefully-crafted forms, but his spare, minimal steel structures that take angular leaps into space. He loves assertive colors and combines them skillfully. He knows what he’s about and is one of the most impressive DAI [Dayton Art Institute] students of recent years.”
Wendell’s craft as wood-worker started early in Wilmington – at lumber yards, at school and on the campus of Wilmington College. As a child and teenager, it seemed that just about everyone took an interest in his abilities and provided him with materials, instructions and time.
At the Fisher and Collett lumber yards on East Main Street he could receive pieces of wood and even cuts of wood especially for him to use in carpentry and/or carving, often helped by Jim Black, the millman at Fisher Lumber. His art teacher in high school, Jim McCarty, worked and encouraged him as did professor Hodge and Louise Griffiths at the college.
He graduated from Wilmington High School in 1965. Soon after graduation Louise suggested that he apply to the Dayton Art Institute. This he did, receiving a full scholarship and graduating in 1974, a member of the last graduation class before the institute closed. For a brief time, he attended the Chicago Institute of Art.
The most impressive show of his woodworking is described in an article in the Dayton Daily News in 2005: “Shaker Furniture on Display at Museum: Half and Quarter-scale Pieces Strictly Faithful to Originals.”
The two-month show at the Warren County Historical Society Museum included 18 pieces of furniture including a full-size tool chest housed in the museum’s Shaker Gallery and two sizes of a cupboard on display at the Golden Lamb Inn in Lebanon. Each piece is true to an original Shaker piece that Robinson viewed and studied firsthand and faithfully copied – right down to the most minute detail.
The show was part of the Union Village Bicentennial of the opening of Shakerism in the West (1805-2005). Museum Curator Mary Klei said of the display, “There’s a lot of artistry that goes into making these pieces. The craftsmanship is absolutely Phenomenal.” In 2005 he had a similar show of his work at the Clinton County History Center.
In a recent walk through Wendell’s home one finds virtually all available spaces occupied by the miniature replicas of Shaker furniture. This interest in Shaker miniatures came about because of a move to a warehouse building in Dayton wherein he had limited space in which to live.
At about the same time he purchased a book on Shaker Furniture – the result was his incomparably creative scale models of the useful and simple household Shaker furniture.
Possibly one day we just might have a show of his incomparable miniature Shaker furniture right here in Wilmington.
Neil Snarr is a Professor Emeritus of Wilmington College.