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The Flowing Forms of Furniture Artist & Sculptor Sabiha Mujtaba

Wood News: What was your first exposure to woodworking and what attracted you to attempt your first project?

Sabiha Mujtaba: Hammersmith College of Art and Building in London had a trade directed school. Sculpture students were encouraged to spend allotted term times to learn from the guilding, bricklaying, plastering, welding and woodworking shops. Although I enjoyed all the options, I preferred welding and woodshop. Many years later it was a chance meeting through friends that I began my loose apprenticeship with Timothy Sutherland in Atlanta.

What are the sources of inspiration for your works?

SM: My inspirations for designs are probably a distillation of a collected subconscious - about nature, humanity, culture, experience, etc. - intuitive creativity?

naga, naga – guardian, protector WN:
The only animal that seems to reoccur in your work is the snake. What does it symbolize for you?

SM: The snake image was first used as a convenient form to create a jewelry box - a stylized, circular form - contained, complete and sensuous.
The idea took off, as did my interest in the snake imagery - human ambivalence to this awesome creature. In my work I see the snake as sometimes a passive observer, sometimes a guardian, but never threatening/defensive - so far.

Another element that frequents your work is draping, flowing fabric. What does that represent and how do you think people are impacted by its inclusion?

SM: I use drapery to soften the straight lines necessary in furniture. But with its inclusion I can express its universal use in rituals and ceremonies, as a metaphor for the hidden emotions, or just simply to animate a furniture piece.

You leave much of the wood in a natural state, allowing the viewer to follow grains and the flow of the wood. As you are creating a new piece, is the concept ever altered by what you "discover" in a particular section of wood?

SM: Once an idea is developed I usually stay with that, especially if it's a commissioned piece; however, I am selective of grain pattern that enhances the curves or forms in that piece.

What do you enjoy the most, creating/designing, construction, carving, finish work, or the satisfaction of seeing the vision fulfilled, and why?

SM: The exciting aspects of furniture making/woodworking for me are the creative/design process and the final finish - everything in between is a challenge that ranges from patting myself on the back for begrudgingly making that jig for those two perfect joints, to yawning through the seemingly endless sanding, almost a third of any project time.
I do design intuitively so I wait until it's ready - sometimes nervously - but I know that the tension has its power.

Describe your studio setup.

SM: My basement studio with its 8' ceiling is dry with natural light on two walls. Most of the major tools are loaned by a friend who changed profession for a more lucrative livelihood - without Duncan's generosity at a crucial time, I may not have been a furniture maker. With his Powermatic table-saw, jointer, drill press, radial arm saw and Delta band-saw and some of my own hand tools, I began my independence in a field where women woodworkers were still an anomaly. In the early '80s, in the USA, Wendy Maruyama and Gail Friedell were the first women graduating from RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology) furniture program, and
Judy Kensley McKie, a painting major from RISD (Rhode Island School of Design), through alternative routes was becoming one of our foremost artisans of animal imagery in furniture today. However pervading the resistance, women in our field here and in Europe are receiving accolades more often for design and technical abilities.

What readings/books would you suggest to someone who wished to begin creating sculpturally carved pieces?

SM: The first serious technical book on carving was William Schnute's High Relief Wood Carving . Today a better book is one I recommend in my classes, Architectural Carving: Techniques for Power and Hand Tools by Mike Burton (202373), which takes a more thorough look at tools and techniques. Apart from the tech books, I suggest woodworkers read more on creativity - anything from David Pye's The Nature and Aesthetics of Design (200595) to today's makers, (regularly profiled in Woodwork magazine) who talk more about their inspiration and process.
Techniques are learned, continuous practice creates accuracy - but aesthetics and design sensibilities are what makes the craftsperson an artist. I am constantly aware of the balance between the two - both need attention so neither lets the other fail. Not every piece will be successful, but I understand how the next project will already be better.

Sabiha Mujtaba works from her studio in Clarkston, Georgia. For more information about the artist and her work visit her website: www.chrysaliswoodworks.com .

View a slideshow of Sabiha's work

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