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Folks You Should Know: Bill Tillson creates functional artwork from fallen trees

July 11th, 2013 3:31 pm by Amanda J. Vicars

Folks You Should Know: Bill Tillson creates functional artwork from fallen trees

“It seems like almost every piece of wood has a story,” Kingsport wood turner Bill Tillson said. “The worse it looks on the outside... the more beautiful it is on the inside. [People] don't realize what beauty's buried down inside, kind of like us.”

A full-time nurse anesthetist by day, Tillson said he became interested in his artistic (and only) hobby around a decade ago after attending a weekend woodworking seminar. It was “something to do on a weekend,” he said. “[And] it just kind of sparked an interest for me. So, I started researching it and and reading a lot.”

Tillson decided to take up the skill. As a Texas-born transplant from the Midwest, he said he came to the area for work-related reasons 18 years ago with wife, Donnia, and daughters, Stephanie, Sarah and Elaina, and never looked back. He loves the Northeast Tennessee area, an area with an “abundance of available wood,” well suited to his favorite pastime.

Tillson said he's never paid for a piece of wood. 

“The nice thing about this area is there's a greater number of [tree] species and more available free wood than pretty much any place in the world,” he explained.

Tillson first began turning pieces for people at work as a “therapeutic outlet,” while regularly attending meetings of the Tri-Cities Wood Turners.

One day “somebody gave me a call and said 'I had a tree come down on my property that I grew up playing in at my old house in Wisconsin. You think you could make something out of it?'” Tillson recalled. “Once I started that, I discovered that people have a lot of sentimental value on trees from their home. It just kind of built on that.”

Tillson said it's hard to put a price on sentimental value. He gives away many of the pieces he's turned and when he does sell his work, “I try not to charge them more than I'd pay for it myself and that's usually not very much,” he said. 

Tillson has made pieces for many people across the region (and beyond) out of trees historically tied to their ancestral land. He always makes sure to return a piece or two of the natural wood to his clients because as he simply put, “it's the right thing to do.”

He turned pieces for a female colleague from a tree that “she sat in when she was 5 years old [and] played in when she was a kid,” and for a family at his church out of a “massive” pecan tree which fell on their Virginia property located near the renowned Carter's Fold music venue. 

“[The pecan tree] was planted during the Civil War by their great-great-great-grandfather. I made some really nice pieces and gave [them] back to the family,” Tillson said. 

Tillson also created works out of an oak tree from the historic Martha Washington Inn and from trees across America damaged during hurricanes and natural disasters. He maintains a personal collection of wood pieces from Hurricanes Rita, Katrina and Sandy.

Tillson turned 15 different pieces from a single cedar tree uprooted by Hurricane Katrina for a woman and her family. It was planted by her great-grandmother and “it was the only thing left of her entire property,” he said. “Every record of her was gone except for that tree.”

Tillson said he doesn't desire prestige or profit.

“To listen to their responses and their appreciation, [there's] just something real special about that,” he said. “That's the enjoyment I get out of it.”

The wooden pieces formed by Tillson's hand in the basement of his Cooks Valley home range from vases to salad bowls to Christmas ornaments to a bowl sink. Both practical and artistic, Tillson's work serves daily use and is also featured as fine art at local galleries. A few items can be found in Downtown Kingsport's Style Boutique and his art work will be displayed in an upcoming show in Abingdon, Va.

Tillson, a graduate of Washington University of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo., practices detail precision in his hobby, as well as his profession. He spent three years honing his skill in applying finish alone in order to give his work the effect of glass.

“Eventually I was able to make it look like porcelain,” he said. “It's just something I've kind of developed... It's how you sand it and buff it out and do it that makes it look like that.”

The“Tillson finish,” as Tillson playfully referred to his technique, was what first caught the eye of Polly Mallory, owner of Mallory Fine Art in Abingdon, Va., whom he credits with having “brought me up into the art world with my pieces, displaying them as fine art.”

However, Tillson said his intent was never to be recognized.

“I just like to turn stuff,” he said with a smile. “There's always something hidden in the wood.”

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