David Pearce—man of many skills

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Dancing figures adorn this osage orange bowl by David Pearce. His exhibit opens at the Montgomery Museum Thursday, May 4.

Pearce’s work will be featured at the Montgomery Museum starting May 4.


Wood turner, photographer, sculptor, and retired engineer, David Pearce is a man of layers. Layers of books adorn his upstairs home office; layers of wood his downstairs workshop. Layers in the computer program, Photoshop, help to create wedding, nature, and model portfolio photographs he takes.

The knowledge from all those layers flows across projects; the engineering gives him the mechanical experience to run everything from 700-pound band saws to 400,000 rpm dental drills, small-tipped airbrushes, computers and a printer larger than the majority of home offices ever feature.

The photography records his many travels—over 53 countries visited—capturing memories of weddings and providing inspiration and patterns that end up adorning turned wooden bowls and vases.

After growing up in Newport News, Va., Pearce headed to Virginia Tech and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering in 1966, followed by a doctorate in biomedical engineering from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He spent the next 29 years in “hot and humid” Mississippi working at the Medical Center in Jackson, a rehabilitation hospital, and a computer software house . With a goal of retiring at age 55 somewhere in the east, he remembered his days at Virginia Tech, and in 2002, he and his wife, Linda, headed for the hills and found a townhome in Blacksburg which allowed him to pursue his many interests but still gave them the freedom to travel.

A room upstairs houses his computer and that really big printer. He configured 1,600 square feet of basement into a photography studio and wood shop, engineering a huge dust filtration system to capture wood shavings and sanding dust. “Just about the time I got my darkroom finished,” Pearce recalls with a laugh, “digital photography went big so now it is a changing room for folks I photograph.”

The living room is a bit of a showcase for his intricate woodwork. An assortment of completed bowls, vases, and sculptures line open shelves while pieces in progress sit behind closed glass doors. “My wood pieces have long gestation periods,” said Pearce. “Sometimes the wood fairy presents me with a nice chunk of wood like some from a pecan tree downed by a storm. I did a real rough cut of a bowl from that wood on my lathe and then let it sit in a bag of wood chips to dry more before I continued.”

Working with wood for many years, Pearce describes the process for a bowl featuring the female figure dancing around the middle. “I had the model sort of dance round and round, moving her body and arms into different positions while I photographed her. Then, using the computer, I arranged shadow forms of the different positions in a line.

“I adjust the design and print it on paper until it fits the circumference of the bowl. If I’m going to use color on the wood, I place color on the paper for reference.”

Prior to all the computer and paper design, Pearce has created the turned bowl or vase, painstakingly and carefully shaving away minute layers of wood, making the vessel get thinner and thinner toward the top. “Some of my pieces are only one-sixteenth of an inch thick when I finally take them off the lathe,” said Pearce, with obvious pride and excitement.

Once the design is perfected on paper, Pearce attaches the paper to the vessel and uses tiny dental drills to cut through the wood for the places he wants to remove entirely. A tiny wood-burning tool etches dark lines around the dancing figures. A tiny airbrush is used to apply color. Sometimes color is also applied to the inside of the vessel, giving another dimension to viewing the piece as the color is seen through the dental-drilled holes of the design.

All this equipment, wood, paint, and paper creates chaos in both office and woodshop, but beautiful creations arise from the shavings in the end. Pearce’s artistic woodworking wouldn’t be used to hold pretzels or flowers, but their “eye candy” and intricate workmanship attracted the attention of the Heartwood Artisan Center in Abingdon, Va., where he is an exhibiting member.

Pearce’s woodturning, sculptures, and photography can be seen on his website: www.davidpearcephotography.com

Pearce’s vases are represented by LinDor Arts (306 First St., Roanoke).

The photography exhibit at the Montgomery Museum shows his work from “Here, There, and Around the World. “ The exhibit will run from May 4 to July. An opening reception will be held on from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, May 4.

— Gerri Young

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