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Iconic Rochester artist Wendell Castle has died

An iconic figure in the art world, both in Rochester and around the world has died.

Wendell Castle died in his Scottsville home on Saturday. That word came Sunday morning from RIT, where Castle was an artist in residence. He was 85 years old.

Wendell Castle was an artist for more than 60 years and is considered a founder of the American Crafts and Art Furniture movements. More than 100  of his works are installed in museums worldwide, and up until recently, was still innovating in his studio in the Rochester area.

Wendell Castle is widely thought of as a master of wood and design. He was born in Kansas and after receiving degrees in  Industrial Design and sculpture, moved to Rochester to teach at the School of American Craftsmen and established a permanent studio in the area.

He also served as head of the woodworking department at RIT.

His design catalogue includes a technique called stack-lamination, a construction method he first used in the 1960s. Castle took blocks of different kinds of wood, bonded them together and then molded them into various shapes, often whimsical, outsized pieces of furniture, but others that are practical as well.

Later in his career, Castle started using robots to accomplish tasks like having one shape fit into another shape so that he could develop bigger pieces.

Wendell Castle created the unicorn family for a sculpture garden at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester several years ago. It includes an outdoor grouping of chairs, a table and a lamp for visitors who like to sit and watch the passing scene.

In a 2013 interview, Castle said that, “so much of the sculpture I work with, in terms of the furniture that goes into somebody’s home, or goes into the lobby of a business, and you’re not going to drive by and see it; this is something that you can actually get a decent view of it driving by.“

Castle’s more recent pieces were part of a major exhibition unveiled at the Memorial Art Gallery just this past fall. 

The exhibit is called “ Wendell Castle Remastered” and it features around 40 works of art, including the large, exotic looking pieces of furniture that are a hallmark of his work.

Castle told WXXI News, at the opening of that exhibition, that he has wanted to get people to look at everyday objects in a different way.

“I think you could take a lot of common things that everybody assumes they look a certain way, well that’s an assumption that is not necessarily true; with some imagination you can take something way beyond what it would have been normally and turn it into an art form.”

Jonathan Binstock is the  director of the Memorial Art Gallery, and during a preview of the exhibition in October, and late last year he said that  the exhibit gave museum goers a good entrance into Wendell Castle’s portfolio, as well as highlight just how important he is to the city.

“When we think of the art scene in Rochester we think of Wendell Castle , he’s absolutely critical to our culture; he’s helped define some of our best characteristics of what we’ve produced and sent out into the world,” Binstock told WXXI News.

The exhibit was extended until January 7.

On Sunday, Binstock released a statement which said that, “Wendell is a towering figure in the international world of art and design. At the same time, his importance to Rochester cannot be overstated. He is an icon who will long remain an inspiration and leading light of our local arts and cultural communities.” 

“As important and influential as he was,” Binstock also said, “Wendell always showed up at art openings in Rochester, no matter how small or grand. He was always the best-dressed, coolest guy in the room, and he was genial, approachable, down to earth, a farm boy from Kansas, as he was wont to say. He supported his friends and colleagues; he supported the arts community. He contributed generously to the art scene and especially to MAG. He will be sorely missed. All of us at the museum send our condolences to his wife, the artist Nancy Jurs, and their entire family.” 

“Wendell Castle is known the world over for his contributions to the field of art and design,” said Josh Owen, professor and chair of RIT’s industrial design program in RIT’s School of Design.

Up until recently, Owen noted,  Castle had regularly taught a graduate industrial design seminar, which enabled RIT students to interact with the renowned artist in an intimate setting. Castle also regularly opened up his Scottsville studio to give RIT students in the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences (CIAS) a peek behind the scenes into the inner workings of his unique practice.

“Wendell gifted us with his enthusiasm, his eagerness to collaborate and share, and his generosity to deliver his intentions with tangible and always elegant results,” Owen added. “We will never forget the joie de vivre (French for “the joy of living”) that Wendell shared with us.”

Mimi Tilton of Rochester is a longtime friend of Wendell Castle, who notes that while Castle was internationally known, he was glad to be identified with Rochester.

"For one thing, he stayed in this community, and he loved the community…he could have gone anywhere and done anything, but he stayed here, which I think for the community, was just a wonderful perk," Tilton said.

Information about memorial arrangements are pending.

Here is a video tribute about Wendell Castle

Here is video when Wendell Castle spoke last October at the opening of the Wendell Castle Remastered exhibit at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester:

Randy Gorbman is WXXI's director of news and public affairs. Randy manages the day-to-day operations of WXXI News on radio, television, and online.