Oahu artist Dr. Craig Mason has been seriously studying woodturning since the late 1980s, but his love of nature and trees started much earlier. As a Boy Scout in Des Moines, Iowa, he encountered the state’s forested lands in the 1950s and ‘60s, developing an appreciation for the flora and fauna. These early scouting trips sparked a life-long interest in both the beauty and function found in wood. Craig “came to love the forest and its inhabitants, including the trees,” he said.
While he dabbled in wood-related courses in high school and at Iowa State, and spent his down time learning about furniture construction and refinishing, he was focused less on lumber and more on building a life throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. Craig met his wife, Teri, in college and they started a family. And then it was into the United States Navy, which sent them to Oakland, California. While free time was rare, the Midwesterner was introduced to a wider world of trees on the West Coast. He was surrounded by orchards, from dramatic claro walnut to apricots, plums and peaches to all types of citrus groves. And then there were the majestic redwoods and sequoias, and the exotic eucalyptus and olive trees — all of which became favorites.
From California, the Navy sent Craig to Pearl Harbor in 1977. It was there on Oahu that he and Teri discovered the windward Town of Kailua, where they have lived ever since. After 5 years of active duty, he transferred to the U.S. Navy Reserve where he would go on to serve for another 28 years, attaining the rank of captain. And in 1981, he opened a private dental practice just a 5-minute walk from home. During these years, the family grew and once again Craig was working with wood; only now it was mostly lumber for repairs and additions to their house.
And then, woodturning came to him. In the late 1980s, a Navy reserve buddy was turning wood calabashes to sell locally. Hawaiian woodworkers first made these finely crafted bowls with round bottoms, flowing curves and beautiful finishes from local kou, milo and kamani woods. For Craig, the bowls were an inspirational spark, pulling him right back into his love of wood and woodworking. “The Bishop Museum in Honolulu has the world’s best collection of Hawaiian calabashes, and allowed me to view them in person with reasonable restrictions to protect them,” Craig said. He spent years learning everything he could about the calabash form and the wood from trees growing in Hawaii.
When he first started turning wood, Craig could only find two books about it, and they became the foundation of his artistry. Over the years, he slowly met others who were interested in woodworking and they formed a club so they could share knowledge — and wood. Slowly, this little group grew into the nonprofit Honolulu Woodturners.
Early on, his dental patients became a primary source of wood for his woodturning. As more neighbors learned about his burgeoning hobby, Craig would get phone calls at the office or at home about a tree being cut down on such-and-such corner or at so-and-so’s house. Craig would run out to the location and often return home with a choice piece or even a truckload of tree trunks or limbs that he could share with other woodturners. It turns out, woodworkers and tree trimmers have a symbiotic relationship. “Most tree trimmers are more than happy to have someone else haul away their wood waste as it saves them the trouble and expense of disposal,” he said.
While Oahu is Craig’s home, his favorite island is Lāna'i. When his children were younger, the family spent many spring breaks here hiking, exploring and romping on the beaches. “It was then, and remains today, a very special place, sparsely inhabited by very special people,” he said. Then there’s the dental connection. The island has generally only had one dentist at a time — and even that isn’t always a given. Sometimes a dentist would come over from Maui several days a week. Or perhaps a full-time dentist would live part-time on the island. But in the early 2000s, the current dentist asked Craig to fill in while she went on vacation. Craig went for a week, which turned into two weeks. “I was hooked on Lāna'i again,” he said. “I grew very attached to her staff and the patients.” While not hovering over a dentist chair, he would roam the island, hiking all over and returning to the places he and his family had explored. Craig found that some of the trees had grown strong and tall while others had disappeared. New species were flourishing, while others were harder to find now. “But the forest was still a very special place for me.”
After that experience, Craig jumped at every chance to fill in for the island’s dentist — often tacking on a few days for exploration. For a while, he was going six or seven times a year, his trips growing longer each time. “I started bringing [fallen] tree parts home with me on the plane and turning them into art forms in my workshop. Among the many wonderful people I got to know on Lāna'i were Mike and Kathy Carroll.” Craig knew they were deeply involved with the Lāna'i Animal Rescue Center, now the Lāna'i Cat Sanctuary, and when he heard they were fundraising, he offered one of his turned Lāna'i wood pieces to sell. “When it sold, Mike reached out with an offer to show my pieces in their gallery,” he said. With retirement from dentistry on the horizon, Craig was looking forward to spending more time in the workshop so he agreed.
Since then, the Mike Carroll Gallery has represented Craig’s art and been “wonderful to work with.” Craig has been back to Lāna'i to harvest wood from storm-damaged trees and those cut down in Lāna'i City. And the Carrolls and other residents have shipped him logs from trees that had to come down. Every piece Craig makes from Lāna'i wood comes back to the island to be sold at the gallery.
Craig has always made it a point to get wood from the waste stream — that is, wood that was cut down or carved off for other reasons than woodworking. “In the 32 years I’ve been woodturning, I have never had to kill a tree to harvest wood. We are so blessed in Hawaii to have an abundance of beautiful trees that produce beautiful wood.” Craig’s wood comes from trees that come down for new construction. Or it comes from trees damaged by storms that must be trimmed or removed. Normal tree trimming and removal “results in many, many trees entering the waste stream each year,” he said. “When woodworkers can intercept this wood between the tree cutters and the disposal sites,” it saves costs and keeps tons of waste out of landfills. “The salvaged wood can be turned into furniture, art, instruments, bowls and myriad other things, which will allow the tree to live on as a cherished keepsake in someone’s home.” Between his woodturning club contacts for arborists and tree cutters and helpful patients and friends who alert him to opportunities, Craig has always had more wood than he can use and he shares that bounty with other woodworkers.
Craig retired from dentistry in 2015, but continues to expand and explore his passion for woodworking — and he continues to visit Lāna'i. You can see his pieces at the Mike Carroll Gallery online or on Lāna'i. And while he now has a wide range of wood forms in his repertoire, the calabash is still his favorite.