This is the way to spend retirement.
Rosanne Somerson had a pioneering academic career at Rhode Island School of Design, where she cofounded the furniture design department in the 1990s. She became RISD’s president in 2015 and retired in 2021. Now she works in her Fall River woodshop, where she crafted pieces for a stunning, deeply realized exhibition at Gallery NAGA.
The artist also spends time on Kennebago Lake in Rangeley, Maine, photographing the water. Some of those photos hang here in lightboxes; Somerson calls them wall sconces. You can turn them on and fade them off. Her water photos return in variations through the show like a symphonic motif.
That appears most unmistakably in “Water Ribbon Table,” a cherry wood top supported by a loop of aluminum. Somerson sandwiches the aluminum between lengths of maple printed with glittering turquoise water. The cherry opens in the center, and water seems to rise to the surface, a pool inviting a swim.
With irresistible color, textures, and dramatic contrast, “Water Ribbon Table” may be the most eye-catching piece in “Fluid/Solid.” Somerson made it in 2019. But she designed the other works this year, and their subtler approach seeks kinship between water and wood rather than contrast.
Leather covers the doors on a sideboard crafted from Macassar ebony and topped with a long, graceful scoop of pearwood. Striated shadows floating vertically on a honeyed background are printed on the leather. If you didn’t know the print depicted water, you might mistake it for tree bark.
Water images appear on leather, on wood veneer inside drawers, and in leaf formations. They’re printed on cotton upholstering leaf-shaped benches. Leaves are, after all, where water meets wood.
My favorite piece holds the memory of water in its fluidity, but bears no image of it. “Side Table 1″ features a rounded triangle glass tabletop rimmed in leather-clad wood. Peer down through the glass, and you see two great ribbons of copper weaving through cherry table legs. It’s all curves, wavelike, swelling this way and that.
With a breathtaking variety of tactics and materials, Somerson whittles away at binary notions of fluidity and solidity and finds their crossroads in the living medium of wood — and how it transforms in the mind and hands of a master woodworker.
ROSANNE SOMERSON: FLUID/SOLID
At Gallery NAGA, 67 Newbury St., through Dec. 16. 617-267-9060, www.gallerynaga.com