Humble plywood becomes something exalted at the hands of David Knopp.
The sculptor and craftsman (he accepts both labels) who builds his creations in the garage studio next to his house in the Idlewylde neighborhood in Towson, said plywood inspires him two ways.
"It has a linear effect, but it also shows movement and gesture," he said.
The president of the artists organization Baltimore Sculptors, Josh Gillen, who has exhibited with Knopp, agreed.
"What's impressive is that he takes a material, plywood, that we don't think of as organic, and brings back to it the alive, flowing quality that it once had as an organic piece of wood," he said.
Knopp's growing reputation has placed him at the forefront of the Baltimore art scene. A winner of the 2012 Mary Sawyer Baker Artist Award, for which he received $25,000 and an exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Knopp is also currently part of an exhibition at the American Visionary Art Museum called "Human, Soul, and Machine: The Coming Singularity!" One of his desks was even used in the television series "Veep" during filming in Maryland.
He's hardly an overnight success. Knopp's been doing it for more than 30 years, always in the time he can spare from his full-time job in the graphics department of Cavanaugh Press Inc. in Rosedale.
Knopp is entirely self-taught. A Baltimore native who grew up in Parkville, he graduated from Parkville High School in 1968 and took some science classes at Essex Community College and Towson University before leaving school to pursue other interests, which included drawing and woodworking.
Then, he came across the book "Creating Modern Furniture," which showed him how a chair or table could be more than a thing for sitting on or putting down a drink.
"I felt, 'I'll give this a shot,' " Knopp said. "I started with plywood because I didn't have enough money to buy hardwood. I was pretty broke."
The artist starts with a sketch on paper of the piece. Then, he cuts shapes out of plywood with a bandsaw or jigsaw, applies glue and stacks them in accordance with the sketch. After that, he uses grinders the shape the piece and sands it smooth. The final step is several coats of polyurethane.
This takes four to six months per piece, he said. The final appearance is determined while he is making it.
"For me, it's all in the process. The piece happens while I'm building it. I go with the flow," he said. "It's not like there's a blueprint. ... They change as they go along."
Knopp makes both furniture — he has a half dozen pieces he uses in his house — and free-standing sculptures. He doesn't deliniate between art and craft, but he admitted, "I like to think it could be functional. I like that aspect."
Knopp said he is more interested in exhibition than sales. He searches the Internet for juried shows and competitions he can participate in.
Gillen, of Baltimore Sculptors, said Knopp is one of the most active exhibitors in the group. He's not surprised by the keen interest in Knopp's work.
"It's no small feat to be able to shape wood the way he does. From a craft standpoint, his work is quite amazing. It's genuinely exciting," Gillen said. "His work is furniture and meant to be used. But it is also meant to be looked at and wondered at. He bridges two worlds."
Diane Margiotta, director of the Towson Art Collective, which has a gallery on West Chesapeake Avenue, said the pieces by Knopp exhibited at the gallery since 2011 have always "grabbed our visitors' eyes."
"His work was breathtaking immediately in that it was so sculptural and functional and usable," she said. "It makes me want to touch the pieces because they are so tactile and have so many different modulations in the structure."
Even the entertainment industry has had a small role in raising Knopp's profile. While filming the comedy series "Veep" in and around Baltimore, Jennifer Engel, the show's set decorator, said she was searching the Internet for sculpture that could be used in scenes when she came across Knopp's website. She ended up borrowing three pieces of his furniture.
"His work is incredible. ... I liked the organic nature of his art. I wanted to find a way to use it," she said.
Winning the Baker award last year was a career milestone. He was also a semifinalist for the Sondheim Artscape Prize earlier this year.
Next up is a two-month exhibition at the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation's Hoffberger Gallery on Park Heights Avenue. Called "Rooted," it runs Nov. 1 to Dec. 29 with a meet-the-artist reception at 2 p.m. on Nov. 17.
A preview of the show posted on the gallery's website calls attention to the "intuitive" nature of the artist's work, noting, "Every finished piece is one of a kind. The constant changes that occur as he works keep the work alive as it morphs into his interpretation. The process is paramount."
As he seeks fresh ideas, Knopp said, his process has evolved over his three decades as an artist.
"I can look at a piece I did 10 years ago and think, 'How'd I do that?' "