A little light music
By Dan Wascoe • startribune.com • Monday, June 5, 2006

From Steinway veneers to groovy (literally) concrete and abstract metal art, artist and Renaissance man Thomas Schrunk lives for the play of light on surfaces.

Thomas Schrunk can't read music, but the folks who make Steinway grand pianos consider him a virtuoso of veneer.
The 64-year-old St. Anthony artist soon will begin work on his fourth art case piano for the famous keyboard manufacturer. Art case Steinways are stunning applications of visual arts to a musical instrument — the company makes only three to six per year, and they're pricey.
One of Schrunk's previous models, called Europa, features walnut and matched swirls of Carpathian elm burls combined with such panache that five bidders pursued it when it became available last January. The winning bidder, Greene Music of San Diego, now is asking $249,500 for Europa.
Schrunk has made four art cases for Steinway, but his repertoire includes far more than pianos. He's made tables, chairs, headboards, boats and floors with hundreds of precisely configured pieces that create the illusion of flowing streams. He also makes abstract brushed-aluminum wall art, and he has a patent pending for a type of grooved concrete that catches and reflects light from different angles, changing appearance as the viewer moves past.
"I can put a [concrete] skin on a building and it looks like it's made of silk", he said, "but when a cloud sweeps over the sun, the whole building will be in movement."
Whether the medium is concrete or wood, the common thread running through Schrunk's art is making light interact with a variety of surfaces and textures.

Prelude to a piano
Schrunk's basement workshop includes fiberboard sheets laid atop a little-used pool table. Nearby, dozens of cubbyholes hold small stripsof different woods. Using his own graph paper as a kind of road map to plot the flow of the grain, he pieces those strips together. He pays attention to diagonal and vertical lines, which "we see better" than horizontals, he said.
"People say I'm more of an engineer than an artist," he said, "and they may be right."
When he showed his designs, unsolicited, to Steinway, "They saw diagonal bookmatching that had not been done before."
To woodworkers, bookmatching means placing precisely fitted pieces side by side to create either the illusion of seamless continuity or strikingly dramatic mirror-image patterns. He uses "a big paper cutter" to match angles, then massages glue between the strips before securing them with blue masking tape.
He ships his sheets of finished veneer to Steinway's factory in New York City, where burly workers press them around the curves of the grand piano. A single sheet around the rim can be 17 feet long, with enough excess to permit careful trimming.
Andrew Horbachevsky, Steinway's director of design in the factory in Queens, said it takes "a certain kind of person" to master Schrunk's style and craftsmanship — "detailed, accurate, precise."
In addition, he said, Schrunk's "unpretentious" and "thoughtful" personality strikes a chord at Steinway. "You've got to have a good chemistry," Horbachevsky said. "If not, the end product is not what we want. ... We get very passionate about what we do."

Schrunk was born on Christmas Day 1941, and was raised by his mother, a teacher, and his father, an egg wholesaler, on a small farm near Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He left the University of Iowa after his junior year to join the Peace Corps. That included time in India, where he became interested in the art of refracted light and the multiple repetitions of symbols and designs in Islamic art. These principles would inform his later work.
Returning to Des Moines, he earned a bachelor's degree in general science in 1967 and a master's in art history in 1972. He also took architectural photographs in Yugoslavia, where he met his wife, Vanca. They were married in 1973.
He earned a second master's, in architecture, at the University of Minnesota and soon turned to restoring stained-glass windows in Midwest churches, absorbing the lessons of transmitted light. He also learned to sandblast glue off glass in controlled ways to produce a unique mottled effect. But he disliked inhaling sandblasting dust and turned instead to making wood frames for stained glass and pictures made entirely of veneers.
In 1988, to share time with his then-5-year-old son, he built a small glass-bottom boat. It quickly found a buyer. The following summer father and son built a bigger boat and Schrunk used veneer to cover a joint. "That was the nut, the kernel" of what was to come, he said.
Although his Northern Rhapsody Boatworks was a featured attraction at the Minneapolis Boat Show in 1990, he grew bored with boats and decided to launch, of all things, a political career.
Influenced by his mother's caution that "Silence is consent," Schrunk ran for the U.S. Senate in Minnesota in 1996 as an Independence Party candidate against Democratic incumbent Paul Wellstone and Republican challenger Rudy Boschwitz. Schrunk was fed up with politicians who "pass laws willy-nilly" but don't practice "quality assurance" to see whether they achieve promised benefits.
Although the party's nomination went to Dean Barkley, Schrunk remains proud of one of his campaign buttons: "Honey, we Schrunk the government." But once "realism set in," he decided at age 55 that he wanted to be a fulltime artist.

Before embarking on his next art case piano project, Schrunk is preparing a line of veneered tabletops that other woodworkers will attach to bases. The tables are to go on display at Blue Sky Galleries in northeast Minneapolis this summer.
Schrunk enjoys teaching other craftsmen the skills he's picked up in a lifetime of watching light glitter, stream and dapple and transforming that transience into something more permanent — "something greater than the sum of its parts."