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Dream Drives: The Center for Art in Wood

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- Thanks to a dramatic exterior mural of black silhouettes floating on a wood-like wall, there is no mistaking what's inside The Center for Art in Wood in Old City.

For decades, fans of wooden artwork have flocked to this spot. Everywhere your eye goes are incredible wood sculptures.

"You have a whole range of objects made from artists from all over the world," said co-founder Albert LeCoff. He started collecting wood objects in the 1970s and created the center in 1986 as part gallery, part museum, part library, part shop.

LeCoff's passion is wood-turning, which is the art of carving wood as it spins on a lathe.

More than 1,000 objects are in the permanent collection, from the small shapes of Mountain Men by C.R. "Skip" Johnson, to the tall friendly figure of Time Standing Still, a boxy human-shaped cabinet with a clock for a head.

Other pieces are functional pieces of art, meant to serve as furniture as well as art.

The Center for Wood in Art also has special exhibits of objects that range from ancient to vintage to contemporary.

"The minute I saw that I was like, 'That's a skateboard, clearly,'" Meisha said. But it was actually a mangle board, a flat piece of wood with a handle, often elaborately carved. The center's temporary exhibit, Smooth, features mangle boards that date back to the 1700s.

"What they were used for was smoothing out linen," explained Katie Sorenson of The Center for Art in Wood. "Basically, they are the precursor for an iron."

"Where has that kind of detail gone, right?" Meisha said. "It's really cool to walk into a gallery and see that."

The simplest shapes of wood often hide secrets.

"Close your eyes. I'll take something out," LeCoff said as he pulled a half-circle of wood off a shelf. "What is this? Circular object that has a broken element? Well, when you look at the ends that are cut, what do you see?"

The ends revealed the secret: If you sliced the half-circle like a loaf of bread, each slice would be shaped like a giraffe.

"Oh! I love that!" Meisha said.

This traditional German woodturning technique, called ring turning, was a quick way to make hundreds of identical animal shapes from one piece of wood.

"And it's a tradition that the father would turn them, and the kids would cut them and shape them and paint them," LeCoff said.

"How many things we walk by that we would never think (to) flip it, turn it, cut it, whatever -- what it could actually turn into," Meisha said.

"That's right," LeCoff said, "and that's what's great about every object in our collection. There's a story behind every piece."

The Center for Art in Wood is open Tuesday through Sunday at 141 North 3rd Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106. Admission is free.

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