Where most woodworkers see problems, Ed Konderla sees possibilities.
 
"The wood I use would be thrown on the burn pile by most carpenters. It's unstable and gnarly, and it wouldn't work for furniture or general carpentry," he says. "It's kind of a paradox. For my projects, I look for strange graininess, knotholes, anything that makes a piece of wood distinctive."
 
That distinctiveness is on display at Arte de la Madera, Konderla's Cuenca gallery in La Esquina de las Artes, located on Av. 12 de Abril. His wooden bowls, vases, hangings and furniture are a testament to a life-long fascination with wood. Meticulously crafted, most of the pieces exhibit a quirkiness dictated by natural wood colors, odd grain patterns and knotholes.
 
Becoming a wood sculptor, or turner, as it is known in the trade, was a predictable progression from the general woodworking that fascinated Konderla from the time he was a child. "I've always enjoyed a challenge and getting into the artistic side of woodworking just seemed natural for me," says Konderla, who has built two airplanes and a gyrocopter, as well as cabinets and furniture. "I like to experiment and I feel driven to execute a vision once it comes to me," he says. On the other hand, he explains, he is ready to move on to a new project once he's finished with an old one. "I have no problem selling my work and I keep very little of it for myself. I'm always ready for the next thing."
 
Most of Konderla's creations come from a single piece of wood and some, such as large bowls and table tops, measure more than three feet in diameter. The lathe and routing work is demanding and a mistake can mean hours of wasted time. "Because of the type of wood I work with, the chances of messing up are pretty high," he says. "But that's the beauty of it; it makes the finished pieces more valuable."
 
Konderla has had to learn a new tree vocabulary since moving to Ecuador, replacing the mesquite, black walnut, sycamore, cherry and hickory, his favorite Texas woods, with capuli, nogal, cipres, canelo and cedro.
 
The Cuenca gallery is the fourth that Konderla and his wife, Tresa, have owned. The last one was in the small east Texas town of Center, where they lived before relocating to Ecuador. The Center gallery, which doubled as a coffee shop, became something of a community gathering spot, he says. "Having a gallery works for me on two levels. I'm able to display my work and the work of my friends and, at the same time, I get to meet new people and just hang out."
 
Besides his own galleries, Konderla's work has been exhibited and sold at a number of art shows and festivals in the U.S. Southwest. His turnings have won top prizes in such venues as the Rio Grande Art Festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the Festival of the Arts in Houston.
 
Konderla, 58, spent most of his working career as an Automation Engineer in the petrochemical industry. The job took him to several overseas locations, including Ecuador in the late 1990s. "I worked on the Villano oil project in the rain forest, about fifty kilometers east of Puyo," he says. "My primary responsibility was maintaining the automation systems, including computers, communication and electrical, for the project."
 
Of the countries where Konderla worked, Ecuador made the greatest impression and he and Tresa, a high school Spanish teacher in Texas, returned for vacations, then decided to move here permanently in 2008. "From a visual standpoint, this is the most spectacular of all the countries we've visited and the weather is a big improvement over Texas," he says. "I was also impressed with the people. They are some of the most self-sufficient, hard-working, gracious folks I've ever met," adding, "and I've met a bunch of folks from all over the world."
   
Another reason Konderla chose Cuenca was for its active arts community. "The city has a reputation for being a good place for artists," he says. "There are a lot of private galleries, excellent museums and several large arts festivals."
 
In addition to Konderla, a number of other North American expats are involved in the Cuenca arts scene. Miriam Drake, a landscape painter from California, also has a gallery in La Esquina de las Artes. Jon Wright, a lithographer and former art professor from Hawaii and Canada, has had public exhibits in Cuenca and Quito. Painter and photographer Diane Ferchel, also from California, had an opening in November.
 
Konderla's work appeals equally to expats and native Cuencanos, evidenced by the fact that the gallery almost sold out during Cuenca's holiday festival in early November. "We had a veritable run on the store," he says. "Now I need to get back to the workshop, so I can restock."

Credit: Reposted from the Miami Herald, International Edition, December 21, 2011; photo captions: Ed Konderla at work and one of his sculpted wooden bowls.