I have been working with wood for most of my life. We are comfortable with each other, have a close relationship and I value the connection immensely. I am curious what is inside, how it works. I am always looking for the gifts it has to offer. At times I am awed by its beauty and the story of its history, the tracks that the passing of time have left. I am driven to expose this beauty, to make it shine. At other times I am more fascinated with its inner structure, its more subtle form and spirit.
I work just about exclusively with Pacific Madrone from the Arbutus family. My favorite parts are the burls that grow within the roots of these trees. They are harvested for the veneer market and I use the rejects from this harvest. These burls often weigh many thousand pounds. To make them usable, the dirt and rocks have to be removed, then they can be cut into blocks. By working with wet wood with a high water content (up to 20% of it’s volume) and by cutting or turning my forms very thin (to about an 1/8th of an inch) I take advantage of and encourage the changes that occur as the wood dries. As the water evaporates and leaves the cells and the space between the cells, the wood shrinks. Depending on how those cells were aligned in its structure, some very dynamic changes occur.
I work with a variety of tools. The chainsaw is used for most of the wood preparation but also for sculptural pieces. Here, the marks that are left are dramatic and forceful. The lathe is used for round forms; mainly in a series I call ‘Baskets’. Tool marks here are subtle and soft. In my current series of wall sculptures, called ‘Fragments’ and ‘Torsos’ I work with the band saw and a horizontal band saw mill to cut large blocks of Madrone burl into very thin panels. The saw leaves subtle lines across the surface of the wood. I dry these panels slowly over a period of weeks, sometimes months, in a controlled environment, allowing them to take on their final shape, while minimizing the chances of cracking.
When they have finished drying, I sandblast and bleach the panels. The sandblasting cleans and softens them. Like a lot of my other work, I use bleach to expose what is within. I compare this to Black and White photography: I remove most of the color to simplify, to focus on the structure and the undulations and textures that occurred through the drying process. Sometimes it feels obvious how a particular panel wants to be used, at other times it takes me a while to read it, feel it, ask what it wants from me, so that I can do my part. Many are discarded. I mount these thin slices of wood on the wall. At times, I display them as single objects, but mostly I assemble them into larger groups, all cut from the same block of green wood. I am interested in their interactions and the spaces between them. I enjoy the way their shapes and textures flow together and create a whole. When mounted and with proper lighting, beautiful shadows appear on the wall, extending the form in varying degrees of grey.
In the ‘Torso’ series, I have cut the wood in such a way, that after the panels dry, they carry a sometimes subtle, sometimes very obvious resemblance to human torsos, male and female. At times I approach the panels like I would a canvas and with the help of a burning tool I add my own ideas and energy, through textures and variations in color. I either try to step into the surface and flow with the grain and the underlying energy, or I start creating multiple levels of texture, sometimes adding the burning as a separate element.
In the ‘Baskets’ series, I use a very simple form turned on the lathe in varying sizes, turned very thin to let the wood speak at its fullest. This simple form contains the movement of the wood during the drying. Each basket is different from the next. Here too, tool marks are left. Edges are burnt. Sometime the wood out of the actual root system of the Madrone tree is used, resulting in extreme distortion. By displaying them in multiples in varying sizes, I create families, relationships.
In the series called ‘Books’, I have worked again with the band saw. They are always bleached and sometimes textured. They, too, are cut from green blocks and dried. I use a microwave to help the wood dry evenly and from the inside out. Each one’s form is a direct result of the underlying grain structure. Each book has it’s own personality. Working this way allows me a freedom and pleasure I did not feel while working with dry and stable wood, and this freedom is very important to me. It keeps me challenged and often surprised. It makes me feel that I am working together with my material, not trying to subdue or control it.
To be working this closely with nature is a blessing, but also often overwhelming. It is a struggle. At times I find myself needing to put my foot down, to control the outcome of my work, only to find that I trampled something beautiful. At other times I feel overwhelmed, scared: what is needed of me here, how can I match the beauty of this living thing? How am I to know when to be loud and when to be quiet…? Maybe this stuff just matches my personality, something to wrestle with, something that stirs my imagination, something to control. That nature versus manmade thing, that struggle, that tension, that conflict. My work is about my relationship with nature, my desire to connect with it on a deep level. Trying to get under its skin and be part of it. Searching, finding something sacred, adding my touch, wrestling with it. Showing the beauty of it under a different light: exposing, transforming. I make things out of a deep urge to create and out of a driving curiosity. I need to do it. I don’t really have a choice in the matter.
When I am working with the panels I am looking for certain patterns. Patterns that are known to us from nature: landscapes, maps, bodies and birds. A pattern or image that elicits a visceral response. How come a piece of wood looks like a torso or the flight of birds? When the image is quiet enough to have some space for me, it becomes a canvas and I can add to or change the direction of the energy.
I get great pleasure from slowly learning what is in a panel and from following and trusting my intuition. There are hints of form that I follow, flows of energy, abstractions that are faintly familiar. I attempt to bring them into focus. Some of the more interesting imagery happens where the root burl changes into the straight-grained parts of a tree. Something special happens here, there is a charge, a place where two energies meet.
I do take a lot of chances and I fail a lot. Many ideas just don’t turn out after all. I burn a lot of my work. It can feel at times as if I was holding a whole lot of strings and am weaving them together. I push and pull till it sings. And I am learning to ask more of the right questions, to set things in motion, set possibilities in motion. At times I am even patient!
I allow my relationships and my need for connection to flow into and inform the work. It is different now than it was ten years ago. There used to be lot of fear in my work, a rush to succeed and a fear of failing. Life has changed and I have slowed down, and my work has gotten simpler and quieter. The difference is that I am not looking for something new all the time. I have gained a deeper understanding of the wood that I am using, there is more breadth in our relationship. I have learned to trust the process, to give it the time and confidence it needs and deserves. That in turn is stretching my creative abilities, strongly affecting me and the work.