Friday, January 28, 2011

Communication in partnership: beauty, the maker and the receiver.

It’s a tricky thing, this making of images, because while it may seem to the maker that it is an individual process, what has been made must now communicate with viewers if the circle is to be completed. While the artist must work with ‘knowledge, sensitiveness and imagination’ if he wishes his work to be taken seriously, it is important to understand that the viewer must expect to put the same serious thought into it. The meeting is not so much between minds but somewhere out there where new thought is developed, hovering in the air between the work of art and the viewer. It is as if the artist pushes the idea forward into view and the viewer must be alert to receive it and be ready to make a similar leap into new awareness. The following quote from a book I read recently expresses this thought well.

“Why should you think that beauty, which is the most precious thing in the world, lies like a stone on the beach for the careless passer-by to pick up idly? Beauty is something wonderful and strange that the artist fashions out of the chaos of the world in the torment of his soul. And when he has made it, it is not given to all to know it. To recognize it you must repeat the adventure of the artist. It is the melody that he sings for you, and to hear it again in your own heart you want knowledge and sensitiveness and imagination”.

‘The Moon and Sixpence’. By Somerset Maugham

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Frosty morning at Burgoyne Bay

 After several clear bright frosty days, the heavy clouds of an approaching warm front coat the sparkling landscape with an even wash of grey. After so many splendid days for photography it is a temptation to leave my camera at home when the family sets off for a morning walk on the other side of the island. But no, I`ve tried that before and nearly always regretted it later.

I do try something different today though, as we set out on the cliff-edge trail that leads through the woods, beside the fields, and down to the beach. I adjust the camera setting that controls the degree of colour that the camera will render as it takes the picture. If the landscape is grey, I reason, then lets juice it up by recording in extra vivid. I`ve done something like this before, adjusting a normal image in the computer post-capture, but never tried this exact thing . Here we go with another camera adventure.

Sure enough, the red rails of the Government wharf glow brightly through the dark silhouettes of trees, and later on, as we step down to the beach at last, the white hull of a beached sailboat shows an otherwise unnoticed blue of winter light behind the bare branches of a maple. That sailboat, on closer inspection is a treasure trove of images, - the frost-covered rigging and mast lean sharply against the dark, cloud-shrouded mountainside. This vivid camera setting is doing some fascinating things in this dull landscape that is different somehow from the results I would get if I applied it later in a photo program.

This far end of the beach is always in the shadow of the steep slope of the mountain. The winter sun just cannot reach into this corner and the frost has had time to grow large crystals in the cold, but damp air of the past week. All around me is a delicate white hoarfrost that would be sparkling if the sun were not shrouded and could reach in here. I follow a creek back towards the woods and find at the upper end of the driftwood swath at the high tide line that the stream`s spray has formed some most interesting crystal patterns. Holding the camera down close to the rushing water I can capture this fairy world without having to crawl on my belly in the cold and wet. There is such value for me always when the camera can get up close and personal with the surface of the earth.

Soon we are walking through the old farm fields, past the barn and back to our vehicle. I`m very glad I brought my camera today, grey overcast, chilly morning, and all.

Duck arrows



Monday, January 17, 2011

The gods. Are they primitive or are we?

The other day while writing about my carving process I wrote about having dreamed repeatedly, while still a little boy, of The Thunderbird, a North American Indian spirit being, and how that experience lead me to be a carver and ultimately an artist. I imagined readers thinking, “How weird is that?” I was, after all, born in England and have no aboriginal blood. How could I have experienced this intimation without even the cultural background to suggest that this could happen?

I can only think that some children are more suggestible than others and that solitary time spent in the forest and along the seashore opened me to that experience. Perhaps too, although I missed the usual means by which Indian boys traditionally escaped briefly from their cultural ways to experience their guardian spirit; hunger, lack of sleep, solitude, I did something similar, - I had been moved from one country to another, all around me was strange, and in a busy family time I was left to wander. For that important opening into a new reality, I was ready.

What that tells me is that there is a relationship between landscape and people that expresses itself quite naturally in the form of intermediary spirits: that thousands of elements of the natural world combine with our own sensibility and communicate what we need to know in order to exist together in harmony.

This is not a novel or revolutionary concept, just the accumulated experience of humankind since the world began for us. The real novelty is that there should exist people for whom this would sound unusual. Many of us today would find belief in the gods and spirits of hill and stream to be ‘primitive’ and backward. We are beyond superstition. Some of us may still believe in a universal spirit, but many have cheerfully chucked that out as well. God survives as a swear word only, or accidently slips out in times of stress or passion. Fair enough, but from a practical viewpoint what also goes out the window with this ‘enlightened’ world view?

Is it possible that the ‘Gods’ and all the stories associated with them ( remember Zeus, Apollo, Athene, etc.?) represent a complex and sophisticated system of thought, and without access to that tool of relationship it is we that are underdeveloped and our thought systems primitive? We have thrown away a form of thinking that grew along within our physical and cultural development. How to synchronize our human ways with the greater systems we call ‘our’ environment is a current concern with dire consequences if we don`t. Libations to the Gods may not be popular in the modern context but a deep understanding of our place in the partnership is still needed at the most instinctive as well as intellectual level.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Carving 4. Photographing the art work for best effect.

 One might think that taking pictures of my own sculptures would be a snap. But in reality each one presents a different lighting problem.

The long bearded face of #1 relies on the contrasts in texture and colour between the smooth face, carved in the darker heartwood, and the lighter beard with its rippled wood and hairy-textured surface. After several attempts I put my Speedlight flash aside and use the bright light of a gooseneck lamp to sidelight the sculpture which brings out the textures of the beard and the form of the face.

The face of Chaos herself ( # 2 ), swelling upwards from the shallow cedar bowl, calls for a different approach. I try side lighting again and the shadows do pick out the contours of the face nicely but was that really what was being said here? I take the camera, pop up the on-camera flash, reset the exposure down to darken the final image and then turn off the lights in the studio. I wish to take advantage of the contrast between the shiny eyes, the ‘spit’ in the mouth, and the softer rubbed wax finish on the wood grain of the remaining surface. I use the focussing beam of light from the camera to light up the carving and keep repeating the light beam as I move slightly up and down and side to side until I can see that there is a good reflection from the yellow cedar plug and the eyes. Click/Flash, and I have a photograph that enhances the idea of the carving.

The torso ( #3 ) has problems all of its own. I try simple side lighting and frontal flash but neither brings out the gentle form or interesting spalded textures. I decide to treat this as if I were lighting a real torso and begin a series of speedlight flash photos. By bouncing the flash from the sloping ceiling off to one side and using a mirror on the other to redirect that main light so it will highlight the edge of the shadow side I am able to give gently modulated light to the varnished form, bring out the patterned areas nicely and yet not loose the lovely curve of the hip on the shadow side. Reflection of the main light on the smooth varnished surface is a problem but I persevere until I can get just enough to show that it is a shiny surface but not so it glares off the most important areas.

This was an interesting problem I set myself. Lighting, it turned out could make or break the photographic impact of the wood carvings. Being the maker, I had a gut understanding of what they were really all about and was able to light them in such a way that each communicated well in its own way.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Carving 3. The torso. Working with spalded wood.

This grey, semi-rotten chunk of wood looks to be a doubtful prospect for a carving, but I start to trim away the softened grey surface layers to see what lies within. This was once a crotch of a maple branch, and I discover that in the years of lying in the open it has begun to spald: a complex and beautiful rot pattern sweeps diagonally across the form. Whatever I do with this wood will have to showcase this beautiful pattern, and the two stumps of ‘legs’ of what were once branches gives me the clue. There is no forcing my ideas on the wood, the direction this carving will take is obvious.

How accurate to a real female body do I need to be? The wood has already been chainsawed off at the back so a full three-dimensional form is not possible and anyway my purpose is to make a reference to reality rather than a copy. The wood and its patterning takes priority here. I begin to carve with the circlet cutter but soon switch to the belt sander which will shape the gently rounded form more safely. The wood is still hard in most places but I would hate to gouge it accidently by hitting a soft area with the rapidly whirling blade.

Final sanding takes a long time as usual, but eventually I paint on the first coat of Swedish oil. At last I can see what the finished piece will look like! The sanded wood soaks up the oil and the contrast between the light blond of the solid maple and the dark spalded pattern is spectacular. I follow this up later with two coats of spar varnish to harden the surface, sand again, and then spray on several coats of satin urethane varnish. The oil, and all those layers of varnish bring out the depth and beauty of the wood.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Carving 2. A Creation story. From spit, everything is made.

On the last carving I learned to control the circlet cutter and know now that I could use it to hollow out freeform bowls if I wished. I don`t right now, but in looking at this two inch thick red cedar plank I begin to understand how I could use that technique for my next image. Another face, I think, because I am simply moving from carving to carving right now, getting into the flow and saving the really big blocks of wood for later when I hope to be really up to speed. My thoughts are still slack and unfocussed.

I begin to hollow out a circular trough as though I was carving a square bowl with the center left for later. I draw a simple face with large eyes in the center, and begin to work on that too, slowly lowering some areas and delineating eyes, nose and eyebrows. This will need to be a broad fairly flat face because there is only a shallow depth to work within. While some sculptors build up their forms piece by piece, I am much happier to cut away and slowly expose the being contained within. This tool slices so quickly that I need to slow down. I can`t imagine as fast as I am capable of cutting. I am soon at the point where I must switch to the belt sander and use its nose to slowly grind out and refine the rest of the form.

To this point I have been thinking my process through in a practical way, but now, as the face becomes more refined, as the eyes, with some help from my knife, become more dominant, I begin to get a glimmer of what is being born. The mouth opens and the bottom lip stretches, leaving a round hollow waiting to be filled. I carve a separate plug of yellow cedar and glue it in. The eyes are blind still, I have yet to carve in the pupils, and I stop myself just in time. I get it! The image is blind as it presses upward through the force lines of the cedar grain. It is spitting out a gob of spit into the nothingness of another dimension and that act will come to be named the Big Bang, the creation of the universe, everything that we experience as reality sharing in the essence of that  expectoration.

When all the finishing sanding is complete I apply an oil finish and later a paste wax to bring out the grain of the wood. Everything that is, but the eyes and yellow cedar mouth disc. The eyes I first paint white and when they are dry I apply several coats of Spar varnish to them and the mouth plug and gives a highly reflective finish to both.

I could never have known at the beginning what would eventually come out of this piece of wood and I remain a little puzzled. To imagine such an image, the creation of everything, is the stuff of dreams and this was a waking dream. I remember the stories about serious scientists who have their impossibly difficult to develop theories solved visually for them while they sleep. I also know that every culture on earth has an origin story, Chaos, in the ancient Greek pantheon of the gods, is how the world came to be and that parallels my own realization in wood. This is a small and simple carving that has dreamed big, providing me with an intermediary thought in concrete form which, if I can stretch my mind far enough, will lead me to on to new understandings and creativity.

P.S. So, seriously, what came before the Big Bang? Spit? And if so we should be able to find its ‘DNA’ spread out through the universe. Some wave, matter, or perhaps the tendency for the development of life from some pretty basic elements? Those old stories from all world cultures about how the word began: perhaps they were not so far out after all. Certainly our minds work comfortably with metaphor, forming images that can speak to us of things that are difficult to conceptualize in a purely rational way. Science misses a lot when it does not also train its specialists in the art of intuitive imagination.