Journal

A Living Medium

When I confirmed that I would attempt a large scale woodblock project for my thesis, I decided at the same time that I needed to get to know wood in other ways than as a surface to carve and print, since the thorough investigation of specific materials is one of the best gifts of art. So I asked my university’s main carpenter and locksmith, Leo, if he would be able to do a carpentry study with me. My project was to build a table. I decided to start simple, and designed a small trestle table inspired by Shaker furniture. It seats about six. The process turned out to be meaningful in ways beyond gaining a new craft skill.  

Carpentry allowed me to practice a different kind of intelligence than I tend to use in my every day life. With this project, for the first time in many years, I was able to regularly engage in basic problem-solving in a physical way. Learning to use the tools in the wood shop, thinking about the design and construction of a simple table, observing the way wood acts and responds to its environment and fixing gouges or splinters in the wood; these were all ways to relate with genuine curiosity to the world. 

Even the small, simple tasks required to build a table built my confidence and curiosity.  I became more willing to attempt to fix other practical dilemmas in my life, like dysfunctional computers, which I’m convinced was a direct bi-product of the work I was doing in the wood shop. Becoming more familiar with a select set of tools and materials helped me to realize how many objects in my life are accessible by investigation. 

I loved working with wood to build something which will have daily functions, while I was working with it to make woodblocks. Each kind of work enhanced the other, and deepened my respect for the life of wood and the places it comes from. I don’t think you can love something unless you respect its origins. Japanese woodworker George Nakashima, whose website traces the multiple histories of a tree, is perhaps one of the best examples of such respect. The tree "does nothing but good," it says on his website, "with its prodigious ability to serve, it gives off its bounty of oxygen while absorbing gases harmful to other living things. The tree and its pith live on. Its fruits feed us. Its branches shade and protect us. And, finally, when time and weather bring it down, its body offers timber for our houses and boards for our furniture. The tree lives on."

Touching and shaping wood is a connection with origins. In my experience process knowledge increases mystery rather than decreasing it. You touch the age and the material history with the skin of your palms. Dust settles on you that is shed from the whole which that object was in the past. The shape it held in the world is altered by your touch and it leaves remnants on you and around you. For me, this quotidian and yet occasionally unsettling encounter brought me into the interior of a process, and a life, that used to be distant; the life of furniture and its origins in that living thing, a tree.