Why wood?Wood has been a premier construction material for mankind's works throughout history. It is readily accessible, easily worked, and is available in almost any size. It occurs naturally in forms readily recognized as useful, whether functional or artistic. Its practical applications, most obviously construction, have dominated its use. However, wooden objects to which profound aesthetic and/or religious significance is ascribed are common cultural elements, from the remote past to the present. Wood thus occupies an important and respected position in human experience. It is an instinctive and traditional medium for artistic expression. In my case, no decision to use wood for the creative work presented on these pages ever reached a conscious level; it just seemed the natural thing to do. I like it.
Every kind of tree produces a unique wood distinguishable from all others. Woods differ in hardness, density, color, grain pattern, porosity, composition, fragrance, durability, texture, etc. Not all are useful practically, but each is beautiful in its own unique way. The wood craftsman treasures them all for their astonishing variety and for the joy they bring when transformed into objects that please the eye and touch. Thus, wood is not just something bought from a lumberyard or hardwood dealer, but an almost mystical material that is found all around us, waiting to be discovered and its beauty revealed. Tree trimmings from orchard or backyard, logs from the woodpile, wood debris from the side of the road or construction site, driftwood by stream or shore; all are opportune sources. Treasures can emerge from the plain, the unobtrusive, even the seemingly ugly.
The desire to create beautiful objects from wood has proven an incurable but pleasurable malady. I seem to have been terminally infected with it. I feel compelled to present woods in a way that highlights every detail of their beauty, from rich and harmonious natural colors to intricate grain patterns to the unique silken sheens displayed by so many. To embody these features into an object of practical or aesthetic interest adds worth, perhaps, but cannot override the intrinsic beauty of the wood itself. As a wood artist I find that nothing is more satisfying than exploring a rough chunk of unrefined wood to discover the complex splendor within, and to make it available to all who share my enthusiasm.
ImperfectionsI suffer from a tendency toward perfectionism. I feel that anything I've done can be improved and my internal urge is to tinker endlessly with projects of any sort, in a hopeless quest for flawlessness. This can drive you crazy, especially in woodworking. Wood is an organic material with all the peculiarities that nature gives it, from unseen knots and cracks in the core of a seemingly clear workpiece to unexpected coloration and surface irregularities that appear when finish is applied. My philosophy regarding these pitfalls has gradually evolved over time. My primary goal is the execution of unique designs that highlight the natural beauty of wood. If imperfections are a natural part of the wood's being, then they are part of my work. I won't apologize for them. If imperfections are a result of my technique, e.g. residual sanding scratches or finishing flaws, I do my best to eliminate them. However, even here, the old bugaboo of perfectionism has to be controlled. My rule of thumb for dealing with technical imperfections now reads something like this: eliminate flaws that might detract from visual or tactile enjoyment of the work by artists, art enthusiasts, wood lovers; don't sweat over trivial details apparent only to me, who knows the work most intimately.
QuestionsWhat qualms accompany this enterprise? All human endeavors seem to have at least a little downside. One arises from my lack of any formal training in art. Indeed some might say that my training in science is the antithesis of art, and I occasionally feel insecure in offering my work as "artistic." Fortunately I have very supportive family and friends, among them professional artists, who have nourished my ardor and gotten me through periods of doubt. Also, during my years as a practicing scientist, I was continually impressed by how many notable scientists were excellent musicians, writers and art enthusiasts. After all, independent thinking and robust imagination are hallmarks of the best science and art.
What about the rainforests? Some of the woods I use come from the tropics and at least a few must be endangered (or will be) by irresponsible lumbering or agricultural practices. Should I try to determine those at risk and avoid them? While a 'yes' answer might seem superficially obvious, more careful consideration raises difficult issues. Does buying a rare wood for an art work increase or decrease the potential for the species to survive? The tree cutter's response could go two ways: (1) he cuts more trees from existing, but rare and decreasing, stands of trees (the feared outcome) or (2) he plants more trees to assure future business or acts to responsibly harvest the existing stands (a positive outcome). While still far from a majority position, it is my impression that option (2) is increasingly the choice. This issue affects me but I don't see a clear direction to go. I find myself drawn to tropical woods that are being treated as renewable resources (many hardwood retailers so label their stock) but I find some unique (and expensive, therefore endangered?) woods irresistible because of their outstanding beauty and color (e.g. ebony and pink ivory). My current philosophy is to decide one wood at a time.