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carving essay
a few words about carving - a spark becomes a flame

i first encountered carving as a real and living experience in the summer of 1994, staying at my parents' country place at Woodstock Ontario Canada.

it so happened that just down the road was David Reuben Piqtouken, the Inuit sculptor.  he was carving stone, his profession, at his place, and carving a huge cherrywood trunk for fun at my folks' place. i got to see how his sustained daily effort turned a lump of wood into an all-but-breathing form - that man is touched with fire.

i later saw one of his pieces, 'shaman'. at the Art Gallery of Ontario; was hit with a visceral urge to smuggle it out of the place underneath my coat so i could gaze in fascination all by myself at home ... not often i've felt like that.  the stone was alive.

well, that was the spark, and somehow it translated into a flame: 'i could do that'.  there was another log of cherry at home, maybe twelve foot long, and i began...

carving carving carving

at first armed only with a straight carpenter's chisel from Dad's workshop, without a clue in the world as to what to do. BUT - i had the fascination to sustain my exploration.

a great quote i hit a while back:
'talent is the fascination with a skill sufficient to overcome the obstacles to its mastery'

helpful, that - and an apt description of the next several summer visits to my parents, bashing away on that wretched log, looking to see what was inside, waiting to come out.

another inspiration came from Goethe:

'one great truth is all too little known: that once one is committed to a course of action, then the Universe moves too. all manner of unforeseen circumstance arise to further one's progress'robin's first piece

and so somehow, i slowly learned further technique, the concepts of proportion and diminishing perspective, new tools and their possibilities... slowly slowly, yes...

'self-taught?'  possibly so, but how could one teach this? you have to learn by doing, till the capacity is reflexive in the eye and the hand.   

the next great boost our helpful Universe delivered was another lad from our village - old friend and schoolfellow Neil Cox.  how does that tiny village happen to have two of the best carvers in the world? something in the water, i suppose ... at least now they've got me to lower the average a bit.

Neil can carve a figure in utter realism, down to the least hair on the head, with a rare patience and energy that combine to form that elusive quality 'talent'.  through his skills mine managed to grow a bit further - 'try this tool...' 'i like that bit there...' 'you might want to consider this...' a growth process.

one of Neil's comments was:  'you have a capacity for bringing out the inside of the wood'.  oh - i do? really?   those piercings i've taken to doing, they help get the piece as 3D as possible, explore the depth ... and for the outside pieces, as the sun moves through the day, there's a real movement of light and shadow ... a life of its own.

well, the more you do, the more you learn, and the more the process evolves beneath your hand, from one piece to the next.

so if your concept or line of exploration fails to fully engage on the current piece, don't panic or try to cram it in - it'll emerge in the next project.

Picasso:   'i've been involved in one piece of work all my life, and its theme is time'

carving involves a lot of completely different actions, from creating a snowstorm of sawdust with a deadly chainsaw attack, to standing back in contemplation with a cup of coffee - equally vital to the piece, you have to know exactly which bits you're taking away - you can't stick it back afterward.  as doing the same thing for too long leads to madness, mine, at least, this is a wonderful aspect of carving ... a change is as good as a rest. (especially working outside on a warm sunny day).

looking back over this carving process, it occurs to me that it began well before i encountered David Reuben; rather, when i first took up printmaking, light years ago in John Roberts' adult education class, and encountered the linocut.   this became a fascination to me, far more than the screenprinting or etching techniques also taught there.  of course 'linocuts' are literally that, cuts, or 2D carvings into a block of artists linoleum, using small knives and gouges.  (these are very handy for gashing a finger at irregular intervals ... when you've once again forgotten to cut away from the support hand.)   that was the start of the carving; then came the step from 2D to 3D.

and then the next step onward: working with a group, on the Big Projects.  the photo-essays give the best account of whats involved with these, most dramatically with our Magnum Opus, the Gladstone Park 50-foot-tall 'squid-on-a-stick' carving (always trust the public to come up with the snappy name)...that one required athe squid scaffolding crew (us) to erect a Tower of Babel surrounding the tree; a hydraulic lift ('sports-car-in-the-sky'), and endless confusion...

my first training was in the theatre, that essentially collaborative discipline: all manner of various efforts skills and personalities working towards a common end, the completion of a common goal.   this experience helped me move from the one-man individual project to the group effort; the job description shifted slightly sideways, from 'director' to 'artistic director', always sheltering under the concept of 'owl art studio' - unity in diversity. (you do want to get along with people brandishing mallets and chainsaws).

the final product couldn't be more different, of course: nowhere emptier than a stage when the show is over; but the sculpture patiently awaits the next generation.

many of my keenest helpers have been from that next generation, with the absolute certainty that the younger the helper the keener they are to get their hands on big noisy dangerous tools ... would you like to help me sweep up all the sawdust?  no! the electric saw!

a glimpse behind the scenes

now every time a tree comes down in the local park the question arises: 'are you going that carve that one into something?'

WELL ... certainly i contemplate the form, 'what's in there waiting to come out?  how could it be done?'  and all the processes of creative thought

but - while these huge undertakings are exciting and profoundly satisfying, aye, the entire point of doing 'ART', they're also difficult, dangerous, and exhausting - as arduous an artform as i can think of, clambering up a tree with a chainsaw, then trying to get the details right.  it's wonderful to see the public enjoyment, especially the kids clambering all over them; and folk tell us how much they add to the character of the park -

BUT - there's no money in it.  not the be-all and end-all, of course, but having now done five, FIVE, of theserobin carving projects, with all that's involved from start to finish, it would be nice have a more substantial expression of esteem. we have had budgets, and are deeply appreciative of the support we have received, particularly from the Gladstone Park Consultative Committee, but when the essential costs have been covered there's been precious little left for those doing the work ... particularly on the scale of the cost of living in London.

those outdoor carvings are wonderful in their way; done on a large scale, they require broad strokes and huge features, to rise up and fill  their surroundings.  wonderful, yes; but equally fascinating is the other end of the scale, the scale for example of the netsuke, the miniature japanese carvings that serve as buttons on traditional robes - tiny precise details, a bit lost on a tree-trunk carving.

then there's the fascination of the huge range of hardwood colours -deep black ebony, the rich red of bloodwood, the, yes, purple of purpleheart ...  these will fade if left out in the rain and the sun -they need to be inside, sheltered, oiled, waxed and polished, taken care of like high-grade furniture.

and so, to this end, respecting these qualities, came 'Byrds 2005' - a spectrum of hardwoods carefully interlocked and inlaid on a seven-foot trunk of cherry, complete with its own curving textured root.  i discovered this piece of wood while out on my bicycle, dumped from someone's garden clearance; returned with dear phil-the-green in his van, dragged it back to owl studio, cleaned off soil, bark and excess branches, then ... contemplated over coffee.

byrds 2005 byrds 2005 byrds 2005 byrds 2005 byrds 2005
byrds 2005

the wood had such a lovely living form of its own; how to preserve and complement what's already there? keep its wild charm, while adding one's own perceptions?  the natural fork became two wings, the short jutting branches became claw and beak ... the study of the elements of a bird evolved over half-a-year, and, once again, 'it somehow all fits together' .

then, once again out on the bicycle, passing a big skip, paused to check out a handy bit of white pine sticking out - HEY - never mind that - look at THIS: an entire huge solid oak dining table, top, base, supports and all ... magic! hustled a lift to get it back to the studio, and so far have reassembled the top, glued screwed and sanded it into a huge smooth surface, perfect for a full-scale 2D carving of ... something ... when time and inspiration coincide.  till then, it's in the fermenting phase, pondering all images and possible techniques applicable. till then, it's tucked behind the sofa in owl studio, awaiting its time.

that is a great feature of carving projects; they take no harm from being put aside for a moment, or a year - as opposed to the gardening projects: when you have plants awaiting planting, need brooks no delay.  there must be half-a-dozen different chapters of woodwork exploration patiently awaiting further development: the phoenix of yew and ebony crouching over the egg of white marble from Marrakech; the owl of bloodwood and ebony waiting to take flight on wings of moose antler from Vancouver Island... fantasies frozen in time.

carving has slowed down considerably since the right shoulder was replaced with a metal ball in August 2006, longterm follow-up to the armageddon carcrash of June 1973.  i imagine the operation was technically a success, but the results are imperceptible: severe pain and limitation beforehand; severe pain and limitation in this the fourth year afterward - somehow i expected more.

aye well, time will tell ... 'no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should' ... or words to that effect..

meanwhile, drawing is getting a much greater share of attention...

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