Monday, June 15, 2009
I had an idea rattling around in my head for a while, several years in fact. I'm always scanning the horizon for forms that will translate well into carvings. I loved experimenting with Celtic knotwork and imagery in shallow relief. The lines stand off the background in something of the same way that veins stand off the skin. I love that veinous quality, especially when it is exaggerated by inter-twining.
Insects struck me as delicately sculptural. They also represented a challenge.. the detail would be daunting. The idea of a door with ten panels and with a different insect portrayed on each panel seemed like a formidable piece of work and I was intrigued by the overall look of such a door. It reminded me some of an oriental carpet with a panel motif.
The drawing in the Peterson's Field Guide provided the image exactly as I hoped to carve it. Symmetrical, flat and with a lot of good detail. As the idea evolved I saw the door almost like a quilt. A quilt found in an Egyptian tomb. I enlarged the image to a dimension that fit well into the panel and made several copies. With one copy I cut out the body so that I had one template for body and one for legs.
When I studied with Ian Agrell in San Francisco I was annoyed at his teaching style, which was to poke his head into the studio in the morning, ask if there were any questions, and head for the bay for a day of sailing. A very hands-off instructor.
I was having some difficulty with grain lifting out on an acanthus leaf and I asked his advice. His suggestion was to lean into the piece... get right down on it, and say to myself "don't lift the grain,,, don't lift the grain". At the time I thought it was pretty absurd advice, lacking in any kind of real technical help.
Carving, though, provides a very immediate and accessible flow of information. The quickest way to learn how to carve is to carve. The feedback is unmistakable. As I went after some of the more delicate elements, the legs and tentacles for example, I found myself getting very close and saying to myself... "don't lift the grain". This is a tricky operation, especially on an inside corner where the grain is going against the direction most easily approached with the gouge. The tendency is to push your luck, and in fact, sometimes the grain doesn't lift. But when it does it can be disastrous and most often it does.
After my summer with Ian in San Francisco I sent him a scathing evaluation of his teaching style. I owe him a follow-up acknowledging his wisdom.
I do my best work when I attempt something that seems initially beyond my capability. Part of the attraction to a project that seems over my head is compensation for having never completed my formal education and although I agree with the sentiment that the education of the self-taught is inherently limited, it's how I learn. The two sides of that coin are, heads.. the excitement of the challenge, the satisfaction of pushing myself beyond my current limits.. and, tails...the trepidation and doubt that I can actually ascend to the aspired-to level of expertise. I experience both of these aspects fully.
Watching TV a few weeks ago I stumbled onto American Idol, the pop star competition. They were auditioning potential contestants and were getting a lot of mileage out of showing the most inept auditions and then the brutal, devastating critiques from the panel of judges One after another of these poor deluded souls tried to pull themselves up to another level by screeching an ungodly version of some pop tune. Even in the face of the rudest rejection, these unfortunates were convinced that they had what it took to get to the top. This is deluded, not admirable.
Early into the insect carving phase I imagined myself similarly deluded and without a Simon Cowell to set me straight. No one had the nerve to tell me my carving sucked and that I ought to consider another line of work before I embarrass myself again by pawning off amateurish carvings as art.