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Sarra monument

monument, 56″x 72″, oil on canvas, 2014

Tonight we are expecting to receive between 5 and 8 inches of snow, and it is in the context of this unusually long and cold winter that I have finished this long and cold painting, monument.  But the painting started under different circumstances two years ago when we had a rather warm and snowless winter.  In February of 2012 we had a single significant snowfall, and a day or so later the temperatures rose sufficiently to melt it away.  As I drove past Metcalfe Park on the day of the melt I saw a large snowball slumped in the middle of a muddy field.  Grass and leaves protruded from the snowy mass.  It was a striking image, and I kept thinking about it for the next few days.  At some point this meditation on the memory became a call to action, and I made this sketch of the scene as I remembered it:

snowball study (memory), 8.25" x 11.5", pencil on paper, 2012

snowball study (memory), 8.25″ x 11.5″, pencil on paper, 2012

Having made the sketch, I began to rework the composition directly on the canvas.  As the snowball began to take shape as a stark contrast to the muddy field of dormant grass, I became painfully aware of the painting’s limitations when it came to expressing important aspects of the context that had qualified my initial experience.  The object appeared so strongly dislocated from its season that it took on what seemed to me as an inseparable association with Andy Goldsworthy’s Midsummer Snowballs.  I added a few patches of snow to reclaim a more plausible scene.  Eventually more snow fell in the world that I was creating, and although it pulled the image farther from my actual experience it had the ultimate effect of establishing a more credible stage upon which other events might unfold.  Here’s an image of the painting in September, before so many of the characters were removed from the scene:

studio view of monument, September 2013

studio view of monument, September 2013

For many people, even many artists, it may seem strange to start making a picture without a clear vision of what the final image (and meaning) will be.  In my process this is a relatively normal thing.  I rely upon an inspiration to get things started, but it is the unanswered questions and unforeseen problems that drive the work.  The finished painting is as much a product of surprise and discovery as anything else.  It requires that I be willing to experiment by adding and removing elements.  The process is inefficient but rewarding.  The painting begins to accumulate histories, and the surface becomes a tangle of what was and what is.  Some of these events leave marks of discernible character, others become inscrutable.  This piece required a lot of “un-painting”.  I was cutting down trees, knocking down buildings, rolling in clouds, and dropping snow in order to find that moment where the painting fully contained the justification for its own existence.

glove study, 11" x 15", pastel on paper, 2013

glove study, 11″ x 15″, pastel on paper, 2013.  This was one of the objects that I thought might be incorporated into the painting, but it never made the cut.

It was at this point that the object of my painting shifted from subject to stage and orchestrated the completion of the piece.  As the atmospheric silence overtook the painting, it brought me back to a childhood memory.  It was winter in Maryland, and my parents had taken me out to shop for boots.  I was probably about nine years old.  It was snowing furiously, and on the way home our vehicle stalled in the left lane on a busy road.  Before long we were struck, by another vehicle, and then that vehicle, too, was struck due to the poor visibility and accumulation of snow on the ground.  It was late at night by the time my older brother was able to walk from our house to the accident scene in order to escort me home.  As we set off, the transition was magical and immediate.  We crossed over into the ball field between the high school and the elementary school, and the light/noise/stress of the road was replaced by muffled stillness and by calm.  The world seemed lit from within as we high-stepped through the snow and across that field.  It was snowing hard enough that as we gained the middle of the field it became a world without edges, a room defined by its thick floor and the soft collapse of its ceiling.  Perhaps it was this semblance of privacy, this feeling of being lost in a  little piece of wilderness while still in the midst of the metropolis. Perhaps the scene presented a blank canvas so compelling, so self-evident that it demanded action even from a child.  Perhaps we were just suffering from full bladders.  Whatever the reason, we took that opportunity to draw with streams of our steaming medium in the snow.

It would have been impossible for me to interpret that act as anything but necessary at the time.  It was visceral and unpremeditated.  But as I now reflect upon that moment I see it as characterizing much of my life’s experience with the landscape, with family, and with the action of creation that I define today as “art making”.  In this painting a signature appears with a vandal’s brazen delight.  It claims the land like a flag planted in soil already bearing evidence of another’s passage.  It is an expression of desire and of necessity, acutely aware of its ethical dilemmas.   Philip Guston described this problem during a conversation with Joseph Ablow in 1966 while describing what he saw as the revolutionary impulse of the New York School.  He said, “…you felt as if you were driven into a corner, against the wall with no place to stand, just the place you occupied, as if the act of painting itself was not making a picture– there are plenty of pictures in the world, why clutter up the world with pictures– it was as if you had to prove to yourself that truly the act of creation was still possible.”

memory and usefulness in red oak

Some friends had to remove a large pin oak from their back yard, as it was declining and would soon pose a hazard to their house.  They were sectioning most of the large branches and upper trunk for firewood, but were interested when I mentioned the possibility of milling some of the trunk for use in something that would last longer.  So began our adventure of brainstorming and design work, which appears to be leading us toward a coffee table and a console made from the quarter-sawn lumber.  Here are a few photos showing the transition from the original trunk to fresh sawn lumber.  The wood is currently air drying, but will be finished in a kiln this fall.

Here's the log set up on the portable mill, ready for the first cut.

When quarter-sawn, the oak reveals its striking medullar rays. There is a strong contrast between heart and sap wood, and some interesting irregularities within this wood.

We ended up with a generous stack of select cuts, most of which is 4/4 (one inch thick) stock. I kept a few pieces at 8/4 in order to have options for legs and structural members.

I'll be book matching consecutive cuts for the tops, perhaps maintaining a natural edge or two.

I’m not typically a big fan of red oak, but this one was cut effectively to reveal good flecking and a few pleasant surprises in color variation.  Last year I found a red oak crotch piece where two trunks had grown almost parallel to each other for several feet, and the grain went wild along the merging edges.  I turned two shallow bowls out of it, one of which is pictured below.

natural edge red oak bowl, 2013 (private collection)

detail of the burl, spalting, and bark inclusion

Opening a piece of wood is like unwrapping a present.  Further cutting, surfacing, and construction reveal qualities that shape meaning through function and aesthetic experience.  When this is coupled with a memory of the raw materials, a personal history that preceded the wood’s cultural usefulness, it presents a unique opportunity for a living memorial– one that can maintain vitality and relevance in daily life instead of sliding ever deeper into a mysterious past.

reclaimed wood

This old beam measures 15 inches on each side, and is six and a half feet long. Although pierced by two large bolts, it has a bright future...


The excitement associated with reclaiming old lumber never seems to fade.  In March my friend Jeff pointed me towards a discard pile at a local construction site, and with the company’s blessing we were able to pick out a selection of beams with some good life left in them.  The building was originally a factory built in 1870, so it was full of old-growth pine.  The floor boards were a full three inches thick, and even with the grooves trimmed the finished blanks are still a healthy 5 1/2″ wide.  Some re-sawn sections can stretch to seven inches wide.  There had been a fire, and most of the wood was coated with a thick layer of soft wax.  Although this is likely to affect subsequent finish work, it also has a preservative effect.  I used one of the beams to make this custom mantel (below) for a friend’s new home.  There was some tear-out on the top face of the beam that needed patching, so I decided to try my hand at making an inlay.  Since this was for a book artist and a newly married couple, the imagery suggested itself.


The finished mantle. Cracks and nail holes, visible on the top face, have been filled with black pigment. The front face is clear with perfect, rift-sawn grain.

You can get a glimpse of the tight annual rings here, and the shift from the pink heartwood to the blond sapwood.


This is the finished inlay, which serves as both a meaningful decoration and a practical patch. Everyone should have at least one book on their mantel, right?


The first step of the inlay process was to clean up the tear-out around a large nail hole, which is visible here in the center of the recess. I used a piece of cherry as the book cover.

I needed a couple of book-matched pieces for the pages, of course, and was pleased to be able to trim this spalted maple in such a way as to reveal the "heart" at the top of the book. After inlaying these two pieces, I cut two slices of pine with suitably curved grain to create the dimensional effect of the stacked pages (see finished inlay, above).

diamonds in the rough

This spring I was fortunate to come across a few good city trees waiting to be salvaged from dump sites.  The largest was this maple, pictured below.

The lumpy exterior suggested the possibility of a surprising interior, and I wasn’t disappointed.

One end of the section was a large crotch with honey colored heartwood and strong figure.  The length of the trunk was peppered with clusters of birds-eyes that show up on flat-sawn sections, while quarter-sawing stretches the figure into iridescent ribbons.  This was the largest chunk of a tree that I have salvaged to date, and since I was working alone it was necessary to section the wood into manageable pieces.  Fortunately, I can manage a large piece.  But getting them out of the truck is always easier than getting them into it.

I had been wanting to mill up some of the green wood that I’ve been collecting into slabs and planks, so this seemed like a good chance to give it a try.  Since a learning opportunity is also a teaching opportunity, I enlisted two of my students to help with the project.  It was an experiment to see how well short stock could be milled on a large capacity band saw rather than on a portable mill.  We were successful cutting book-matched slabs out of several sections of the maple, and the wood is now air drying.  It should be ready for use by the end of next summer.  Many thanks to Michael O. and Zach S. for lending a hand.

Some of the smaller sections were suitable for bowl blanks, and one of the resulting bowls is pictured below.  It is about 10.5″ in diameter, and the curvature of the bowl captures the transition of the figure as the orientation of the grain shifts.  As usual, the wood distorted slightly as it dried.  The slight distortion gave the bowl a graceful energy and played up the textural illusion caused by the curly figure.