Tag Archives: African Mahogany

recent work

lunette/flume, headstone/tomb: for Li Bai

lunette/flume, headstone/tomb (for Li Bai)

We had a Washington University faculty exhibition at the Des Lee Gallery last month, which was a good excuse to finish a new painting and try a different form of presentation.  Instead of using the word “installation”, I might use something like “actualization”, as the point of the piece was to enhance the viewer’s awareness of the object-presence, material relationships, imaginative space, and historical (or anecdotal) reference with near simultaneity.  This poses an interesting set of problems in a gallery context because of the associated conventions for displaying and interacting with the work.  Lunette is painted on a sheet of sandpaper from a floor-sander, and features a wooden remnant from some plumbing work in my house.  The painting is hung about ten inches lower than normal, a kind of “setting” towards the bench which is meant to emphasize their relationship while encouraging the viewer to lean over.  I made the frame out of African Mahogany flooring reclaimed from my neighbor’s house.  It is the same species of wood that I used to build the bench, wood which had been discarded because of the extreme warping and cupping that it had undergone.

Collectively the work is meant to invoke rather than portray the ingredients of the poet Li Bai’s anecdotal demise– intoxicated, falling from his boat and drowning while trying to embrace the reflection of the moon.

finished bench

bench three quarters blog

bench profile blog

The “flume bench” is completely finished, so here are a few snapshots.  I elected to use a higher build finish than usual (this was a seven-coat process) in order to create a counterpoint between the “reclaimed” aspect of the raw lumber and the “refined” aspect of the finished piece.  Even with a satin finish there is a great deal more reflectivity than I am used to, but it feels right to me at the moment.

bench end detail blog

bench dip end detail

bench flat end blog


bench built blog 1

bench built blog 2

The “flume” bench is built, and I am in the midst of the staining/finishing process.  I ended up deciding that dovetails were the best design decision for both ends of the bench.  Cutting them was a bit tricky, as there are no flat surfaces involved.  But when you are cutting joints by hand, the irregularity of the surfaces is incidental.  It boils down to marking well and sawing well.  The African mahogany is not particularly forgiving, as it is very dense and prone to chipping, but I managed to make it work and am pleased with the results.  I ended up cutting the bottom edge of the the vertical “keel” support into a curve to eliminate the last bit of strict geometry.  It extends into a mortise in each leg, where it is fastened from the outside with a wedged dowel.

I’ve been thinking about benches as expressions of transience, as they tend to encourage you both to take a rest and to move on.  When sitting on this bench, the variation in form actually made me want to move around and try out each contour for degrees of comfort.  The slight slope reinforces the sense of transience, making “flow” a visceral and tangible experience for the sitter.

changing the windows

Now that the paintings are out of the studio, I have been taking time to clean and reorganize the space.  Over the last ten years I had allowed the windows at the east end of the studio to stay dirty, because I liked being aware of the glass while including it in a number of paintings.  But this seemed like a good time to start fresh.  Two afternoons and a bucket of muddy water later, I am again admiring a clear view of the world outside.  My precarious work on the roof reminded me of a small book of poems by Jerome Mazzaro called Changing the Windows.  I picked it up at a used book store in Bloomington, Indiana in 1997 while visiting a few other young artists there with my friend Mark Green.  Here is the poem from which the book draws its title:


When I am forced by circumstance and heat

to take the winter windows off the house

spotted like bass who will be stripped of lice,

I think of that old woman down the street

who got by the Depression renting rooms

to seven lonely bachelors in a row,

the last of whom fell from an open window

changing the screens one sunny afternoon.

Called Mother Witch by city columnists

who wrote how all the seven perished strangely,

each with an ample paid-up policy

made out to her, she didn’t snare one jurist

in all the headline months her trials ran–

through winter changed to summer as it must.

She sat reading a favorite Evening Post

as if no court could judge her for her sin.

Thinking, too, of her full-grown idiot son

who scavenged in our ashcans after that

feeding himself with cast-off bits of fat

until a court ruled he’d too lost his reason,

somehow I think of husbanded black widows

and savage birds who sometimes eat their young,

and wonder at the web this world becomes,

then scuttle off to unhinge all the windows.

A few of my recent paintings incorporated ideas of memorialization and the inevitable challenges of sentimentality and over-simplification.  I include one more of Mazzaro’s poems, below, as a nod to his own efforts:


Death was a trick I taught him as a pup

like fetching till he mastered both to race

my ordered stick back clamped between his jaws,

ignoring once too soon the whir of trucks

whose chirring crushed whole worlds of growing up

and set him broken in a makeshift box.

Across blind roadways he comes running yet,

small-terriered, black-footed, slow in death.

In the midst of the reorganization of the upstairs studio, I have been keeping busy in the shop.  I’m working on another bench made from reclaimed lumber.  This one is composed of African Mahogany that had dried with crazy twists and curves.  I’ve been sorting through the deformed boards and dreaming up applications for the undulating surfaces.

16 Mar top rough blog

bench top after glue-up to the "keel" support

bottom of bench seat showing the sag and twist of the matched boards

bottom of bench seat showing the sag and twist of the matched boards

trimming the "keel" flush while begining to scoop out the bench top

trimming the "keel" flush while beginning to scoop out the bench top

I was able to match two boards with similar curves to make a seat that shifts from being relatively flat to being sharply cleft along its length.  I continue to carve, scrape, and sand out the top face in an effort to create a comfortable hollow.  I have started to think of it as a kind of “aqueduct” design, as the form reminds me of terraced troughs used move water for mills, irrigation, etc.