Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Work-in-progress: Iris

As I've mentioned before, in the interest of being a better teacher I am trying to be more diligent about recording my work in different stages of development, and less squeamish about sharing those "before" pictures. Here's a current work-in-progress, an iris carved from home-cured boxwood...

While there are plenty of flowers that I like the looks of, irises have always exerted a special pull. As a mythology-obsessed little kid I learned that the flower borrows it's name from Iris, the Greek gods' errand-girl. The iris is the state flower of Tennessee, where I grew up, and around this time every year, gardens bulge with everything from waist-high ruffled and bearded versions to absurdly delicate miniature varietals native to Siberia. The flowers are a startling rainbow: from every shade of purple, to green, yellow, peach, black, and the twinging red of a skinned knee. Along with unicorns and rainbows, they were one of my favorite things to draw, with that fascinating arrangement of opposed and off-set petals that seem to do-si-do each other around in some botanical take on square dancing.

When I moved to Japan, the irises came out around the same time that homesickness hit me, and I took a therapeutic trip out to the country to see a famous flooded garden that boasts--if I remember right--upwards of 400,000 blooms. It was an amazing sight, and so very Japanese; I got into line with hundreds of other tourists and we wound a slow conga around a mile-long wooden boardwalk, stopping every three feet for photos.

Irises are endemic to Japan, but they have also been cultivated for centuries, and the three main types (Hanashōbu, Kakitsubata, Ayame) are a staple of traditional poetry and visual arts. Because the leaves resemble swords, the iris is also a key symbol of the Japanese holiday that is now Children's Day, but used to be Boys' Day (May 5th).

My carved iris is equal parts therapy and homework. Over recent years, I've set myself various carving assignments based on old forms or masters in order to build my skills (like my holly chain). While most of my own work is figurative, I find super-carver Grinling Gibbons' limewood carvings of flowers and foliage both intimidating and inspirational. I decided I would give flowers a try and somehow a single flower seemed a more reasonable starting point than an entire garland. For my material I chose a twisted branch of boxwood that's been seasoning in my closet since one of my neighbors chopped down the bushes in his yard about 18 months ago. Typically used for Medieval rosary beads and Japanese netsuke, boxwood holds crisp details and begs to be touched; it starts out the color of old cream or fresh butter, and darkens to caramel after years of human contact and soaking up skin oils.

And of course, it had to be an iris. In the aftermath of the disasters in Japan, irises were on my mind, as a comforting symbol of the tenacious and adaptive beauty of a country than means so much to me. And as I worked to find the ghost of the form inside the rough branch, tornadoes and then flood waters ripped through the South, giving me even more to think about.

So it's not a glossy calendar iris that I'm carving. It's twisted, drenched, and bedraggled, but most importantly, it just is. Or it will be, in another twenty or thirty hours.

Here are a few of the things I've been mulling over during the long hours of carving:
-The absurdity of making stuff
-The absurdity of "growing" a flower inside a tree branch
-How different cultures accommodate natural forces and cycles
-Individual fragility and group resiliency
-How misleading our perceptions of safety and vulnerability can be
-Borrowing concepts of seasonality and "locavorism" from food and applying them to art

My intention was to cut off the rough ends and mount the flower as a large brooch, but now I'm not so sure. Does everything I make really need to be wearable? I think for now I'll keep it as it is.

I take a picture more or less every time I change CDs (listening to Alan Hollinghurst's novel Line of Beauty). I'll keep adding pictures below until I decide to leave well enough alone.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Lucy Sarneel Workshop: What's in an Image

Pratt recently hosted Dutch artist Lucy Sarneel (above, right), a jeweler known for her poetic work with fabricated zinc and historic textiles. I was on the fence about taking her 4-day master class, but since I've been struggling lately to find new approaches to my own work so I finally signed up.

Lucy started the "What's in an Image" workshop with a kind of card trick: holding out a fanned array of pale pink envelopes she had us each pick one at random. Inside was a vintage or found image that would be our starting point. Mine was a shot of what turned out to be two Dutch zoo employees taking some shackled birds for a stroll.

Without sharing our images with each other, we each spent some time examining them and jotting down notes--impressions, observations, and in some cases, full-blown narratives. Reconvening as a group, we took turns reading out our lists of words as everyone else sketched the shapes or images that the words brought to mind. Next, we revealed our source photos and compared them with the drawings; it was lovely and comforting to see the range of individual expressions, as well as spooky to see some strong similarities between photos and drawings. Each person got to keep the drawings done in response their reading as an additional layer of source materials.

Then we set about making things inspired by our pictures. Lucy encouraged us to start loose and wide, using bits of paper, thread, or wire to create a range of models and elements rather than a finalized piece. Drawn both to the birds' sweet expressions and the tidy buttons on the men's shirts, I played for a while with the idea of hybridizing the two.

Lucy also spoke with each of us about the kind of work we usually make and about new directions we might light to explore. I explained my interest in making work that reflects physical and emotional relationships, and my frustration with what I feel is an overdependence on symmetry and tidiness.

After our talk I went back to the picture and tried to imagine what it would be like to be one of the men or birds. I imagined that the heavy chains would bite into the men's shoulders and rap them on the knees. I imagined that the birds might feel like pampered prisoners; I noted how two of them turned towards each other, but with their faces slightly offset, as if they wanted to make contact but couldn't quite look each other in the eye. I tried to put all of that into my next model.

I recently broke my latest attempt at a wooden chain, so it was a comparative breeze to build a hollow, square-sectioned chain from butcher paper and white glue. I love the illusion of perspective and weight that graduated links can give, so I made each link smaller than the last. I fused the top three into a tense curve that's meant to sit on the top of the collarbone like a corsage (there's a pin glued to the back), with the smallest two links swinging free. I sliced the largest ring open and fixed it into an open position echoing the silhouettes of the two birds. I added little paper beaks, and curls of paper plumage with white-painted undersides.

I liked it but it felt somehow too familiar, too ordained. So next I made a piece that I couldn't actually make from wood. I used white glue and two-toned xerox paper to make a chain of feathers. I have no idea if it will go anywhere, but I find it a strangely appealing mix of fragility and structure.

And of course, one of the workshop's great pleasures was watching my fellow students generate an ingenious range of work. It always exasperates me to see a class full of identical objects, but that was far from the case here. Even starting with an image that meant nothing to them and materials no more advanced that those found in a kindergarten, each student left with pieces that were personal and unique--and a better idea of how to amplify those qualities in their "real" work.

Thank you, Lucy!