Around 1990, I was at the Hartford Atheneum where there was an iconic Eva Hesse sculpture, a grid consisting of small rubber washers resting on a platform about one foot high and three by three feet. For a moment, I am alone with the work. Then a young person enters the space, sees the work and jumps up on the piece, prancing. “Ok, you have to get off this now” (as I look for a museum guard). Hesse was a person who found new materials and worked them sensually during a time when the materials being used were generally clean and hard edged and left as is. Soft washers repeated until a pattern—a field—is felt. It is almost funny, not an unfamiliar play on hard and soft, but still a peculiarly beautiful object and felt space. Back to the jumper.
Now, I can see how this piece invited that kind of violation, the irreverent experience. Perhaps, this behavior foretold what was to come—the flip side of what might be expected, even while demanding something that has a clear meaning within a social context.
I don’t give too much weight to the cultural meaning of the materials I use. If anything, I hide my materials and hide in them. There is subtraction. I get rid of material to find my shape/space. Most often, carved from wood, they are made to look like something familiar. At the least they are something stubbornly observed, with a painted surface that may or may not in the end work with, or be at odds with, what has been seen. For example, some of my remade skates (each as particular to their source as they are too something very different), have painted “blades” that might suggest the color of flesh.
It is not unusual for someone to ask me “what are these made of?” and/or “how long did it take to make them?” Often they have no idea—no reference point. If this gives me a strange sense of freedom, it may also make me feel a loss of impact, a kind of isolation. Slow in the making and largely a sensuous experience, my way of working is old.
The sculpture I make grows from a collaboration—an emotional space between myself and the source–during which both are changed. The materials I use, the way I work them, even the way I am moving in the studio, that physicality, embodies the change. There may be a moment in which different things try to connect, about to move together, no longer what they seem to be. This is what I need.
Over time, I have reduced the number of tools I use. Now there are these: an electric chainsaw, a gas chainsaw, a skill-saw, a grinder, a flexible shaft grinder, a drill, a disc sander, saws, (including a Japanese pull saw), shinto rasp/files, assorted riflers, scrapers, a draw knife, a spokeshave, planes, assorted knives including a crooked knife, vices, clamps, glue, and about twenty wood carving tools.
I set out the tools at the beginning and the end of the day in anticipation of the coming work. Ninety percent of the wood removal is done with power tools, but 90 percent of the time is spent using hand tools.
I have learned how to shape the material I work with. Initial stages require more thinking than I would like, but that in turn may allow for a very aggressive movement of the wood (removing wood quickly at this stage is critical as these pieces are often about endurance—bogged down, they can sap you). At some point there is a switch to hand tools. Now I am not looking at the source as much, if at all. I am persuading the wood, carefully searching each moment in the piece, inventing, while trusting my sense of touch. This work rhythm includes very focused periods followed by a pause when I go outdoors, leaving the work space. This pattern over and over and at all times of the year. There are 3 a.m. visits to the studio.
I block up bass wood purchased at Atlantic Hardwoods in Portland, Maine. They treat me well. I use 16/4 pieces of varying width and length. I have started to use, with success, Joy Valley Woodworks in Buxton, Maine to prepare the wood for lamination. I do the lamination. The size and shape of the block may vary, but it is the decisive first step, as this is the beginning of the collaboration in which I will enter the space of the source object as it enters mine. It is as if each block is a unique framework within which I will spend time. Because I want to wander into that space, I balance that urge with a heightened understanding of what the source’s space is. Inevitably, I consider in this order: orientation, proportions, planes, surface, texture, and color.
Carving something particular, something observed, requires a disciplined approach. On top of that I have, for some reason, as an extended goal, the desire to have everything happen in the single block with no additional elements. But, underneath those restraints, there seems to be an even more innate need: the need to experience a tangle of emotions—the almost overwhelming need to play—to be spontaneous. There are no prescriptions.
Donatello’s clay portrait busts, Lee Bontecou’s canvas and steel sculptures, and Jessi Reave’s fragments of furniture make use of very different materials, but there is a common thread. Foremost, you feel an unusually vivid structure supporting the space/surface. The materials are subservient.
My carved mittens feel more like boats or fish, something swimming. They have that movement even while being particular to the mittens observed. (The hands seem to have been left behind.) They are whitish in color with a black brown undercoat. They are placed on a way oversized book, Wonders of the World. Home base is on adjacent pages that have been painted white. White on white, mittens on paper, weight on pages. Lift the mittens, turn the pages, and now replaced, they are on a fully colored image of Petra, or Petronas Towers, or other. (I have come to realize these are my father’s traveling mittens.)
I use marine enamels, acrylics, and latex house paint. Materials I can leave or rework, each with a different drying time. The pace and freedom to change color is so unlike the carving process that often there is a terrific sense of release, full born play, even while I am still trying to find the sculpture. Either way, by the time I have finished the carving, I am so deeply into what the carving emotes, that I have in the back of my mind a starting color. That color may work against what seems to be the character of the piece. Perhaps this is a way to keep the work alive, elusive. I may rest on the first coat, but more often than not I go back into the carving after I have applied an initial surface. (Once this meant at least twenty different coats over a three-year period.)
A college student in New York City, I am assisting specific artist-instructors in their studio/classrooms. We are at the Henry Street Settlement House, which serves the Lower East Side community. Everyone is eager, responsive. and the artists/teachers are exceptional (one is making jewelry for Mick Jagger). The rooms are loaded with materials. There is both freedom and direction. One young member of this community is a master of tie-dye, and if given a choice, would never leave the building. Climbing a stairwell with one of the artists, we are stopped by that same tie-dye artist who asks point blank, “What is an artist?” The instructor replies without hesitation, “someone who loves to work with materials.“ Somehow this has stayed with me.
I have just had an exceptional skate—twenty minutes one way and then back. The ice conditions are rare. I can hear the blades working the ice and I am driving the blades. The marks on the ice are like an extended scroll drawing—evidence. The sound is strange. I feel tireless. This is different. Things are connecting. Something deeply familiar and entirely new.
Image at top: Duncan Hewitt, Detail, King Wave, carved and painted wood with screen, 2022.