Thursday, February 4, 2010

Subtractive Art

Most of my creative endeavors, including composing music and writing books, are considered additive art forms. Painting would also be included in this class because each of them builds one thing on another to create a whole.

Carving is the only truly subtractive art form I practice. It has taught me how to be a better writer, both of music and text. To create a carving from a solid piece of wood, I remove everything that is not the art.

There is a quote floating around about being an author. I don’t know who originated it, but it goes something like this: Being a writer is easy. You just stare at a blank page until you begin to sweat blood from your brow.

Once I’m past that hurdle, I allow words to flow as they will until the muse is exhausted and then I begin the editing process. That’s where the carving experience comes into play. I begin chipping away at anything that distracts attention from the focal point of the piece.

The main tool I have been honing lately is clarity. I began that process while researching the material that five years later became a book titled The Sage Age – Blending Science with Intuitive Wisdom. At the time, I had not entertained the idea of writing a book. I simply wanted to be clear on a few concepts that had surfaced in pop culture that attempted to marry ideas from quantum physics with New Age thought.

Since then, I’ve combined clarity with the razor-sharp tool I seemed to have brought into this world with me, which was focus. Together they make an amazing pair at chipping away the superfluous and helping me get to the root of the mystery.

I’ve only been carving for a few years. I’m still learning and exploring, but I can already tell that this is a fine choice of hobby for me because of how it has already enriched the quality of my life. And, it’s kind of cool to walk down the hall and see the tangible representation of those lessons hanging on the wall. I can’t do that with a book or a song.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

When is a Tree Dead?

The other night I watched a repeat of one of my favorite shows on NPT. It’s titled Tree Safari: A Sculptural Journey and it tells the story of a trip that world renowned woodcarver Brad Sells made to Africa. He was in search of some special wood called pink ivory.

The massive trees from which pink and red ivory come are extraordinarily slow growing, meaning that they have very tight growth rings. The wood is so dense that it is nearly as hard as a rock.

The trees are protected by the local governments because they are so rare. Special permission must be obtained to purchase and transport the wood, which cannot be removed from the country as a whole log. But, before any wood removal can be done, permission must also be sought from a higher authority.

The trees are primarily located in Zulu country where they are considered sacred. The bark from them is used for medicinal purposes as well.

Brad Sells is a spiritual man. He didn’t go to Africa simply in search of trees. He looked forward to interacting with the people who had tree knowings. When told that he would have to consult with a revered tribe elder and shaman, Brad was honored to be in the presence of wisdom that had been passed down through generations of a people still intimately connected with their natural surroundings.

Credo “Baba” Mutwa is the most venerated Zulu Sanusi in the country and whose permission had to be given for Brad to remove any wood from the area. When asked which tree Brad had in mind, he said that it was one that already showed signs of dying, to which Mutwa replied:

"When is a tree dead? Because we, who grow up amongst trees know that even a dead tree is alive. So, it’s just a funny question, when is a tree dead? Some trees become more alive when dead than when they were alive."

The spiritual implications of those words ring in my mind every time I sit down to carve. I’m carving trees from trees.

I can also look at the fallen limbs and branches in the woods behind my house and see that they have become food for the ground as well as for a multitude of crawly things. Plus, they serve as shelter and hiding places for small furry creatures. I see twigs of those fallen trees scattered among the other trees in the form of bird’s nests that will house another generation of winged things for a time.

So, when is a tree dead?

I have no plans to remove a piece of pink ivory wood from Africa. But I would like to take a safari; a spiritual one to sit at the feet of Sanusi Mutwa for a while and see what else I can learn.


Monday, January 18, 2010

Zen and the Art of Scrollsaw Maintenance

Carving has taught me how to be a better writer and editor. Simply remove everything that is not the art.

Removing the waste wood from my tree relief carvings requires a scroll saw, pictured below. At the top, you'll see the mechanism that holds the upper end of the thin strip of blade. There is a matching mechanism below the table of the saw that holds the other end. The blade is reciprocated up and down as the wood is presented for cutting. It all works a little like a sewing machine. The blade is like the needle and the wood is like the cloth. Scroll saw cutting is akin to a cross between embroidery and straight line sewing.

The blade must be kept at enough tension to properly cut, but not so tight that it is no longer flexible enough to allow cutting around curves. There is a knob above the upper mechanism (not shown) that works like a guitar tuning peg. In fact, setting the tension on the blade is a lot like tuning a guitar string. I pluck the blade as I tighten until the desired pitch is reached that let's me know it is at the right tension. Finding the right pitch requires a bit of practice. I've broken a number of blades from either being too loose or too tight.

You'll notice that there are several holes in each interior section of the carving at every point that has too acute an angle for the blade to turn. The blade has to be released at the top, passed through the hole, and then re-tensioned for each section cut. So, I get a lot of practice at setting the tension.

There are two other elements of the scroll saw shown. The silver element is an LED light that shines directly on the point that is being cut. The black element is a blower that removes the sawdust away from the area being cut. Both are on flexible shafts so they can be positioned to suit. Both become active only when the blade is cutting, which is why you don't see a spot of light in the picture.

As you can imagine, cutting out the waste wood requires intense focus. I find it to be a rather meditative exercise. When the spot light is on, the blade casts a shadow. Because I have to keep a fixated stare on the point of cutting, at times the line, the shadow, and the blade all become "one" in a fluid dance.

Guiding the wood through the cuts is a little like driving a boat. There's a different kind of resistance, or lack thereof, when making a turn in a boat than in a car. Unlike the needle in a sewing machine, a scroll saw blade can flex, resulting in a dynamic flow of movements and an exercise in cooperation. In many ways, I have to become "one" with the blade and the wood to make a clean cut.


Sunday, January 17, 2010

New Lighting for Tutorial Photos

Since the step-by-step tutorial of my current project will be featured in a magazine this fall, I finally bit the bullet and bought some professional lighting for the photographs. The guest room has now become Studio A, as you can see below.

The little Canon PowerShot I have is great, but the lighting makes all the difference in showing the true details of the work. I'm looking forward to using this lighting for a new video project early this spring too. I'll be recording a lecture on How Thoughts Become Reality based on topics covered in my book The Sage Age - Blending Science with Intuitive Wisdom.


Friday, January 15, 2010

Featured Magazine Carving

Happy news! I just started a new carving that will be featured in the Fall edition of a Fox Chapel magazine. They are the publishers of both Woodcarving Illustrated and Scrollsaw Woodcarving & Crafts.

My carvings have been previously featured in both magazines, and now they've asked me to do a full tutorial on the special techniques I use to get three layers of depth in a blank that is only one quarter inch thick.

I'm honored and delighted to have the opportunity to share the how-to with more folks. Tutorials from previous carvings can be found on this blog, but they don't show the secret technique for creating the depth. You'll have to wait for the magazine for that.

Be sure to subscribe to the RSS feed for this blog to be notified when the magazine comes out and to get other tricks and tips for my carvings.