There are many preliminaries and other indirect activities in the making of tree art. I imagine that any poet (maker) knows, regardless of the particular poem (thing made), that it resulted from the complicated processes of poetry (making). I like to think that the phrase ars poetica applies to both the making of my tree art, and to each individual piece I make.
For over twenty years, I’ve used pocket notebooks and clipboard tablets to record the process of making tree art–with descriptions, introspections, and philosophical reflections. These voluminous scribbles and word processings might someday become a published book.
This is the first time I’ve had this many pieces of my tree art, eight in all, in a gallery collection. Almost every piece I’ve made over the past twenty years has been privately collected as soon as it was finished.
The Creighton Block Gallery in Big Sky, Montana, is located in a commercial center near the ski area. I very much appreciate that Colin Mathews and Paula Craver, the owners, have been enthusiastic hosts and promoters of my tree art.
The chairs and table go well together although they may be sold separately.
“The Magic Mushroom Table” and “Pagan Dancer” are in the background.
These two armchairs were designed for several possible uses together: with the plank and trestle dining/conference table; or on opposite sides of the magic mushroom table; or in an entryway or other hallway. That’s the way most of my tree art pieces begin, with a very basic decision to make a particular piece of furniture, in this instance to make a chair, rather than a bed, or a table, etc.
I had one Douglas fir plank that was long enough to make two seats and two backrests, so I decided to make them “plank chairs” to possibly go with the plank trestle table. Then the challenge was to select components for the arms and legs. This is when the process I call “design by experiment” began. I tried a number of different tree pieces that didn’t work and were set aside for possible future use in another piece.
In the designing and making of these chairs, there were basic structural requirements and dimensions to consider. Beyond those, the challenge was to select and combine naturally grown tree trunks into a functional and sculptural assemblage. With both the design and the making of these chairs I tried to embody a tree art esthetic, visually and kinesthetically, that evokes a ceremonial “presence,” to enhance dining, conversation, or contemplation.
I wanted the back legs of both chairs to extend higher than the backrests. Fitting these tall back legs was done by “mate-cutting” each of them to the edges of the backrest planks. The legs and backrests were then glued and dowelled together.
The four arms of both chairs and the curved supports underneath for the front legs are all made from matching Lodgepole pine, naturally grown, tree trunks. I like the balanced look of repeated shapes of the curved arms and braces.
This photo details the mate cut chair leg and backrest. After the joint cured, I “sculpted” the leg and backrest with rasps, files, and sandpapers, to create a curving and flowing design detail. “Flow,” whether of the tree’s growth rings, or of the tree trunk shape, or of my sculpted joinery, is an essential element of all my tree art designs.
This photo shows a number of different details, especially of the “treeness” of the chair and of the joinery. The armrest is joined to the back leg with a full size tenon set deeply into a matching mortise, glued, and reinforced with a wooden dowel . The armrest support is joined to the seat plank, to the back leg, and to the underside of the armrest by the use of several mated cuts.
Other design details in the chairs include burned scars, sapwood rubbing scars, worm tunnels, knots, and multiple natural colorings due to age, insects, and fire.
This view is of the underside of one of the chairs (the other chair is assembled and joined in essentially the same way, and with matching tree shapes.) The front legs are a single “trident fork” of a Lodgepole pine tree trunk, joined to the seat with a full mortise and tenon joint. For additional support I added the curved brace, which is also joined to the legs piece with a full mortise and tenon joint. Each of these joints is reinforced, either by concealed wood screws or wooden dowels.
In the making of these chairs, I was aware of both the amount of work, and the challenges of workmanship, that are involved in the many processes of finishing my tree art pieces. There is a lot of tedious, cosmetic detailing that only has to do with appearances, a matter of removing or concealing flaws, none of which have any effect on the strength and durability of the chairs.
In this studio photo, I’m applying the finishing touches to a table that took over 500 years to make.
The mushroom’s convex. umbonate cap and base are made of two burls sawn from an ancient Ponderosa pine. The trunk of the tree was over five feet in diameter. It was standing dead, and about to fall on a log home, in the mountains between Philipsburg and Georgetown Lake, Montana. The stem is a section of a burled Lodgepole pine tree trunk from the same area.
The three pieces are joined to create the look of an organic, sculptural whole, as if the table grew into its mushroom shape. I shaped a tenon at each end of the stem and inset them deeply into mortises cut into the base and cap. Inserting the burled stem into the burled base required over a hundred tries to achieve a tight fit. The joinery is reinforced with epoxy filler.
To make the mushroom functional as well as sculptural, I flattened the top of the cap and hollowed out two niches on opposite side of the rim. (I imagine the table in use between two arm chairs, with a lamp or candle on top, and a wine glass in each niche).
The finish is two topcoats of satin polyurethane applied over two penetrating base coats of Watco Danish Oil. Each coat revealed the complex swirls and natural colors of the burls’ flowing growth rings and woodgrains.
“The Magic Mushroom Table” weighs over 100 pounds, so I installed four furniture glides under the base. The finished height is about 27″ and the oval-like diameters of the cap and base average 24 inches.
These pieces, including the ones I’ve kept and used, are as much tree art to me as the commissioned pieces or those I’ve taken to market.
I named the sculpture “Pagan Dancer”, especially for the figures on the top. The kneeling human leg and hip, the reaching claw, the rising pair of horns combine into one totemic creature, poised in the stillness of an archetypal and pagan dance. These individual figures/shapes emerged as I pruned, sawed, and rasped on a single piece of “witch’s broom,” a tangle of Lodgepole pine tree limbs.
I had originally intended to make it a functional tree art piece as a base for a table lamp. But as I discovered the human and non-human animal shapes, I sensed it potential to become part of a larger sculpture, an assemblage in which the tree pieces would evoke and symbolize pagan, i.e., pre-Christian motifs.
There is an upward and outward flow to the entire sculpture. The four pedestal posts suggest sinuous roots rising in and from an underworld, connecting the floor base piece with the undulating, rippling edges of the floating plane and surface from which the dancing figures emerge.
“Pagan Dancer” is made entirely of Lodgepole pine, Pinus contorta var. latifolia, that I found in the forest. The floor base and doubled plane under the dancing figure are slices cut from the trunk of a standing dead tree. The pedestal posts are individual tree trunks.
The components were assembled with glued mortise and tenon joiner, dowels, and concealed wood screws. Only hand-held, non-electric tools were used to shape and smooth the surfaces and edges. The finish consists of many hand rubbed coats of paste wax, applied over a penetrating oil-based sealer.
I haven’t seen any piece of sculpture that compares with “Pagan Dancer.” To me, it exudes an other-worldly “Presence” worth of a viewer’s contemplation.
Here’s a selection of photos, a small sampling of the many different kinds of tables I’ve made, excluding dining tables.
This is one of the first tree art pieces I made after moving from Mill Valley, California, to Philipsburg, Montana, in 1989. It was made for a newly restored, historic building on the main street of town, the Kaiser House, a restaurant at that time.
I found all the burled trees in a stand near Stewart Lake, miles above the town. It was a small, but enchanted, mountainside. These days I don’t work much with burls, so that makes pieces like this one special. The seat and partial backrest are Lodgepole pine planks. Most of the joinery is hand cut, round mortises and tenons. The flattened burls on the backrest were quite comfortable.
It was sold years ago, but I still have fond memories of making it.
This freestanding, long-legged, chest was inspired by a photograph of a piece in an ancient Egyptian furniture museum collection. Perhaps the original was a pharoah’s treasure chest, intended to contain valuables he would need in the afterlife. Even though I’ve been told that I have a container fetish, I didn’t make this chest with any particular use in mind.
In addition to making a functional piece of furniture, I wanted to give the chest a sculptural appearance. Using tree trunk root bases, I imagined the legs and flared feet as suggestive of animal legs, hooves or feet.
The box and sliding drawer are made of thin Douglas fir boards. The legs are fire-killed Douglas fir tree trunks. The leg braces are naturally bent Lodgepole pine tree trunks. The box and lid handles are sliced Douglas fir burls. The lid hinges were hand forged by my good friend and blacksmith, Jon Scott. The box has a removable bottom, wrapped in suede leather.
The joinery includes mate-cut butt joints and rabbets corners, reinforced with dowels and glue. All of the components are hand planed, scraped, and sanded. The finish topcoat is a combination of Scandinavian tung oil and satin polyurethane.
The story of this chair’s name is part of a book-length manuscript I’ve been working on for the past 15 years, titled The Pagan Tree: A Wizard’s Apology.
The chair is made entirely of standing dead Rocky Mountain Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia), hunted and gathered in the Deerlodge National Forest near Philipsburg and Georgetwon Lake, Montana.
The seat and backrest are two pieces of slab wood cut from an unusually large tree. The seat is joined to the backrest with hardwood dowels and glue. Both the seat and backrest were sculpted to accentuate the colorful swirls of grain and the knots.
The backrest was sawn out of a solid, tapered slab, and then sculpted with a carving hatchet, chisels, and rasps to its present shape.
The legs are a matched set of four small, yet old, tree trunks. If you turned the chair upside down, you could count the growth rings in cross-section on the underside of the feet. The shapes of the legs are natural, formed as the trees outgrew injury and harsh conditions in the forest.
The joinery includes round mortises and tenons, glued and wedged. I didn’t use nails, screws, or other metal fasteners. After many hours of sculpting and hand sanding, I brushed on three finish coats–one of Scandinavian tung oil and two of polyurethane varnish.
The seat and backrest have a special significance to me. They were first assembled as a legless chair for me to sit on the ground in the tipi where I lived when I first moved to Virginia City in 1995. The legs and undercarriage were added years later when I decided to create a more functional chair to exhibit in a local art gallery.
I was delighted when the chair was purchased by a wonderfully eccentric poet, a lover of children, a maker of musical instruments, and an awesome inventor/scientist. In one word, a wizard …!
I’ve considered this as my “signature” piece for many years. I think I made it in the early 1990s while living near Philipsburg, Montana. It is made entirely of Lodgepole pine, mostly from the trunks of small, but old, trees that I found standing dead. The slab seat and backrest are both cut from a large Lodgepole. The spindles are forked branches. The next photo shows it from behind with a buffalo robe as a cushion.
This website presents a documentary of my tree art in an online portfolio, with a collection of photos and text illustrating my work as a tree artist over the past twenty years. The photo above shows me at work in a demonstration setting, downtown Virginia City, at work on my shaving horse with a tool caddy at my side and some “wigglies” in the background. It’s a favorite, and definitive, portrait and I thank Marge Antolik for taking it.
This is my recently revised (March 8, 2011) Artist’s Statement:
I’ve worked with architectural design, construction, and furniture making since the late 1960s, when I also made my first rustic furniture of California’s north coast driftwood.
In 1989 I moved to southwest Montana, to live a life of creative and contemplative poverty, centered around daily practices of writing, music, and tree art. In a word, I chose to be a poet (etymologically, a “maker”), whose poetry (“makings”) includes a tribute to some remarkable trees.
Tree art begins with the extraordinary, usually standing dead, trees I find in my surrounding forests. As a hunter–gatherer of trees, I’m especially fascinated with contorted lodgepole pine–Pinus contorta var. latifolia. These pines grow into gracefully deformed shapes as they overcome injury caused by crowded and harsh conditions: dense stands and shaded slopes; burdens of gravity, the weight of fallen peers in a jackstraw pile, and of drifted snow; blasts of icy, wintry winds. I don’t know of another tree species with trunk shapes naturally grown in such a variety of curvilinear twists, curls, forks, and crooks. Curiously, the common name of “lodgepole” suggests only the straight, narrow, supple poles of the Indian tipi, while the scientific name, Pinus contorta, perfectly describes the trees I work with.
I call myself a treeworker, not a woodworker, because I prefer to work with the original tree shapes rather than a tree processed into wood, i.e., dimensioned lumber. I work mostly with hand-held tools, which is a very different process than delivering lumber to stationary machines that do most of the work. Treeworking is essentially slow, quiet, thoughtful, very experimental with a great deal of trial and error. The making of each piece proceeds, almost ceremonially, using primitive/contemporary tools and skills to achieve sculptural effects.
The challenges of making tree art are to find, select, combine, join, and assemble naturally grown tree shapes into an artifact of my own design and making. This is not “Art, as opposed to Nature”, as art is often defined, but a thoughtful collaboration of artist/poet with Nature. In each piece, I attempt to honor and enhance both the physical and figurative character of each component tree–including what I consider to be its life story, in fact, its autobiography.