An important reason for my wanting to exhibit at the fair was/is my admiration for the octagonal log architecture of “The Pavilion.” Another reason is that our three families all live just across the Beaverhead River from the fairgrounds. Yet another reason is that the booth space was large enough to allow a collection of 11 pieces of furniture, as well as my shaving horse, tote box, and tool caddy.
I planned the exhibit as an educational display–about the trees, the designs, and the workmanship. It is yet another of my tributes to the contorted lodgepole pine trees.
It’s very likely that this will be my last public display, especially since we’re now thinking of furnishing our Virginia City home with these irreplaceable pieces of tree art furniture and sculpture.
I’m pleased that spending this time with the display has renewed our appreciation of the many artistic values embodied in each piece, and in the collection as a whole. It’s true that the pieces interact with each other, and that the whole display seems greater than the sum of its parts.
The entire collection represents thousands of hours of work–from the hunting/gathering of the trees, to the different stages of assemblage, cosmetic detailing, to the finish coats of varnish or wax–plus all the indirect labors, including storage, handling, marketing and sales.
The following is the text of a brief article I wrote as an introduction, a first publication in an expanding series of articles and essays written as a tribute to the remarkable “Lodgepole” pine trees. My ultimate goal is to write a book, illustrated with photographs, titled Contorted Lodgepoles: A Poet’s Tribute. One chapter of that book will be an essay that expands on my observations about architect Robert Reamer’s “architectural tree art.”
Here’s the photograph that accompanied the article.
Explore Big Sky
August 8—22, 2013 issue, “BACK 40”
“Old Faithful Inn’s architectural tree art”
By Jack Waller, Explore Big Sky Contributor
I’m one among a multitude of admirers of Yellowstone National Park’s Old Faithful Inn.
Designed by architect Robert Reamer in 1903, the inn is a monumental example of rustic architecture. For well over a century, it’s been a destination for millions of visitors, and the voluminous subject matter of devoted scholars, historians, writers and photographers.
One essential element of its rustic appeal is what I call “architectural tree art,” the extensive use of lodgepole pine tree trunks both on the building’s exterior and interior.
Reamer’s design, especially in the lobby, combines the shapes of both the straight and the contorted types of the species, Pinus contorta var. latifolia. The magnitude of Reamer’s structural and decorative uses of these trees evokes amazement, awe and a sense of architectural mystery.
In the late 1980s, three seminal events led to my becoming a tree art furniture maker. I moved to southwest Montana to live in a lodgepole pine forest; I visited Old Faithful Inn for the first time; and I read Craig Gilborn’s Adirondack Furniture and the Rustic Tradition.
“Tree art” and “tree art furniture” are terms I first learned from Gilborn. For the most part, they refer to the use of recognizable tree shapes in the design and construction of rustic architecture and in furniture making, respectively.
In July 2012, after more than 20 years of making tree art furniture from contorted lodgepole pine trees, I took a private bellhop’s tour of the upper levels of the inn’s lobby.
Public access was closed in the late 1940s for safety reasons, due to the large numbers of inn visitors. Now twice a day, a group of four people can, by reservation only, accompany a bellhop to the inn’s rooftop either for the morning or evening raising or lowering of flags.
Ascending to the lobby’s upper levels, we arrived at the pinnacle of the lobby’s vaulted ceiling, and arrived at the crow’s nest. From its great height in the peak of the vaulted ceiling, it overlooks all the interior architectural tree art – the lobby floor, the surrounding column-brace-beam frameworks, and the lower balconies with their interconnecting staircases, catwalks and platforms.
A small, enclosed, cage-like structure, the crow’s nest epitomizes the inn’s architectural tree art. As a tree artist, I recognized the recurring motifs that I’ve identified in my own work: swan necks, tuning forks, alpenhorns, shepherd’s crooks and arches. I also saw there the mastery of the carpenters/tree artists who executed these elaborate designs.
The crow’s nest door is positioned near an exit staircase, with another door leading outside and up to the summit of the inn – a long, rectangular roof platform with panoramic views of the Old Faithful geyser basin.
During the tour I realized an essential element of Reamer’s plan was to provide all guests with the experience – both physical and psychological – of elevation, procession and ascension, all culminating on the rooftop.
(I originally posted this as a draft on July 22, 2013, which preceded post “Thirty-nine.” I decided today to go ahead an publish it.)
The architectural tree art of Old Faithful Inn was an original inspiration for me in the late 1980s. Since then I’ve made tree art furniture, sculpture, and architectural details, using contorted lodgepole pine trees.
From its beginning, I designed and made this bench with Old Faithful Inn in mind. As tree art furniture, its design echoes the architectural tree art of the Inn, especially that of the lobby’s log framework bracing, balconies, staircases, catwalks, and the “Crow’s Nest.”
In July of 2012, I took a private bellhop’s tour of the upper levels of the Inn’s lobby for the first time, ascending to “The Crow’s Nest,” and out onto the flat roof’s viewing platform. I repeated this privileged and inspirational tour in June of 2013.
These tours deepened my appreciation of the artistry of architect Robert Reamer’s designs and of the craftsmanship of those he employed to execute them. The tours also increased my sense of connection, as a tree art furniture maker, to the Inn’s architectural tree art and to the contorted lodgepole pine trees. And they also evoked a desire to exhibit my tree art furniture in the lobby of the Inn, for public use as seating, portrait photography, and to serve other educational values.
Lastly, the bench was made in conjunction with my writing of an essay titled “Architectural Tree Art of Old Faithful Inn”, for magazine publication and to later become a chapter in my forthcoming book length manuscript, Contorted Lodgepole Pines: A Poet’s Tribute.
“Tree working” Processes
I began the bench in December of 2012 and “finished” it in June of 2013. The various phases of the project are documented, in detail, on this blog.
The design includes 19 individual, naturally grown, lodgepole pine tree trunks (no limbs or branches), and five tree art “motifs”: swan neck, alpenhorn, arch, ox-bow, and tuning fork.
I chose the individual trees and combined their shapes to serve both structural and decorative purposes. The overall design emphasizes the individual “character” of each tree, while also achieving a symmetrical pattern and functional unity. The natural “defects”—cracks, gnarly grain patterns, insect activity, discolorations—are essential rustic details of tree art furniture.
The most-used joints are round mortise and tenon, saddle notch, and mate cut edge-to-edge butt joint (on the seat slabs). After gluing and clamping, most of the joints were reinforced with either wood dowels or wood screws.
Detailing and Finish
The project included tedious and time-consuming processes of cosmetic detailing: shaping of joints; chamfering of edges; filling holes and cracks; scraping and sanding away of coarse tool marks, wood filler, and excess glue. Stain pens were used to blend colors and to conceal cosmetic flaws.
I first applied two coats of penetrating natural Watco Danish Oil. The final finish is two top coats of satin polyurethane.
The bench is 8 feet long overall, with a backrest height of 46 inches. The slab wood seating area is 71 inches wide between the armrests. I estimate its weight at about 200 pounds.
Here are front and back views of the bench as it sits in our greenhouse-to-be …
With the addition of the armrests, the bench’s components are almost completed. As the armrest design evolved, I had to give up my plan to have the bench come apart in two sections. With the armrest’s fixed connection between front and back legs, the bench can no longer be disassembled.
I still have to add an “ox-bow” tree trunk stretcher between to two back legs. I’ll also add a horizontal brace under the front of the bench seat, using the front “ox-bow” for support.
While the bench project continues, I finished a coat–hat–boot rack for our own family use.
The height is over six feet. Except for the two slab pieces of the base, the rack combines twelve lodgepole pine tree trunks (and limbs?). The large central tree is a “swan’s neck,” my favorite contorted lodgepole pine motif. All of the hooks were “mate-cut” to fit flatly and tightly to the central tree, and joined with trim head Torx screws. I’ve included two close-ups of the joinery, that also show insect activity and other “character traits.”
No stains were used. The different colors result from aging, weathering, and insect activity. The finish is natural Watco Danish Oil.
It is rare that we get to keep any of my tree art, and especially pleasing to me because I like this piece a lot, both for its appearance and its usefulness to our family.
Throughout the designing and making of this bench, I’ve used trees prepared for use, but not used, in other furniture projects. The “ox-bow” is a tree art motif I identified many years ago, and the ones in these photos were drawknifed and sanded long ago. I brought a selection of them up from the workshop. I’ll use two as stretchers, one between the two front legs and one between the two back legs.
The design of this bench is experimental and evolving step-by-step. I have a basic idea of adding wide slab armrests to the top of the front posts, which are much longer at this stage than they will be when I start working on the arm rests. For now, the challenge is tightly fitting each leg into a cut-out in the bench seat.
This post is about (1) attaching an arched support to stiffen the backrest, (2) connecting the backrest to the bench seat in a way that allows the backrest and seat to be disassembled, and (3) the start of attaching the front legs. (My captions for the photos are not as detailed and informative as they could be.)
I have two more posts in draft status that I’ll publish asap (the date today is May 26, 2013).
April 17, 2013
For personal and family reasons and priorities, I haven’t worked much on the bench for the past month. I had originally planned (!) to have it finished by the end of April, but since that was a self-imposed time frame, I’ve relaxed my schedule. And, besides, the making of tree art is only one of my creative practices ….
I’m also continuing with my relaxed standards for the quality of these posts, especially in literary terms.
Because of the size of the bench, and the crowded condition of my workshop, I decided to bring the bench up to our attached greenhouse. As long as it’s sunny, the unfinished greenhouse is a comfortable, roomy, and well-lighted workspace. And the deck serves as a good workbench.
Here are photos of my latest efforts to combine the back rest with the seat, and to add two legs:
The making of the bench seat with 8 pieces of 2″ thick planks.
Perhaps, since tree art is a collaboration with Nature, I tend to abhor straight lines (and square corners, etc.). In the making of edge to edge butt joints, I like the mate cut, waney edge joints as a design detail.
Post Twenty-six was getting too lengthy, probably too many photos and not enough text. I’ve been saving two posts as drafts rather than publishing them. I’m thinking now that it doesn’t matter all that much if I go ahead and publish them. Just as tree art is not fine woodworking, my writing in these posts is not fine literature.
January 1st, 2012. After exploring a lot of design options, both functional and sculptural, and with many choices and indecisions, the project is now underway. I finally decided to make a large seating bench that could serve in a public space, possibly in the lobby of an historic, and monumentally rustic, inn?
I began taking photographs in the workshop after selecting trees, some new ones for this project and others I had previously prepared then not used for other projects.
I’ve decided to publish this documentation as the project proceeds, as a”work-in-progress,” similar to what I did in documenting the making of the trestle table a year of so ago.
This post will be brief, as an announcement of a new, and very challenging, tree art project. I’m planning a series of posts to document its makings and, hopefully, its public placement as a tree art exhibit.
I’ve begun to design a tree art assemblage, essentially as a tribute to the contorted Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine–Pinus contorta v. latifolia.
I’m working with an urge to select a variety of contorted lodgepole pine tree trunk motifs (see below), and to assemble them into a sculptural forest, a “stand” of pines that is both physical and figurative. Within this stand, I imagine interconnected chairs and benches to serve as public seating.
For many years I’ve thought about this kind of project, and came up with the term “monumental tree art” to describe it. Part of its being monumental would be the architectural setting, which I’ve imagined as a rustic hotel lobby or an art museum foyer. (I have the perfect place in mind, the best setting I can imagine for my tree art, but it would be premature to disclose it.)
I admit that this challenge is great enough–in terms of design, workmanship, and finding a public placement–that I might not be able to make it happen.
As preliminaries, I’m looking in my storage to select component trees. I’ll take photos and make sketches to include in a later posts. Below is a graphics display, prepared for a Creighton Block Gallery exhibit and talk last year, of the recurring contorted lodgepole tree trunk motifs I’ve identified over the past twenty-plus years:
We sold our across town “Tree Art Studio” (and storage building) last April, 2011, and have been moving trees ever since. Those in these photos are awaiting, in the alley behind our home, their winter storage. They are a small fraction of our total tree inventory.
Here you can see how I’ve sorted the trees by “motifs” (the recurring, naturally grown shapes of the tree trunks)–fork, arch, swan’s neck, loop, spiral, and some one-of-a-kind, eccentric shapes.
Storage, and the handling that goes with it, have always been essential to the making tree art. I’ve moved some of these trees countless times over the past twenty years since I found them in the forest.
I still marvel at what each tree accomplished to overcome injury, gravity, crowded and shaded circumstances, and long winters. And I’m still working–physically and figuratively–on an illustrated book about these trees, with the title: The Contorted Lodgepole–A Poet’s Tribute.
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.