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.