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.