ONE MAN’S ART IS ANOTHER MAN’S FIREWOOD
The sun dispersed through the falling leaves like exhaled powder, the dogs romping ahead of me along the creek. It was one of those Man, if I could only capture this in a bottle kind of early fall days. The gnarly mass poked up from the mud bank. My first thought was to pass it by, but something about its stark severity made me pause. We were out in the common area behind our house, scouting for downed, aged wood to put on the lathe. I’d recently started woodturning, and was discovering the joys of uncovering hidden treasure from spinning blanks.
Bernie and Bella—a black and yellow lab, respectively—pounced in along side, excited by the prospect of seeing me in their watery domain. I could see in their hopeful eyes and playful bouncing they anticipated some exotic new game in the creek. I chucked a large stick for them towards the small pool in the creek bend, and bent over the ugly log.
It appeared to have been chain-sawn out of a medium size trunk, and an inexperienced pyrotechnic had tried to burn it while green. One side was charred with wet, ridged charcoal, but the other still looked solid, with the upper third above the water line boasting rows of whitish fan-shaped fungi. No doubt disappointed with its performance in the fire pit, its owner had dumped it into the creek under cover of darkness. There it sat for who knows how long, undisturbed except for the rising and falling of the water, the occasional animal, and the fungi family, pronouncing their conquest with rows of cartilage flags.
It sucked and slurped as I lifted it from its mucky berth. I thought how nuts I was for taking my time on this thing; that I should let it sink back into its oblivion and find a more promising prospect. But its thin, tough bark, still surprisingly intact under the water line seemed to say “See man, I’m really not so bad; I’ve still got something to offer.”
Bella came swaggering back with the stick, having stolen it as usual from her brother. Her tail determinedly sloshed trails of brackish water side-to-side like a hairy wiper gone askew. She soaked my pants as she circled me, looking up with perky ears, her jowls billowing around the stick with each pant. Totally irresistible. I smiled, and threw it again, this time further into the pool. I had to laugh, marveling at the explosion of competitive energy unleashed on whatever stood in the way of their canine ecstasy.
After hauling the beast up the steep incline of my back yard, I perched it on the deck steps and sprayed it down with the hose. That only served to reveal the true desperateness of its condition. I have to admit I was embarrassed by the thought of someone seeing it there–as if somehow I would be weighed on the scales of neighborly good sense and found severely wanting. “No, I didn’t try to burn it.” “You see, it’s an artsy kind of thing, you’d have to be a woodworker to understand.” “Yes, I know it’s got those mushroom things growing on it. I’m not going to eat them; I’m going to cut them off….”
Call it crazy, call it faith, I don’t care. I’d come this far and I was going to see what that thing looked like on the inside. It’ll either look like crap or something very interesting—nothing in between.
The beastie sat perched vertically on the wooden step for a few days, competing for attention with the respectable logs lined along the fence. After working up my courage by turning a few other respectable bowls, I was finally ready to take on the ugly log.
I don’t know if the bandsaw maker anticipated its capacity for charcoal and fungi, but soon I had clouds of black dust billowing around and chalky chips bouncing about the table as I trimmed off the outside of the log. The blade pulled black streaks down the face of the freshly exposed wood, still masking its identity.
Deeper cuts lifted the black veil, titillating with shades of coloration and lines running through its spalted fibers. I bridled my enthusiasm and mounted the bowl blank on the lathe. The wet wood turned smoothly and soon revealed its intended form — a small bowl with simple, classic lines. Turning the outside of a bowl is usually when a turner determines its essential shape, forming the pattern for its interior. There is no real science to this. You slowly cut away the waste, watching the emerging form on the horizon of the spinning wood until it seems right.
It helps to have a sense for curves and proportions, of course, but mostly it’s subjective, as is all art. No doubt one man’s art is another man’s firewood, and that’s one of the things I like about turning. Its personal. All fine woodworking is, and I enjoy it all, well, except for sanding. But who does? OK, I suppose there could be a nerdly sanding hermit tucked away somewhere, perched on a stool surrounded by cubby holes neatly stacked with every possible grit of sandpaper, happily lost in a fog of sawdust. For most of us, though, sanding sucks, but I digress.
I think it’s this process of personal expression that catches the turner’s imagination. The variables of movement, moisture, grain, color, texture, form, speed, and the dynamic of tool on wood, combine to create an addictive mystique. Traditional woodworking offers its own world of wonder and satisfaction, but it is much more linear, mathematical, and left brain. Turning is more conceptual, and while a specific object is usually in mind, the true possibilities emerge when the tool is on the wood, rather than from a set of drawings. Design happens before furniture construction (at least it usually works better that way – ask me how I know this!), while many times the creative process of turning itself reveals design. (There are certainly turnings that result from plans, but production turning is not what I usually do.)
Mounting the other half of the log, I worked its outer shape, this time watching a more unique shape emerge. It was tightly convex, rounded out from lip to bottom and then curving back out at the base. This piece seemed to be even more striking in tone and texture. After reversing the bowl and chucking the tenon, I carved out the inside, carefully paralleling the external curve, undercutting the rim. When that was complete, I turned the bowl again with the interior against a vacuum chuck and finished the bottom by cutting a cove in the tenon’s side which blended with the opposite curve of the bottom of the bowl. And there it was: an intriguing upside down mushroom cap perched on a flared foot.
After a few days of drying into a slightly oval form, the mushroom bowl pronounced its final shape: a one-of-a-kind, slightly funky, profoundly caricatured piece, yet attractive in a quirky way. And the closer you look, the more intense its variegation in color and grain. On top of that it has a sort of magnetic resonance about it, but maybe that’s just me. I suppose that’s the nature of the creative process, a DNA interchange between the creator and the created. A soulish melding between the substance and its shaper, the result of which would not otherwise exist. A process of removing everything except what is essential to its true form, arriving at something more wonderful and inherently “right” than could ever be seen in its prior state.
What was ugly, abused, scarred, and discarded, now appears in authentic beauty, secure in its revealed identity and purpose. And while its form appeals, for those who know what it once was, it offers far deeper meaning: wonder, hope, and purpose. Something about the process moves me, synching with my own sense of “shapedness.” A primal sense of purposeful movement toward destiny; stirring a hope for beauty and meaning. A sometimes wavering, yet growing security in the purposes of my Maker. With practiced hands and skilled eyes He applies unyielding truth to my spinning life, removing everything that is not essential in order to reveal His own image in my authentic form.
I think of Jesus, who was a woodworker by trade. I wonder what it was like for Him to handle and shape into utilitarian objects the substance He Himself had created and that one day would lift him up towards a darkened sky. He taught profound truths from everyday objects. Perhaps one day by the shore of Galilee he might have begun: “The kingdom of heaven is like…an ugly log.”
Phil Stoner’s love for nature, travel, good food, music, art, and craftsmanship were inspired by his years growing up abroad in other cultures. After leaving an executive position in publishing, he completed a Master’s Program in woodworking at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking. To view his work, visit www.mightyoakstudio.com. The Ugly Log © 2006 Phillip Stoner. All rights reserved.