I wanted to share a series of images showing the process of the making of an underpainting which I have been working on for the past few months. The image itself is an illustration of a vision of the biblical prophet Zechariah laid out in chapters 3 and 4 of the book of Zechariah in the Old Testament. It is a beautiful story of God’s grace and restoration, rich in symbolism and images. It is not very long and is certainly worth reading.
This grisaille is done in egg tempera on an oak panel, built from an oak that came down on my father’s farm in Greenwood county, was subsequently milled (quarter sawn) and air dried for 10 years. The panel has been cradled with walnut and ash to help keep it flat over time. The surface is a traditional gesso as describe out by the 14th century Florentine Cennino Cennini in his Il libro dell’arte. Once the grisaille is complete, I will start to paint layers of translucent colored oil glazes, hopefully to beautiful effect.
Below is a gallery of images of a pair of cabinets built for the bathroom of a couple in Wichita. They are constructed from native (specifically South Eastern Kansas) black walnut, solid and veneered, and white oak. The exterior surfaces were “ebonized” using a process which employs the chemical reaction of an iron solution with tannins in the wood, rendering it black. The design of cranes and bamboo were carved into the surface revealing again the natural color of the walnut in the incised lines. I hired Taylor Johnson to build the casework itself. Using traditional methods, the interior framework is a solid skeleton held together with dovetail and mortise and tenon joints. Taylor fabricated plywood with extra thick shop-made walnut veneer to be able to handle carving without passing through to the inner layers. His focus and skill allowed me to give attention to the design challenges and the artwork and carving and exterior finishing the cabinets. My gratitude goes out to Taylor for his tenacity and dedication to excellence, and also to Steve Hebert, who generously gave his time and energy to brilliantly photograph the cabinets in situ.
I delivered this table to my client’s office last week. It is good to finish a piece and be able to celebrate it. In spite of this I tend to experience a wide range of emotions and second guessing when I finish a job. One thing that never changes though is the gratitude I feel at the opportunity to be a woodworker, one who engages the authentic witness of the trees. They always have a real story to tell about our God and His majesty and faithfulness.
The discovery of the life within the wood and the relationships they form is exciting to uncover. The early decisions are heavy. Every other act in the process is a response to these chalk marks as they try to hear and echo this walnut tree’s voice.
Underpinning Art with Discipline
The romance of the craft is backed up by countless hours of “mundane” work- the discipline that builds skill, and makes up the real life of labor. Days are spent creeping up on this scribed relationship and the foundational joinery. It’s a blessing to work, and to rest in the presence, at the same while striving towards the goal. Don’t mistake me, I’ve only had enough meager success at it to know it’s possible.
Technology – Joinery
One side of the natural edge was curving away on bottom edge so I had to cut a shallow rebate in order to have a solid joint as well as cleanly scribed edge. This edge was reinforced with dominoes. The opposing edge curved towards the bottom edge and could be cut square. For it I made a floating contoured spline from Baltic birch. Assembled dry all is tight and solid.
Visualize and Establish Form
Finding a way to visualize the elements in a design is an engaging challenge. Krenov spoke of “composing”, and I’ve adopted his method and language -clamping up and mocking up relationships as the process moves forward. I don’t recall if he used tape, but I recently switched from using blue tape to white tape to mask off shapes- the difference is remarkable.
Labor – Engaging Harvest
The last bit of joinery for the individual trestles is the horizontal rail completing the “H” form, which will eventually carry the longer rail that will join the two trestles together.
I’m grateful for this job, this material, this process. I heard a song that had a line which proclaimed “I am the record of His grace”.
What does it mean to be a steward of life? It is an unspoken question threaded through my days. Each winter we carry more lives through to the hope of spring. It is the nature of a farm and a family grow, a response to a holy invitation. In our stewardship, we learn to leverage the outward death of winter to build the inner life. Roots and bones. Back to the earth in the compost of the old year, manure and trampled hay, sawdust and wood shavings, in cover crops and dormant roots, even the bones of the dead under the heap or in the earth. Those failures of the past year kindle study and deeper investigations into the principles of agriculture and life. The wheel of life rolls away as a witness to the nature of God, always redeeming death and turning it into the living.
The oblique light comes with a more subtle potency not felt in the haste of summer, illuminating details made bare by the dearth and otherwise overlooked. It is not all romance of slanting light. There is the mud and the death and sickness. There are the broken systems and the unfinished jobs, and the detritus of unclean life scattered everywhere. The butcher sighed and smiled and cried “Ahh, life!” and thanked God as he cut the throat of the lamb. It seems that to live is to accept and know death, and to die is to understand and accept life. It is a mystery that I don’t claim to understand.
“For I know that this shall turn out to my salvation through your prayer and the support of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and my hope that in nothing shall I be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always so now also, Christ shall be Magnified in my body, whether it be by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Philippians 1:19-21
Last year, in collaboration with Crosstimbers Woodworking, we designed and built a series of coffee tables and end tables for the Big Horn River Lodge in Montana. Most of the walnut was salvaged from the rejected timber from the logging of a farm in Winfield, Kansas. Photographer Steve Hebert traveled to the lodge and captured some beautiful images of the tables for us.
Is labor a sacrament? The invitation of the Eighth Day? A sacred collaboration with the living God? I can’t help but to note that the call to labor in the garden came before the curse of toil. I am certain that labor is about more than just earning my bread. There is something deeper there, not just for the artist, but for the ditch digger and the roofer, the farmer and the nurse. “Whatever you think, it’s more than that…” ISB.