Over the last several years, I’ve enjoyed a deeper exploration into the work and life of Wharton Esherick. There is much to admire and contemplate. Esherick believed he had been overtrained as a painter and discovered his most creative expression in wood. His work included woodcuts, sculpture, furniture, his studio itself, and much more. Mansfield Bascom, Esherick’s son-in-law, wrote a fantastic biography, Wharton Esherick: The Journey of a Creative Mind that I highly recommend.
Over the winter, I read about the Esherick Museum’s Annual Juried Woodworking Exhibition. This year, they requested submissions that, in one way or another, represent a self-portrait. You can learn more about the theme and its connection to Esherick, along with the process, here. It got me thinking. Mixed into my thoughts were a chunk of crab apple tree and lines from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”
I had planted the crab apple tree in our yard, around twenty years ago. Eventually I had to cut it down, and I piled the trunk sections on the firewood stack. When I picked up this chunk to burn, the bark pulled away and exposed a form that brought to mind a human torso. I marveled at the color variation and surface texture, then hollowed the center away with an adze and set the piece aside, having no idea what I was ultimately going to do with it.
When this self-portrait idea came up, I reflected much more on that old chunk of crab apple, Whitman, transience, and oneness. Then I got to work.
The shot above shows the result of the experiments with the design of the lettering. Placing tape over the surface lets me erase easily while working on the actual shape and size of the surface. Sometimes I’ll completely redraw after removing the tape. In this case, I slipped some bits of graphite paper under the lifted tape and transferred the outline of the letters lightly onto the wood. You can also see the texture left by a course rasp on the interior of the torso. The rasping began as a preliminary to further smoothing, but I liked the directional texture so much, and its contrast with the adjoining surfaces, that I decided to keep it.
Apple wood is hard, but fine grained. It holds detail like this lettering well. Lots of work with the penknife and also some gouges for the tighter curves. Using our woodstove for a forge, and a chunk of railroad rail for an anvil, I did some shaping and texturing of some mild steel to hold the torso above the figured walnut base.
The Exhibition is online and just opened today, running through August 28. You can explore all 25 of the pieces that were selected here. Many of them are for sale, including this one; this link will take you to that specific page. And if you’re ready to Zoom, The Esherick Museum is hosting an online opening reception for the exhibition. It’s free to join in, but you need to register here.
Dave, George Nakashima is smiling down on this piece and saving the wood out of the firewood pile will allow this tree to live for ever that and should be our goal.
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Interesting Whitman verse, beautiful wood of fortuitous planting and harvesting, and lettering that captures attention. I’m glad that you brought these distinct entities together in a single piece. Outstanding! Thanks for sharing.
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Awesome Dave! I love the piece, the words, lettering and the story.
Wonderful, that it sold already too! Cheers.