My approach to sculpture is inevitably connected to my pottery and claywork of the 70′s. What I always admire in clay is the close relationship between the local terrain (under the ground is always some kind of clay) and the forests above -wood turning to ash transforms the clay into glass. Ash, then, can become a kind of glaze, and part of the clay. It’s a cycle that begins with water, of course. That’s why wood, for me, is closely related to clay. It’s also why gazing at moving water is related to wood.
It is the Chinese five-element system that I realized one day while sitting out on the site of a brush fire. The local clay had turned an orangey-red around the edges of the burn, but at the center, where the carbon collected, there were dark bluish bands, and then nearly black. The black is simply the presence of ink-like carbon, but the blues are the unmistakable alchemical properties of iron. Iron is the secret ingredient of most pottery glazes, including the beautiful celadons of infinite variety, and the many kinds of of iron glazes that range from rich blue-blacks to warmer reddish blacks to a persimmon color. As important as color, the textures of iron glazes is a result of the stages of melting silica into glass while the iron itself is transformed by the atmosphere of the fire. Unless the materials have already been melted into glass, then pulverized and reduced to powder already, the chemical interactions create many stages of bubbles and flow. The exquisite textures of many traditional glazes are the result of the interaction of the elements of glass; silica, alumina and flux.
When it comes to savoring the qualities of wood, it is as important to be aware of the process of growth and decay. When wood that was once part of a living tree falls to the ground, a lot of things can happen. It can be eaten, and slowly disintegrate. A lot of microscopic activity can transform wood in complex ways. When a particularly beautiful effect is discovered, it is possible to remove the wood from the original process and work with it. In this way the process is continued in another direction.
The grain of a piece of wood reveals the process of growth, then to re-present it is a deliberate act of creation. How much to interfere with something already wonderful is a challenge. How to present what has been found is an act of revelation.
The best treatment that I have found to interact successfully is to return to fire as a process of transformation. Pyrography is the deliberate burning of the wood in certain ways to create a sense of human interaction in a minimal way. I like to use several kinds of torches and branding tools to create marks that are not just added to the surface, but combine with the substance intimately. I like to use beeswax as a finish- it (temporarily!) stops the process of disintegration and often reveals things I see in the wood when it is wet, but as it dries out the surface seems to die, too. Using such a basic finish seems to bring back that life without covering too much, or just sitting on the surface. With the judicious application of heat, the wax can melt deep into the pores of the wood and become part of it.
It is similar to the sense of what to me is a good glaze on pottery; it does not sit just on the surface of the clay, but becomes a deep aspect of the clay itself. When the clay sits slowly transforming in the fire the glaze combines with it and they become one.
There is no real difference between clay and glass, except refinement. Clay is a little more resistant to melting, but my favorite thing is to break down that difference until there is only enough difference to keep the form of a vessel from collapsing. In a Japanese Anagama kiln, pottery is fired for several days until the ash collects and melts into the clay; the pot often becomes so soft the shape of the pot itself is transformed. In a similar sense, the difference between picking up a rotting chunk of wood and presenting it as an art object is only a slight difference, one that could also collapse but for certain deliberate factors.
These factors have something to do with the dynamic interplay of conscious transformation of the wood into something nearly something else. It may be this delicacy of intent or collapse that keeps me occupied with spalted wood.