“ConneXtions”

“ConneXtions: A Collaboration of Glass and Wood” is an exhibition jointly sponsored by the American Association of Woodturners (AAW) and the International Society of Glass Beadmakers (ISGB). More than 100 woodturners and glass beadmakers are collaborating on pieces, and their creations will be exhibited June 26–December 15 at the AAW Gallery in St. Paul, MN.

Last fall, I met a glass beadmaker, Terry Bendt, a fellow Japanese-American, at the Tucson Museum of Art show. We liked each other’s work and liked each other, and when I next saw her, she told me about “ConneXtions.” Terry and I started brainstorming and decided to do two pieces inspired by the American internment of Japanese immigrants and Japanese-American citizens in camps in the United States during World War II. One piece is focused on the so-called relocation center at Manzanar, California; the other, on the Gila River camp in Arizona.

It’s been an exciting process—for both of us, if I may speak a little for Terry. We have both challenged ourselves technically to do work beyond what either of us has done in the past. Collaboration is new to me, and I’m loving the energy and the exchange. But the best part for me has been getting to know Terry and feeling like a midwife to Terry’s process. You see, Terry’s family was in Manzanar, the best known of the camps. And it’s not a part of her family history that she knew very much about. In making these pieces she has been learning about her own heritage. And it has been my privilege to be a witness and a facilitator to that process.

I’m also delighted with how our pieces are coming out. The heart of the Manzanar piece is a turned hollow vessel of applewood (“Manzanar” is Spanish for “apple grove,” and the site of the camp was an abandoned orchard-farming town). Only the inside of the vessel is turned; the outside remains the raw, chainsawn block I began with. The block is wider than it is thick, so when I hollowed the inside, the turning pierced the front and back walls, leaving “windows” into the vessel. I offset the center slightly so that the front window is slightly larger than the back; thus, when you look through the front window, you see the frame of the rear.

After the closure of the camps, landowners near the site of the cemetery at the Heart Mountain camp in Wyoming uncovered a 55-gallon drum full of small stones painted with kanji characters. We’ve borrowed from that fact for both our pieces. Terry has made beads that look like stones, and I have painted some of them with characters such as those for “perseverance” and “family” and “dream.” Both the painted beads and plain faux stone beads will lie inside the bottom of the vessel with some scattered cherry blossom murrini beads. More cherry blossom beads and glass shard beads with family photos will adorn five strands of barbed wire that will wrap the outside of the vessel.

The Gila River piece will consist of a black serving tray partially covered with dirt from the Gila River camp site. Fallen over on the tray will be a teacup, a broken and mended rice bowl, and a pair of chopsticks, all turned from mesquite, a wood native to the Gila River area. Stone beads, both plain and painted, will spill from the cup and bowl. A strand of barbed wire will lie in the dirt, punctuated with handful of cherry blossom beads.

My grandmother once showed me a treasured tea bowl that had broken and had been professionally mended. No attempt had been made to conceal the brokenness; rather, the breaks were emphasized by conspicuous seams of adhesive that had been mixed with gold. Instead of diminishing the object’s value, the repair thus underscored it. This is the idea behind the broken, mended rice bowl.

In my original conception of the piece, barbed wire was to encircled the tray, attached to posts at the corners. One fact kept coming back to me, however: At the understaffed Gila River Relocation Center, the single watch tower was torn down soon after the camp was in operation, and the barbed-wire perimeter fence was taken down after six months. What model prisoners must the camp have held.

About me and writing

I used to write: poetry, fiction, essays. I had a talent for it, though words never felt easy to me. Nigh on twelve or thirteen years ago, I stopped. Grief silenced me. Editing mediocre writing for pay further numbed my love of language. I also quit talking about myself. Though some of my previous published writing had been quite self-revelatory, I became fanatically private.

Meeting me in person, you probably wouldn’t know any of this. Though I’ve always been shy, I’m quick, and I love to laugh and joke—when it come to puns, I verge on Tourette’s. So when I’m “on,” I can come across as jovial even. And over the years, I’ve learned to converse about the mundane. When I’m not focused on a task or goal, I can actually be friendly. I tend to ask a lot of questions, which keeps conversation flowing. I just reveal little about myself.

Of course, when I want to talk, when I want to connect with someone at a level deeper than the everyday, I revert to being painfully awkward and much too intense. So, mostly, I keep my silence.

My silence used to hurt. It doesn’t much anymore, one of the blessings of age—and art—for me. But breaking it does.

And writing, for me, is the most intense and painful form of breaking silence—so much so that even writing about the mundane is a test of perseverance. Simple emails? Ordeals.

So why the hell am I writing a blog?

Two and a half years ago, I applied to document this year’s International Turning Exchange, thus committing myself to this future task of writing on demand. I had warmed up the year before by creating my web site and writing most of the text that is still posted there. Then I wrote a couple of articles related to woodturning. A year and a half ago, I wrote a haiku. Last weekend, I wrote another seventeen syllables of poetry.

It’s time to begin to break my silence for good. My soul knows it, even if my mind still stamps and rears.

The International Turning Exchange (ITE)

The 2007 International Turning Exchange residency program, organized by the Wood Turning Center in Philadelphia, is coming up fast. This program brings together four woodturning artists, a furniture maker, a scholar, and a photojournalist from across the globe to explore, create, and collaborate for eight exciting weeks. The lathe artists this year are Peter Oliver (New Zealand), Jean-François Delorme (France), Sean Ohrenich (USA), and Siegfried Schreiber (Germany), plus me. (Like many of the ITE photojournalists before me, I’ll be participating as both a photojournalist and a [fifth] lathe artist.) The furniture maker is Peter Harrison (USA) and the scholar is museum curator Elisabeth Agro. I’ll be posting profiles of my fellow fellows as my departure date (June 7) draws nearer.

This adventure will take me away from home for most of June, all of July, and into August! I’ll be documenting it all here (complete with photos), so you’ll be able to follow along as the adventure unfolds.

In the meantime, do check out the book Connections: International Turning Exchange 1995–2005 to see what happened during the first ten years of the program. You can also see a photo gallery of some of that work at the Wood Turning Center site. And don’t forget to check out last year’s program.

Hello, world!

Well, now that I have my template set up, I guess it’s time to start writing.

I created this blog primarily to document the International Turning Exchange in Philadelphia (ITE) this summer, but since I’ve gone through the trouble to set it up, I’m going to use it also as a place to record thoughts about my work in general as a maker of turned wood art vessels.

I guess I’ll start at the obvious beginning point: who I am—namely, an erstwhile-writer-cum-editor-turned-professional-woodturner.

After many years of writing and editing and designing and laying out books, in October 2002, I was working as document production manager at an archaeological firm in Tucson. As such, I was responsible for editing and producing the firm’s technical reports and books and other materials. I liked the work, but the company was poorly managed, and I had been working there under unrelenting deadline pressure for seven long years. I had lobbied hard to change how things were done, but nothing had improved. By this point, I was angry all the time. My soul was screaming, and I had to make a change or die. I asked myself what I would rather do, and the answer that came to me was “turn wood.”

Now, I had never turned wood before. I loved wood and had collected a few fine vessels (thank you, Bob Rice!), but I had never turned—indeed, I’d never even seen a vessel turned. But I knew what a lathe was and the basic principle of turning, and I had a feeling.

I gave notice and left my job November 1. I couldn’t get into a woodturning class for two more months, but I got registered and I was ready. On January 10, 2003, I stood at a lathe for the first time and turned my first bowl, and I knew I’d found my calling.

I’ve been doing it full-time ever since.

The turning is a joy. The marketing is a challenge. I’m still learning how to make a living at this new career, and I’ll no doubt be writing about that challenge here. But I’m alive again. And from my hands now comes beauty.