During my last show, I sat a lot with the piece called “Offering,” and I want to share some of how I feel about it.

The vessel was born of green wood, wet, as we are. My labor was long. The hollowing took two sessions, and to keep the wood from shrinking overnight, I swaddled it in wet cloth and stored it in plastic. After the hollowing, as the wood dried, the body took on its own shape: oval, rather than round, taller than it is wide when the long lip is down. The wood (pearwood) is imperfect, a little blotchy, bruised, even. But the vessel is lovely, softly lovely. When I cup it in my hands, I feel it sing itself, quietly, out to the world, offering itself—to me, to you, to the cosmos, to God, however you may conceive that energy or entity. In turn, I offer it on a platter, on a bed of its own shavings, the remains of what it was, by-products of its passage to what it has become.


Art, beauty, truth, language

I continually revisit questions about the nature of art and artmaking, and I’ve been pondering them a lot lately.

Although I do embrace what Mary Oliver says in her poem “The Swan” (see my post for July 31) and although the act of creating beauty both delights and satisfies me, I also must recognize that I—always, and more and more—aspire to make art that not only is beautiful but also expresses meaning—by which I mean it reveals a truth.

Here is the current version of my ever-evolving definition of artmaking, at least as it pertains to me: an act of rendering (with all that word’s wonderfully resonant connotations) objects and experiences that communicate some discovered emotional truth about the nature of life (mine specifically or life in general).

I realize that this definition doesn’t mention “beauty.” On the one hand, I could accept as a premise Keats’s “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’” On the other hand, perhaps I have been conflating “beauty” and “art.” Chekhov said, “Art tells the truth” (Picasso said, “Art is the lie that tells the truth”)—and beauty is enough because beauty is a truth—but must art be beautiful? Certainly, I do not find all art beautiful—is that because I don’t get the truth their makers have tried to express? Then again, not all truth is beautiful. I can find beauty in even many painful truths but certainly not in all.

For me, for now, the bottom line is that I have not yet wanted to create art that was not also in some way beautiful. That may be my own limitation. For now, though, I leave for another time the question of whether the art I make must be beautiful.

Thinking about expressing meaning leads me to think about language, and all the vocabularies I can use to communicate.

More than a vocabulary, each art is really a language of its own, with its own grammar and system of signs—and its own way of apprehending the world. From studying several languages (English, German, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese), I know how greatly concepts and perception (the roots of culture) can differ from language to language.

I speak woodturning now, and live in a world of curves. As a writer, I also speak not just English, but the specific dialect of formal written English. This second (first, third, whatever) language greatly shapes my wood art, as does Japanese. To a lesser extent, I also speak ceramics (mostly the dialect of vessels) and music (a family of languages: melody, rhythm, dance) in my art. I’m just beginning to try a few words and phrases from fiber arts (sewing, resist dyeing, weaving, papermaking) and metalworking in a few pieces.

One of the qualities I love most about English is its robustness, vigor that I attribute largely to the ease with which it assimilates concepts and vocabulary from other languages. (I suppose English—at least American English—and American culture?— is a bit like the Borg of languages: resistance is futile.) Such robustness is a quality I aspire to as an artist.

A rejoinder

I found a perfect rejoinder to my question of whether beauty is enough. It is a poem by Mary Oliver, from her 2005 collection Why I Wake Early.

The Swan

Did you too see it, drifting, all night, on the black river?
Did you see it in the morning, rising into the silvery air—
An armful of white blossoms,
A perfect commotion of silk and linen as it leaned
into the bondage of its wings; a snowbank, a bank of lilies,
Biting the air with its black beak?
Did you hear it, fluting and whistling
A shrill dark music—like the rain pelting the trees—like a waterfall
Knifing down the black ledges?
And did you see it, finally, just under the clouds—
A white cross streaming across the sky, its feet
Like black leaves, its wings like the stretching light of the river?
And did you feel it, in your heart, how it pertained to everything?
And have you too finally figured out what beauty is for?
And have you changed your life?

—Mary Oliver, from Why I Wake Early (2005)

And there is this quote from an interview with her: “I believe art is utterly important. It is one of the things that could save us.”

Tuesday, July 17

Today was a fairly quiet, intensive work day.

Lesya came in not to dance but to carve waves for Siegfried’s collaborative wave piece. Sadly, there were misunderstandings early on in the communication process for this collaboration, and Sean and Jean-François won’t be working on it. Happily, Peter did and Lesya is and I will and Elisabeth may. And in the end, the public also will, as the piece will be installed as an interactive work, with anyone free to arrange the wave forms as they like.

Lesya carves waves.

Siegfried continued carving his box elder vessel. He later found that mounting it on the lathe to carve let him see and control better what he was doing.

Siegfried carves a box elder vessel.

Siegfried carves on the lathe for better position.

Sean worked on new and old pieces. The black in this one is not painted but ebony.

Sean paints a new piece.

Jean-François and I began our collaboration, based on an idea I used in a previous work, of breaking and repairing vessels visibly. Here are the vessels we started with. Jean-François turned the Chinese elm and osage orange bowls; I turned the sycamore bowl (the smallest).

Jean-François's and my bowls.

Breaking the piece takes a bit of will. We broke the sycamore bowl into just three pieces.

I break the first bowl.

Jean-François hit the Chinese elm bowl squarely and got a complicated break, which made gluing it—using 5-minute epoxy with a working time of maybe 2 minutes—a real challenge. Adding acrylic paint to the epoxy for color decreases (maybe even halves) the working time, so I use 30-minute epoxy at home. The 5-minute version is what we had on hand here, though. (For anyone who wants to know more about coloring epoxy, I discuss the subject in an article called “Nulling Voids: Filling Cracks and Holes in Wood” that, along with other articles, is available on my website under “Other links.”)

Jean-François's broken second bowl.

We used red for the sycamore and black for the Chinese elm. I mixed the red from acrylic paints; the black we achieved by mixing in charcoal from burnt wood (which Jean-François happened to have in jar).

I like the way the interior of the sycamore bowl came out; the exterior needs some touchup, though.

The interior of the first glued bowl.The exterior of the first glued bowl.

This technique—this trope, really—is deeply meaningful for me (you can read a note about the backstory on this here, under “About the work”), and it is one I intend to explore in a series of works after I return home. Using it in this collaboration is a little odd for me—like choosing a subject like, say, “death” or “incest” for a poetic exercise—and I find myself holding back emotionally, treating the process as more of a technical exercise than an act of artmaking. I would like to talk with Jean-François about how he feels about this process—indeed, how he feels about artmaking in general. I have wanted to from the beginning—the chance to explore the subject with other artists is one reason I applied for the residency—but before now, I have felt stymied by the language barrier—even though Siegfried and I managed a deep conversation about it driving home from D.C. This now is an opportunity to explore the subject.

For me, turning is deeply emotional, not just an application of technique, and it is an act in which meaning is both intentional and discovered. For me, the aspect of meaning—not technical sophistication—is what makes turning an art and not just a craft. I can argue with myself about this, of course—is not craft about creating beauty and is not creating beauty meaning enough? Yes, yes—but I’ll put this statement out in hopes of eliciting conversation about it. Turners who regard yourselves as artists (any artists, really), what do you say? Have your objects meaning? Is the meaning intentional? Do you start with wanting to express something, or does the expression emerge through the work? How do you create? Have you something to say? Must an artist have something to say? Is it enough to create objects in which others find their own meaning? Is beauty enough? Do any of you care, or do you care only about the making?

I really must sleep now. Let me hear from you, readers.


“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.