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A cherry wood sculpture in 2015

In the summer of 2000, I attended a conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was my first time at the International Conference of the Learning Sciences -- and I have attended every one since then. I was living in Boulder, Colorado, then and my friend, Tim Koschmann, was planning to drive from the conference to Boulder. He had brought along the cherry wood limb from the tree in his back yard. He intended to bring it to me in Boulder since he knew I liked to carve wood. I helped him on the drive and we read about philosophical controversies involving intersubjectivity to pass the time.

At some point during the intervening 15 years, I carved some of the middle area of the limb down to 4" x 4" to see what the heartwood looked like. I had thought about shaping the log in a bone form, like a femur with a ball-and-joint socket. When I lost weight, I thought of carving a long, thin image of myself. I probably considered other ideas, but never started on any of them.

On September 28, 2015, I decided to start removing some areas of the log to begin to break away from the original log shape, which is still visible in this photo. Also visible are the cuts I made with a chainsaw to facilitate carving out the areas.

Over the next several days of carving, I roughed out the forms of the sculpture using my favorite large gouge and mallet. That was good exercise.

At this point, I had roughed in some of the bone form and the ball for the joint. However, the sculpture still looked too log-like and symmetrical to me. I felt a need to break through the solid log cylinder. This would also cut through levels of grain to the darkly colored heartwood, just as my carving had begun to do in various areas of the log. So I drilled some starter holes with my electric drill and then goughed out a passageway through the cylinder. As I integrated this into the sculpture, twisting asymmetries began to emerge and a larger variety of forms took shape, adding considerably to the interest of the scupture, without destroying its unity.

People sometimes ask if I have an image of the sculpture in my head before I start to work on it (the Platonic theory) or if I just let the image that is inherent in the log come to light (Michaelangelo's claim). It is really much more of an emergent process that takes place through the direct carving techniques I use. Certainly, I start with some ideas that I want to explore and I start with a log that has interesting potentials. But the interaction between material and eye incorporate these in a much more subtle interaction. If one works from a model or from the nature of the log, then you have to wonder why that model or that particular log was selected.

Since I do not try to represent some model or object, I am free to explore, modify, refine to achieve various goals. I am interested in defining 3-D forms, which look very different from different vantage points and which guide the caressing hand. So I turn the worked-on sculpture around frequently and feel the volume and flow of the contributing forms with my hands. I love the beauty of wood as an organic product of growth, so my carving explores its layers of grain and its unique twists. I use a natural wood oil as a finish in order to keep the wood alive and lustrous.

Because of the organic nature of my sculpture and its constituent forms, the finished works often remind people of natural and even human figures. To some extent, this is because my forms and their interconnections tend to follow the laws of organic growth. They exhibit a massing, sense of materiality and sensuousness of form which is appealing to the eye and the touch.

Sculpture is a unique art form in that it is three-dimensional. It not only fills and shapes space, but it creates a special space (Heidegger's theory) in which it's event of presencing unfolds. Whereas painting only suggests perspective and draws the eye, sculpture beckons the observer's body to interact and move around the piece, taking up infinite different physical perspectives on it. While impressionist painting began to display the materiality of paint and brushstroke, wood sculpture brings out the nature of the wood: its size, shape, weight and volume, but also its roughness (or smoothness) of surface and the unending complexity of its coloring and graining. The growth history of trees like oak and cherry are intricate on many scales and they are captured in the cell structure and displayed in the sculptural surface.

Then I used a large rasp to remove the gouge marks and to refine the curving surfaces. All my wood sculptures have been created using the same basic tools and techniques. This gives a unity to my sculture gallery -- along with a diversity based on different tree species, sizes and shapes. My pieces have smooth flowing surfaces, in part due to the large rasp work.

This was followed by sanding. I started with #56 rough sandpaper to smooth the surfaces. And gradually worked up to #1000 very fine sandpaper as well as wet-and-dry sandpaper and #0000 very fine steel wool to give the surface a smooth touch.

Finally, I oiled the wood with pure teak oil. This brought out the incredible color of the cherry wood, which I had worked so hard to reveal as the forms cut across the multi-color bands of grain. I oiled the scupture each day for several days, rubbing it with a cloth and preparing for each coat with the steel wool.

I have not decided how to incorporate the sculpture into our new house. Perhaps it will serve as a newell post at the top or bottom of the stairs from the living room to the loft. The construction of the house is also a complex design project. You can see how it is progressing at: http://gerrystahl.net/personal/recreation/house.

On Novermber 3, I took the sculpture out in the back yard to get some sunshine. The sculpture took about three weeks to create (I was at the new house site for a couple weeks in the middle, interrupting the daily progress on the sculpture.) Most days I worked on it for a couple of hours.

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