I first found out about Andy Goldsworthy while wandering just a few feet from my back door. I had just moved to The Presidio, a federally owned park on the north border of San Francisco. To me it was the perfect place to partake in city life while still feeling a sense of space. I would wander the trails in the early morning when the fog was still simmering in the trees and admire the towering Eucalyptus that lined the streets.
One morning I cut into a strip of forest in between a road and a paved walkway to discover a flawless serpentine line of tree trunks winding down the entire length of the greenbelt, as far as I could see. When you run into something like this in such a seemingly mundane (or at least undiscoverable to most people) place it is a stark surprise. You wonder how it got there and why it’s there at all - there’s no signage indicating it as a piece of art. As you begin walking alongside its slithering form you can’t help but engage with it. You want to touch it because its so smooth. You walk on it, balancing on its curved spine and it guides you down the forest like a railway.
Another piece of his wasn’t far away from the Wood Line and I would run past it almost everyday without realizing it was man-made. It looks like a tree zapped by lightning, sharp tendrils shooting to the sky forming into one soaring spike. Only when looking into the serpentine line did I find out it was another Goldsworthy piece and set off to look at it again with new eyes.
Wood sculpture is incredible to me. The infinite types of wood with their unique characteristics means wood as a medium can lend itself to infinite art styles. It can look mysteriously organic, as it does in the case of Goldsworthy’s installations as well as the famous Henrique Olivera’s. Or it can be sculpted to look like an entirely different material.
Henrique Olivera’s hallucinatory works in Sao Paulo.
Take the unbelievable work by Filipino artist Mary Leu. If you were to see one of her sculptures on your kitchen table you might have the urge to pick it up and toss it in the hamper. Her series of carvings called “Hung out to dry” fools the eye entirely. Intricate detail and texture turns the wood into a pair of cloth underwear, socks, a bra and garden gloves. Leu uses boxwood for her creations and spends up to a year on a single piece.
“Hung up to Dry” series and “Gardening glove” by Mary Leu
I came to know sculpture through classic European artists like Bernini who worked in stone and whose pieces I would give my right arm to own (I’m left handed). But there’s something different about wood that feels more warm and accessible. It’s sustainable and practical when compared to stone.
The oldest known wooden carving was more of a practical piece than those above. It is 6,000+ years old and Archeologists believe it was a tribal signpost indicating a hunting ground or sacred site. It’s not pretty but it’s interesting to think that the Mesopotamians probably used some version of the chisel which is a tool I use in nearly every piece I make. They probably used arrowheads as blades, but worked the wood with the same motions we would today.
Chiseling the wood along the fibers (or with the grain) you can smoothly slice away layers tenths of an inch thin, or you can tap the chisel perpendicular to the fibers and use it as a lever. When I chisel I’m always imagining the wood as a stack of straws bunched together. I know that tapping the chisel across the length of the straws means I will have to tap harder to get through each piece of the bunch. And when the chisel is cutting lengthwise along the straws I can tap deeper with the same amount of force because the blade will find its way between the pieces. When you have that image as a starting point, working with wood becomes more intuitive.
Working with wood becomes more complex when you delve into hardwoods with irate grains. Certain species have more dense fibers than others, and more still have less straightforward patterns. Elmwood is notorious because of its heavily knotted fibers which are extremely difficult to cut through with anything but a power tool. Ironwood is so dense there is almost no airspace between the cells which makes it the most difficult to work with. South American ironwoods are often referred to as “quebracho,” which translates into “axe-breaker.”
For carving and sculpting, dense wood can actually be ideal since it’s less likely to splinter. But stray away from knotted burly wood unless you practice the art of chainsaw sculpting.
Paul Bunyan’s girlfriend (“Logger’s Dream”), by Kenyon Kaiser
Cover image by Kyle Kirchhoff