Interview with the Artist
Conducted by Mary Michaud
Where were you born?
I was born in Lexington Kentucky, December first 1962. My formative years were spent in VA and WV. I’m the eldest of three boys.
Did you spend a lot of time out in nature as a child?
Oh yes, quite a lot. Back then kids could run off and we did - with little or no supervision. We had fun. We destroyed the big maple tree in our front yard building tree houses in it. Abusive to the tree I know now as an adult and tree lover. We would whack limbs off and nail what we whacked off onto the tree using pounds of nails.
Did you make other things from wood as a child?
I would see things come out of the shapes while splitting firewood. When I was 12 or 13 I built a small sailing vessel. One stick looked like a hull so I stopped splitting and started carving. I tend to get distracted that way. My mother still has that ship sitting on her piano. I laugh to myself when I see it.
When I was older and could use a chainsaw, I carved dumbbells out of firewood. They were huge, like Fred Flintstone's. We got a big kick out of them. They really worked, but started drying and became too light, so I had to store them in buckets of water. Even now I can be sidetracked while cutting and splitting wood.
I carved quite a few cool heads on walking sticks and handles on canes. I would dig dogwoods out of the ground and incorporate the root or roots.
I built nunchucks and longbows. I made a wicked crossbow with a 45lb Bear brand fiberglass bow.
In junior high I built several black powder rifles…albeit from kits. A friend introduced me to his father’s bandsaw and it was love at first sight. I still love those things.
Do you have training in art?
I did get a BA in graphic design and visual communications from Lynchburg College in 1986.
And what types of mediums did you work with?
It was a broad, general art program, typical of a liberal arts school. I took two photography courses and really enjoyed playing in the darkroom. I enjoyed the printmaking and drawing classes. Painting never really did grab me.
Do you have training in sculpture?
Not really. I think I took one intro to sculpture course, but I could have taken more. I prefer the 3-D arts now; I must have then too but didn’t know it.
Do you have training in structural building?
No, I haven’t any training as such, but I have had a variety of jobs working with wood and the more understanding one has of the properties of wood and of how wooden things are typically built, the better chance one has for designing and building a structure that lasts. So a variety of experiences with the material is training of a sort and knowing traditional joinery is a great way to start for a wood sculptor. I wanted to improve my woodworking skills so I got hired to build replica furniture. Next I was a cabinetmaker. I worked as a house carpenter.
My last 5 years of “traditional employment” were spent at a millshop, here in Charlottesville, where we did the finest woodwork. We worked in all the good woods, building architectural millwork, i.e. house parts, for those who could afford the very best. Most of my co-workers were career woodsmiths who really knew how to work wood and were more than happy to share that knowledge. I learned so much from working with them. That’s where I met my friend and mentor Mike. He is a lifelong woodworker and top-notch boatbuilder. When he saw how I was building that first whale tail, he knew I had to learn some boatbuilding methods. That knowledge will hel me create pieces better, faster and stronger.
How do you go from seeing an image to creating it in three dimensions?
Lots of sketches. I scribble. Lots and lots of cross-hatching … putting lots of little lines on till the shape works. From there, I will often mold a little figure in modeling clay. I like plasticine; it’s quick and easy and not very messy.
What about the furniture – does that seem more directly applicable?
A little maybe… furniture is more likely to be made of solid wood than modern cabinetry. Everything you know about wood comes together to help you get a better grip on any woodworking project. I did consider adding a bench around the base for a pedestrian park setting or putting a large V-shaped bench under the flukes so it could be a bus stop.
I like my art works to be utilitarian…and my functional works to be art. I would like to make giant sculptural benches. Things that are cool – people like to see them and sit on them. I built this cool circular bench to go around a tree … where my kids attended a Montessori school. It was a great bench. Six boards made the seat and six boards made the legs. All of the seat pieces were the same and all of the leg pieces were the same. They come together in dovetails and mortise and tenon joints. I thought it was cool joinery. I used mahogany – all scrap, shorts from the mill shop I was working in. I really get a kick out of using trash – or stuff that’s not much good for anything else.
Is there a reason you like to use scrap?
Because it’s free and it minimizes waste. The mahogany came up from Central or South America. It’s beautiful. I saved mostly pieces that had really cool grain in them. Good figure. Because I get a kick out of curly wood – waves, burls and knots. I hate to see beautiful material wasted.
That’s something I think about. And I like the reuse concept. I suppose I’m proud of the fact that I can do this stuff without pulling in much new material. I like that. When I’ve worked in these shops and on construction sites, I’ve been slowed a bit by being concerned with the really cool drops being thrown out. That didn’t serve me well in the commercial world.
How did you come to the idea for the anchor?
My family and I went to the Baltimore Harbor and toured the USS Constellation. I was checking out the really cool mahogany work on it. I really liked the way the railings were pieced together. Then I saw these giant ship anchors used as benches on the dock. I really liked their shape and was thinking about the big pile of mahogany I had salvaged. Viola!
Can you tell me about pieces you’ve made from trash?
That tortoise is from one black walnut stump. It was in a cow field next to a creek. They probably would have hauled it off into a rubbish pile and burned it. The whale tail is built from stuff that would be ground in a chipper and shot into the dustbin. The anchor, it was all shorts of mahogany that would have been firewood or have gone into the dumpster. …It’s a bunch of little pieces parquet together… with… marine epoxy. With a good amount of glue you can do anything.
When you saw the walnut stump did you think tortoise?
Yeah, I knew I could get a tortoise from that. And I decided that I would.
How did the kids respond to the bench?
They were excited about it. I enjoyed that.
How did you get from the small-scale model to the 26-foot Whale Tail?
That’s an excellent question. I don’t know. I guess I just projected it in the air. That is, I had in my mind what I wanted and just started putting pieces together. That indirect or haphazard way does work but it has proved to be slow and frustrating. I do look forward to trying that same project over again in a new way; to use boat builder’s methods. First, you design and build a half model. Since you’re making something symmetrical you only need to figure out one half. You get the details worked out in a small-scaled version. Then you take precise measurements at regular intervals and you have the numbers for frame patterns. When you multiply the measurements by a chosen number, you can replicate that form at whatever size you want. I’m going to do the same project again with more efficiency. I’m looking forward to getting a chance to do that.
Did you measure the plasticine model and use those proportions?
No, I did it all in my head. I used the force.
Can you see how your cabinet experience helped you with the Whale Tail?
The cabinet making not so much because it’s largely square and flat, and there’s nothing square or flat in the whale tail. But all the experience comes together…. you might not even realize it.
How do your ideas come to you?
My brain just is churning out ideas constantly. I usually push them aside. I am perpetually rejecting ideas because they are stupid/outlandish and impractical, but sometimes I do them anyhow.
What is your philosophy of life?
Have fun. Be nice. Say please and thank you. Use your turn signal. Don’t use any more material than is necessary. Don’t leave a wake full of trash so you can be easily followed. Be nice, don’t waste, have fun.
What do you think art does?
Art soothes and invigorates. It’s healthy to have visuals that are appealing. The more aesthetically pleasing the world is, the better you’ll feel. I think that’s hugely important to human happiness – just seeing pretty things, being in pretty places while eating good food and listening to good music with good friends. It sounds hedonistic, and perhaps it is.
When you’re doing the Whale Tail what experiences do you have?
It is tedious and frustrating trying to get it finished. Had I known what I was starting, I doubt I would have. I’ll have this finished within two weeks. I’ve told people that for three or four months but now I really mean it. There’s a little bit of stress in pulling it together and getting it up to what I want it to be. But at the end of every day I pick up my tools, I strap them onto my truck and I stand back and look at it … I’m pretty psyched. It’s cool. I’m happy with it.
Why do you do art?
Because I can. Because it’s fun and it would be wasteful for me not to.