Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Working the Wood

Earlier this week during a recent outing, I convinced my wife to let me stop at our local Barnes and Noble Bookstore.  However, I no longer purchase books at Barnes and Noble.  They are simply too expensive.  You can purchase the same book from Amazon, in some cases, for 35-40% less than you can at the bookstore.   There is something that I do enjoy about the bookstore: browsing. Electronic browsing is not the same as walking the aisles and looking at book covers, picking the book up, flipping through the pages and reading a paragraph or two to see if the writing strikes you.  Amazon can't offer that.  So during a short browsing session (the wife sets time limits) I made my way over to the "new releases" and saw a small book with an interesting title, called, The Lost Carving: A Journey To The Heart Of Making by David Esterly.  I picked it up, read a few sentences, and knew I had to order it.  It arrived two days later in the mail.  

I admit, I do enjoy books that I would classify as the artist's memoir.  Books that discuss an artist's process of work -- the challenges, trials, and small joys when working on their art.  Recent reads that I would fit into this category, but well worth your time, would be Robert Crawford's Shopclass as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, and Martin Gayford's Man With the Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucien Freud.  In a world described full of "knowledge work," it is refreshing to see artisans creating physical things -- creating things with their hands -- wether it is painting portraits, fixing motorcycles, or in Mr. Esterly's case, carving beautiful designs out of limewood.  

Grinling Gibbons
Mr. Esterly was warned early on that "carving is starving," but after seeing a magnificent carving by the famed 17th century carver Grinling Gibbons (sounds like a Dickens character) many years ago, he knew what he wanted to do with his life.  He wanted to be a carver.  

The book largely deals with his time working on replacing a burned Gibbons carving in the Hampton Court Palace in England.  Woven between this story is his meditations on working the wood, the joy he's had carving wood through the years, the challenges of learning and imitating the great work of a 17th century master, and also the politics and personalities involved with recreating a piece of art for an English historical landmark.

I enjoyed the book.  However, Mr. Esterly sometimes does what I believe many artists do when trying to tell you how much their art has shaped their life.  He overuses simile or metaphor to describe every feeling or impression he has; or in some cases his descriptions simply don't ring true to the ear.  In two places, if I remember correctly, he uses the word "marinate" to describe a thought process.  I stopped at that sentence wishing I had a pencil in hand to scribble "????" next to it in the margins.  But these, and a few other sentences and phrases are small complaints in an otherwise excellent rumination on working with wood and creating exquisite art in the process.
Grinling Gibbon's Stoning of St Stephen

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