Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Power of Tools

I started the Creator's torso by finding an appropriate block of wood. I had intended to use pine since it is soft and easy to carve, but I had none of the right dimensions. My only option was cypress, which I like a lot for its color and its pattern, but is is considerably harder and demands a lot of attention to the direction in which you can whittle it. That means you have to be really careful to follow the pattern of the rings and watch when it changes direction if you don't want your blade to get caught and possibly damage the wood, specially when you approach the final surface.

A very important thing when you carve, specially at the beginning when you apply a lot more force to approximate the shape you need, is to be able to hold the piece securely. There might be other techniques and of course you can improvise, but if you have access to the magnificent and versatile Jorgensen clamps, use them!

If it had been pine I could have done it with a set of X-Acto knives without much problem. But for any hardwood you need proper carving tools, I have found that Warren Tools 1 are an excellent choice. I have had my "traveling set"for over twenty years or more when I bought them to carve my first "professional" puppet out of basswood. I've kept that set like a treasure through many life changes and moving from continent to continent. I have lost many things but not this little box. True, there are finer and more expensive carving tools out there but here you have a balance between price, quality and workmanship.

I talk about tools often because I think that tools and the art they enable are inextricable linked, "...where form and function are most closely related as a way to understand and influence our most basic aesthetic and ethical decisions". 2 I also think that great tool design can only be achieved by someone who has mastered his or her craft and realizes the importance of the interface between your mind and the object you intend to create.

Whittling is not done much anymore since the advent of power tools, the same way that cooking (and eating!) has pathetically been replaced by TV dinners specially in American households and definitely in student's dorms. TV watching has taken the place of meditation and your organizer has replaced your capacity to memorize. All I can say is that the magic of discovering the shape that lies inside that block of wood as you approach its delicate surface is one of the greatest rewards.

At this point I need to refer back to something that Michelangelo mentions in one of his letters about the fact that he does not really "create" the sculpture (and remember we are talking about pieces like the Pietà and David among others) but simply uncovers or reveals that which is already present in the stone.

When I first read this as a young aspiring artist I took it as false modesty or as some sort of metaphor, but later on I found other references that made me pay attention, like the time when he goes to the Carrara quarry to look for a block to carve his Moses, and upon looking at the huge block of marble he says very disappointed something to the effect of "...damn! he is sitting down!" (he had already planned and sketched Moses standing with the tablets).

Some of Michelangelo's supposedly "unfinished" pieces, like the "Awakening Slave" or "Atlas" seem to me perfectly done and finished, and they clearly show the process of discovering what is "already there".

Now, this can be interpreted in a number of ways and I don't pretend to analyze nor can I offer proof that he meant it that way, but I can offer my own experience which I would like to share even knowing that some people will think me crazy.

Many years ago, me and my great friend and extraordinary artist Fernando de la Jara, entered a competition to create a monument for a fallen pilot. We decided to do an obelisk but with a twist (literally) that turned as it grew as a Fibonnaci series. The main body would be marble but the very top would be made with alabaster, and the shape of a human form rising towards the sky would be carved inside so that it would look trans lucid as the sun entered the zenith.

Well, my task was to carve a model out of plaster to present with the proposal. So I started by making a block inside a milk carton, traced the bottom square and the rotated and smaller square at the top and proceeded to carve away. First of course big chunks to approximate the overall shape and then as it got closer I started of course to be more careful taking occasional measurements.

A long time passed and I was by then taking very thin slivers of plaster since the form was already evident. But suddenly, after removing one more sliver a very distinct surface appeared, the quality of which you would not call plaster. This surface was very smooth, the color was slightly warmer that the cool white of plaster, more like ivory. First I thought it was a patch of different texture due to the mix, but I just kept "peeling" away the very thin "skin" that covered that layer. Of course in some parts I had to whittle out more to get there.

I was so surprised that I called my friend to verify that I was not simply fatigued. But we concluded that that in fact was the actual surface of the final shape that we were after. So I continued the process until all of the extra material was gone. I did not have to measure like I was doing at first, all I did was carefully shave until I found that surface. When I finished I had the twisted obelisk that we had planned to do. I know how absurd this sounds, how could that piece "exist" inside a block of plaster? I do have some rational explanation, but for now I will leave it at that.
to be continued...

1- The blades are made with high carbon tools steel. I find they hold their edge for a long time before you have to hone them. Of course it depends in the hardness of the wood you carve and the angle at which you "attack" the wood. They sell at any woodcarving supply place.
2- From my paper "Roboethics and Performance" which I will put up in Lulu after graduation in July. Krems rules prevent me from publishing before that.

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