Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Void of Life

This carving was completed last month but I didn't get a decent photograph until this weekend. It's depicting a dead ptarmigan and was created for an online exhibit to open shortly.
It measures just over 3 inches in length and is carved from boxwood, with a light scumbling of paint made from animal glue and gofun. I had a tought time with the finish on this one- I really liked the bare wood, especially in a soft light where the volume of the body and the feathers showed to an advantage. A recent trip to New York and an exhibit at the Japan Society changed my mind. There were several basketry pieces coated in rough mixtures of gofun, ash, sumi and clay. The tactility and coarseness attracted me and I left thinking I'd like to explore more in this vein. At any rate, after three trial coatings and subsequent strippings, I settled on this wash of paint that was dabbled on.
It gives a nice soft effect- absorbing light and adding a satifying feel in the hand. The paint forms a sort of crust on the high points of the carving and suggests fleeting life inside.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Belt Hook

I finished this piece recently. It's in the shape of a Chinese belt hook- an accessory used in ancient times to fasten one's belt or cloak. The stud on the base would fit into a hole or slit in the belt, and the curved hook part would latch to the other side. They were made out of bronze, iron or stone; typically jade. They run the spectrum from ornately gilt and inlaid pieces, to ones that seem to be purely functional. Wanting to develop a narrative with this piece, I chose a cat-like beast on one end with rabbit or hare on the other. It measures 3 1/4 in. (8 cm) long and is carved from mountain mahogany, with a light wash of verdigris pigment to suggest some age and patina.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Modern-day Inro?

I came across this case at a store recently, made by the design company Umbra. They call it a Bungee Micro, but I think it looks suspiciously like an inro, like this one from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts:
There's a small elastic cord than runs up internal cord channels and joins at the top of the case. The upper portion lifts as a lid and then fits back into place with the retention of the cord. There aren't stacking compartments in this one (hey, it's under 6 bucks) but it will fit money and a set of keys. The neck cord is also the perfect thickness to fit into the himotoshi of a netsuke, for suspension from your belt. There are business card holders and mp3 player cases in the Bungee line too.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

End of the Season

Autumn might be still on the calendar, but Winter brought a chilly 6 degrees F this morning. The picture above was taken a few weeks back when there were still plenty of plump, sweet persimmons in the trees. The few that remain now look like neglected Christmas ornaments on a twiggy bough.
I haven't posted anything since July- not because I haven't been working and creating things, but I just haven't been happy with the quality of the photographs. The more I think about it, it seems like these days with ease of photo sharing online, the picture has almost become the surrogate for the object shown. Artists are finding new ways of marketing themselves. Dealers and collectors are able to discover new works, giving them a taste before arranging to see the actual items and purchasing.
My carvings are appreciated by those who purchase them, but without a successful photo there's a trap I fall in to thinking the item hasn't be legitimatized.
A photograph can never capture the reality of the piece, especially an intimate carving, yet it's the standard by which artworks are often judged these days. There are exquisite works of art from the past and present which will never appear online. Don't forget we see with our fingers and noses as much as our eyes. Get out there and see some work in person. Give it a caress and a sniff.
Stay tuned... I've got three works in the final stages right now and a friend with a camera dropping by. We'll try to capture something.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Something Utilitarian

This past June I visited Japan for two weeks and had a fruitful time studying aspects of design and craft as I encountered them- especially those little things that crop up in everyday life. At a meal one night with friends, we were served a dish of soft tofu curds garnished with shaved dried tuna and sea salt in a small cedar bucket, with a wooden spoon as a serving utensil. For some reason, the design and purpose of the spoon stuck with me. Up 'til that time I had never carved a spoon so I thought I'd give it a try with a piece of dense cherry from my stock.
In no time at all, I began thinking about the qualities that make a good spoon- I type them here in a rough way as they came to me:

The shape of the bowl relates to the intended foodstuff it will carry- will it be a liquid and therefore more ladle-like shapes needed? A solid, but loose or granular food needs a square front edge to dig in; something drier but clumping (mashed potatoes?) can be transferred with a shallower bowl.
The angle of the bowl in relation to the stem, and in turn how it relates to the angle with which it's held.
The graceful curve in elevation starting with a tight turn for the bowl, and slowly arcing to a taper at the end of the stem.
How the stem fits in one's hand at the points of the fingers' grip and where it rests in the fleshy part between thumb and forefinger.
The center of gravity and the relationship between the mass of the bowl and that of the stem.
The finish of the carving- rough hewn to provide a satisfying grip, or polished to compliment the elegance of a meal?
The transition between the bowl and stem needs to be considered- abrupt, or tapering?
How will the bowl feel in one's mouth, if it's to be a personal spoon?

I'll end the brainstorming there, but the point is, even the simplest of tools can require an exercise in forethought and design.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Past Revisited

Several years ago I was working in an archaeology lab at a university in England and acquired a piece of deer antler that had been recovered from a peat bog in Scotland. Excavation suggested it was many hundreds of years old. In the timespan, it had developed a beautiful chocolate brown coloration- perhaps from the tannins and minerals present. It was a precious material and I didn't want to do too much to it to ruin or distract from its beauty. A simple vine of ivy seemed an appropriate solution.

The piece existed this way for a year or two without attracting much interest and I started revisiting the subject. Clive Hallam, an accomplished carver of small scale (the carvings, not the man!), kindly suggested that I was approaching the material too delicately- causing me to hold back. I wanted to convey the age of the material through the subject matter and thought that the ivy (suggesting age) needed a counterbalance. The material's origin in Scotland gave me the answer. The pale area you can see to the lower right needed attention. I settled on creating a suggestion of an ivy vine growing on a decayed structure of wattle and daub- an early building method of woven branches covered in mud and straw (perhaps some muck, to boot!) finished with a finer coating of mud. This construction method was used when the antler was initially given its burial and seems appropriate. Some of the ivy leaves were revised with wood inlay and highlights of dew or freshness added with silver. Himotoshi are lined with ebony.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Two horses: same color

I thought with this modest post I'd give links to two websites of artists and craftspeople working with the same color: Blue. More specifically, they are dyeing with the chemical compound Indigotin.
Indigotin is found chiefly in two plants: Woad (Isatis tinctoria) and Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria)- the second part of both plant names tips us off to their use. Indigo apparently has thirty times more blue potential in it than woad, which explains in part why it has never exactly gone out of use.
Woad however, was the dye used mostly in Europe until cheap exports of Indigo from India (via England) ruined the local business. This wasn't entirely a bad thing though- there are writings from the time expressing the effect woad had on the land- it robs soil of much of its nutrition, creating a wasteland in its wake and requiring fresh soil every ten years or so to keep the plants viable. Currently, it is naturalized in the US and very much a nuisance weed in certain areas.

Back to the artisans though:
The first, Bleu de Lectoure is a business run by a couple in France creating all sorts of products using woad as the coloring agent. Pastels, house paints and clothing are just some of their creations.

The second, is the work of Rowland Ricketts and his wife Chinami: They've farmed and processed indigo in the past and use it in their fiber art presently. Their work expresses beauty and lightness in a very contemporary style.

Either way, I'm sure you'll agree that in skilled hands these plants contribute something wonderful.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Art of Small Things

I've recently finished reading The Art of Small Things by John Mack, published by Harvard University Press, 2007. Mack explores our fascination with small, crafted items and offers a survey of their forms and functions in a variety of cultures spanning several millenia. "The making and manipulating of the miniature constitute not just the product of a technology of the aesthetic but also a cultural process... the starting point for narratives that can be of potentially epic proportions." Illustrated with items in the British Museum's collections, the book is written in a straightforward manner, clearly intended for general consumption. For those interested in netsuke, several pages are devoted to this art form. Interest in this aspect comes not from new light he sheds on these carvings, but their placement within a broader context of small objects made for personal adornment.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Thoughts on Wood

I take the title of this post from an essay by Robert Gibbings, of the same name. It was published in Matrix, an annual letterpressed effort by the Whittington Press in England. Matrix offers essays, reminiscences, illustrations and samples of topics related to letterpress printing. Paper marbling, wood engraving, graphic design, and printing history are all represented in this hand-set work of art.

More to the point, Matrix volume 9, published 1989 contains an essay- excerpts of which are quoted here- illustrating Gibbings' sense of humor and reverence for materials:
"Not far from where I now live there dwelt until he died a carpenter by name Timothy Wood. 'Timbery Wood' they called him. 'A proper craftsman he was and strict with his apprentices. He'd come along to one of the lads and he'd say, "How's that mortice going?" And the boy might answer, "Near enough." "Near enough won't do," says old Timbery, "it's got to be just right." Then half an hour later he'd come along again. "How's that mortice going?" he'd ask. "Just right", says the boy. "That's near enough", says the old man.'
Precision - wood calls for it: gentle, tractable material, exquisite to contemplate, whether alive in a forest, where every branch is a record of the winds that blow, or dead in a timber yard where the serpentine grain of the planks reveals a history of its growth. It may even tell the death of a neighbor, for where in a forest a tree has fallen there will be increased light and air, and where there is increase of light and air there will be increased development in the trees that remain.
In Venezuela and certain regions of South Africa the growth of a box tree remains constant, slow and steady; a cross-section of its trunk shows the rings as regular and even as the plumelets on a feather. That is why boxwood from those countries gives to the engraver a close-fibred material that is as hard almost as metal. On the end of that grain the artist's burin incises lines in any direction that the guiding hand may desire; there is no let or hindrance from the grain."
Incidentally- the illustrated toolbox, courtesy of Tyne and Wear Museums , is from none other than Thomas Bewick. More about him later.

Gone Fishing

This recently finished carving was inspired by a wood engraving by Robert Gibbings in his book Coming Down the Wye . Chapter Three (pg 14) contains a short, humorous account of his meeting a poacher along this Welsh river. I've got an interest in wood engraved illustrations and Gibbings' work has become a favorite of mine lately. The carving measures 4cm across. It was scultped from boxwood, with the trouts' eyes inlaid with pearl shell, and a buckle of ivory. Strap loops on the back are inlaid in mopane, a southern African wood. It has been selectively stained using an acid oxidation technique. This piece along with others of mine will be for sale at Edgewood Orchard Gallery for their 2008 season. Edgewood Orchard is located in Door County, northern Wisconsin. This part of Wisconsin is perfect for a weekend trip- small villages showing touches of Scandanavian heritage, many galleries, cherry orchards, views of Lake Michigan and of course, delicious places to eat. If you enjoy fishing, you might even land your own bag of trout.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Still available

I've had a number of emails lately from people enquiring what is still available out of the carvings displayed on my previous website, so I'm presenting pictures of them here. All are available through Takara Asian Art . In addition to this, I have a few other pieces that are more functional in nature- pendants, and hair combs/sticks. Feel free to email me if you're interested.

Monday, March 3, 2008

(Not so) wise old owl

I've got several irons in the fire right now, but I completed this bead recently. It measures 3/4 inch (1.9 cm) in height. Carved out of boxwood, with ebony eyes. I had in mind the depiction of an 'elder statesman' of sorts- the kind we're all supposed to respect- but holding more opinions than common sense. With suitable frown and suspicious eyes, he seems to fit the bill.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


There are over 70 species of boxwood around the world, but only two have chiefly been used for the creation of small tools and art objects throughout history. Buxus sempervirens- the common or European box and Buxus microphylla- the little leaf box. Sempervirens naturally enough means evergreen which may give you a clue to this bush's tenacity. It grows in hot, dry climates of western and southern Europe, over to pick up a small bit of land in England, then down to Morocco and westward through the Mideterranean to finish the circle in Turkey. Microphylla grows in Asia, with varieties native to parts of China, Japan, and Korea. In these climates, the box grows slowly; barely gaining an inch in diameter over 40 or 50 years. It is this density that allows box to be durable and take on detail and high polish.
To name a few of its uses in the West, I can think of slide rules, recorders, carpenter's planes, chess pieces, tuning pegs on stringed instruments and bobbins for lacemaking. Mallets and beaters for lead working and rulers for measuring. The Eastern box has been used for hanko, shogi pieces, abacus beads, and combs...

...and of course figural carvings along the lines of netsuke!

As my skills develop and I'm demanding better material to work with, I've become choosier about the boxwood I use. Most box on the market now, to my knowledge, comes from England, the Pyrenees, Turkey and East Asia. Each has its own characteristics of color, density, oilyness, dryness and ability to take a polish. It's not the cheapest wood out there, but it certainly is one of the best.

Something to keep in mind the next time you glance at that neglected box hedge in the corner of a suburban yard.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Barn owl in winter

Carved from a deer antler rosette (the basal portion of the antler connecting it to the skull) with horn eyes, it measures about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. There's something about using antler that, for me, seems ideal for winter subjects. The opaqueness and subtle gray streaking, coolness to the touch, and high polish evoke cold weather and barrenness. This piece was interesting to carve from a material perspective; the top portion is antler while the bottom, beneath the irregular edge, is more bone-like. Each reacted differently during carving and polishing. I'm really fond of this piece- it has a quietness about it that people seem to pick up on, but is impossible to convey in photographs.


I finished this one early last year. He's carved from boxwood, stained to a rich golden color using an acid technique. Details are in pearl shell. In designing this one I spent some time thinking about how to create a vertical composition given the bird's long tail feathers typically dragging on the ground. Contorting the form upward and perching him on a log seemed to be the solution. The grasses give a hint of emerging from undergrowth, while still keeping the piece structurally strong.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Hairy-headed banana munchers

I came across this column today "A Brief History of Cranks" from Cabinet Magazine. I add it to spoof myself as I'm guilty of some of the violations stated. Have others heard of Cabinet? I think I'll be checking in with it regularly.


Before I get in to some photos of my latest carvings, I thought some background might be in order. I was graduated from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in the early nineties after studying printmaking and drawing. I don't have much left from that time of decent quality, so I thought I'd share a scan of this miniature I did a few years afterwards. I've always done small scale work- partly out of economic and spatial necessity, but also because I think it's within my temperament. Never was comfortable with six foot canvases and sweeping statements. There was a period when I did quite a few of these miniature gouaches which gradually evolved into contemporary themes, mixed with older Persian and Mughal styles. Some abstractions. This one's still up for grabs.

I hardly do any painting these days...should get back to it.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

First post

Buxus sempervirens may be a mouthful, but give me a few posts and you'll understand why it's there. I've had a website for a number of years now for my wood carvings, but updating it has always been difficult and time consuming. With this blog, hopefully more of my work will be posted more often, and viewers will get a chance to learn a bit more about me. Shameless self-promotion to the wider world doesn't come easily, so bear with me and we'll see if some conversations and ideas develop along the way.