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.