This montage style piece explores the concept of the garden and orchard. We are led to believe that these are places of peace and tranquility. To reflect this, the piece contains representations of walnuts, almonds, acorns, pistachios, peanuts, Manitoba maple seeds, strawberries, peas, asparagus, green onions, carrots and soybeans as well as numerous leaves. However, as every biologist, gardener and tree grower knows, the natural world is a battleground between the plants and the things that want to eat the plants. To this end, if you look closely, you’ll notice a number of creepy crawlies nestled in among the plant matter. Some you’ll recognize, like the caterpillars, nut, worms and snail. Others are less known, like the almond beetle, the land scallop, the asparagus ant lion, a peanut caterpillar, the onion lasso worm and the rarely seen predatory parsnip.
This piece is made from many, many pieces of elk, moose and deer antler as well as a few tagua nuts. The walnut, one almond and the soybeans with snail are removable for handling. The realistic renderings are interspersed with abstract shapes reminiscent of plants or plant parts. The various pieces are displayed on a backdrop of carved moose antlers and mounted on a base of Manitoba Maple.
51 cm W x 38 cm H x 18 cm D
20″W x 15″H x 7″D
As a biologist, I try to make my pieces as detailed and correct as possible. For flowers and animals, it is fairly easy to study specimens and pictures and determine the correct number size and shape of constituent parts. Then I attempt to model the parts and put them together, or else I try to carve the parts into the larger piece. Some skill is of course required to convert visual observation into a physical piece. But once the parts are completed and in place, you can usually tell when you are finished.
Abstract pieces are another thing altogether. This work-in-progress is entitled: Nuts and Roots and Seeds and Shoots. First, there is no model to measure and compare with. In fact, for original abstract ideas, there is really nothing to start with, except an idea in your head. Further, you never know when you are finished. The idea in your head is a starting point, but once it becomes translated into a physical thing, there are always other things that can be added, subtracted or modified to improve on the idea. Basically, you continually work on the piece until something inside says, “that is finished!” In a few abstract pieces, I’ve kept working on it until I’ve gone one step too far and then decided to remove or repair that last addition, subtraction or modification. But even then, for several weeks, every time I looked at the completed piece I wondered if there was something else I could do to improve it.
An abstract piece does have the advantage of being more open for discussion. People seeing the piece before or after completion will often give ideas, comments or criticisms. These are all very welcome because their comments are based upon their view of the idea behind the piece–a view that is just as valid as mine was when I started. Comments on a realistic piece are much more limited: “that looks like the real thing”, -“his nose looks too long”, etc. Abstract pieces allow a person to provide more input from their own frame of context and can engage a person more fully.
For other abstract pieces already completed, see Cornucopia and Orchids (under Miscellaneous in older posts or in Gallery )
Caterpillars crawl on the underside of a leaf. From the upper side, the leaf looks undisturbed, but when turned over, there is a hustle and bustle of insects stuffing themselves so they can become adults. Are the insects any less perfect than the leaf itself? Does their presence make the overall piece seem less serene? It is all in the eye of the beholder.
In actual fact, the purpose of these pieces is to provide a wish for true gardeners and plant aficionados. Every year, just when the plants are looking their best , along comes some bug or worm or fungus to disrupt the growth of the plants. If only the power of those invertebrates and fungi could be harnessed for good instead of evil. Thus, we return to the true underlying meaning of these pieces: May the tent caterpillars eat the weeds in your garden.
Each of the pieces is carved from a single piece of moose antler. The darker color of the inner antler material results in darker caterpillars crawling on a lighter leaf surface.
I am continuing to explore the question “can a birchbark piece be sophisticated?” This table exploits the beauty of bark that has the feel of top-grain leather. However, the design and the top are very modern.
An angular base showcases both sides of what birch bark can look like. The dowels securing the base are covered in dyed rawhide. With a sandblasted glass top thick enough to withstand hot drinks, this piece takes an age-old natural material and brings it into the 21st century. The top detaches for easier transport.
The natural rawhide and bark juxtapose with the glass top.
This box is made from a single piece of aged elk antler that has been sliced lengthwise, then hollowed out. The use of older elk antler allows for lines and cracks to show in the antler without reducing its strength and integrity. Because they come from a single piece, the top and bottom match so they fit together perfectly. The inside of the box is finished with beeswax giving it a honey-scented interior.
The exterior of the box is adorned with ivy vines and leaves. 31 leaves and numerous vines run the length of the top and along the front of the bottom. Vines from both halves overlap the other half disguising the separation of top and bottom. Care was taken to select antler of the same yellowish color for carving the leaves.
18cm W x 7cm D x 9cm H
7”W x 3”D x 3.5”H
I try to make most of my pieces as realistic as possible. Antler is ideal for this as it lends itself very well towards intricate detail. A few pieces have delved into the abstract realm and this is one of the most abstract that I have made.
Orchids, by their nature tend to have non-traditional flower shapes, so I decided to extend their unfamiliar shapes into more abstract ones to see where the forms ceased to resemble orchids. I used three orchid types–the traditional tube orchid, the Yellow Lady-Slipper and one called the Dragon’s Mouth. I started with realistic versions of each ( 3 tube orchids, 5 lady-slippers and 3 dragon mouths), then started playing with the shapes, getting more and more abstract until it ceased to be an orchid.
I also carved a bunch of leaves that were used to fill in the spaces and mounted the whole works onto a base of moose antler. Altogether, about 24 flowers are in the piece, but it depends on the viewer to decide how many of them are actually flowers and which are just shapes. The piece is very complicated, with leaves and petals hidden behind other leaves and petals, then roots and seed pods thrown in. What looks like an isolated leaf turns out to be a whole flower hiding in the shadows.
The multitude of shapes are carved from deer, moose and elk antler, as well as tagua nut. The shapes are mounted onto a moose antler platform, which is itself carved and shaped. The piece is displayed upon a poplar wood base.
24 cm L x 41 cm W x 36 cm H (9.5″L x 16.6″W x 14.5″H )
Reg, where do you get your ideas? This is one of the questions I get asked a lot. The others are:
- how long does it take to make that?
- how did you start doing this work?
- do I get a discount?
But, back to inspiration–it is easy to get the ideas as they are all around me. I live in a park, surrounded by the perfect images of nature. As a biologist by training, I find the snails and worms to be every bit as wonderful as the flowers. As well, I don’t limit my ideas to local nature and find inspiration from books, videos and talking to other people.
Consequently, I have pieces representing sea creatures, even though I live several thousand kilometers from the ocean. But, overall, the beauty and grace of the natural world provides most of my ideas.
I’m also not too proud to take a nugget of an idea from somewhere else and build upon it to make something new and unique–often with little in common from the original idea. I have two bonsai-inspired pieces, neither of which look like a traditional bonsai tree.
So, finding an image worthy of attempting to copy is the easy part. The difficult part is trying to make that copy within the limitations of my skill as a carver and the availability of the pieces of suitable antler. This brings me to another aspect of inspiration–the desire to make the piece the best possible–the work ethic. In this, I have two sources of inspiration, or models of work ethic.
First, the level of skill and dedication of traditional oriental artists. Whenever I am tempted to say, “ah, this is good enough!”, I think of the work I’ve seen in Japan, or a Chinese carving I’ve seen on the internet and realize that it can be made better, even if it means starting over. If you feel like saying that it is probably good enough–then it probably isn’t. I was recently working on an oriental dragon and had finished the scales over the two foot long body. I tried a modification of the scale carving and to mixed emotions, discovered that the new method was much better. It meant I had to redo the entire body, but the final result is much better and I am satisfied.
- The second source of my work ethic inspiration is my wife, best friend and partner Jamie and our son Justin. Both are perfectionists (darn!) and so I am somewhat driven to ensure that my work meets their standards. Not that this is a problem, quite the contrary, I like to make my work the best possible so that even if it sits on a counter in my basement, I can be satisfied that it is the best I can do.
One of the questions we are asked is “who inspires you?” People expect me to reference the work of great designers and furniture makers. However, it is the material itself that plays a large part in my philosophy.
When the Japanese architect, Kiyosi Seike, (1918-2005) said “I cannot help believing in the divine nature of a tree when I see that through some mysterious inspiration it has been enhanced and transformed into artistic expression”, he expressed my feelings about my work.
There are two people who continue to inspire me although neither of them are still with us–my parents. They have shaped both my creative thought and my work ethic. My mother and father adhered to 4 principles:
- For your life’s work, find something that makes you happy. You will have a more interesting life and you will succeed at it because you will practice, practice, practice!
- Whatever you choose to do, do it 100%. Sometimes a piece doesn’t quite turn out as well as I hoped. Instead of saying it’s good enough, I remake it. I burned the top of The Rubaiyat chess table and now I am satisfied with the new version.
- Respect yourself, others and Mother Earth. My parents treated everyone well, and being farmers (as were their parents) respecting the land was ingrained. I definitely respect the fact that it takes 50-125 years for my raw material to grow.
- Never quit learning. It’s a big, wonderful universe out there and learning anything keeps your mind sharp. My father never stopped reading about farming and current affairs and experimenting with new (to him) woodworking tools. My mother started sewing when she was 12 and was always trying to improve her sewing techniques. Asked to mentor Fashion Design students, she learned to use an industrial sewing machine at the age of 98.
The influence of my mother and father is reflected in my work. Their philosophy colored how I create.
We have an interconnectedness and interdependency on the natural world and items made of wood can represent and express that. Wood is a product of nature, something beyond humanity. The pieces I create could not be made of any other material. Trees are natural and supernatural. I truly believe a piece is incomplete unless shared.
Today we were in our community at Rossburn Elementary School. We built a stool (un tabouret) with each of the grade 5/6 French students. We chose this class as we are both trying to improve our French.
These projects involve a lot of time and extra help is always appreciated. Fortunately, the grade 7/8 French class volunteered to assist us. They played games (in French) with half the students while the other half assembled their stools.
The stools can also be used as a step-stool and were made from white spruce. White spruce (l’épicéa) is the official tree of the province of Manitoba. The top was textured both for interest and to provide a non-slip area.
It’s fun to work with students as they are always enthusiastic–even before they know they will receive a loot bag! The local office of Louisiana-Pacific provided us with tape measures, lip balm and balloons. Pencils were provided by the Riding Mountain Biosphere Reserve.
We had an enjoyable and productive day building a useful item, speaking French and having fun–just another great day in the Riding Mountain Biosphere Reserve where we live, work and play!
As we’ve mentioned before, we live in a very rural part of the prairies and get much of our inspiration from our surroundings. That conjures up images of deer grazing beside sparkling water and birds singing among the wildflowers, which is true. There are, however, other images and sensations that arise from experience.
Take for instance the bears that eat the Saskatoon berries from the bush outside our bedroom window (and bears are not quiet animals–they don’t have to be), or the bear, maybe the same one, who stuck its head right through the open window into the living room. A quiet pastoral scene is not what comes to mind. Now bears foraging in the area can be somewhat expected. After all, berries are nutritious and bears will and do eat anything. And to be honest, when the bear put its head in the window, we were cooking with the windows open. One could almost say we were asking for it.
And of course there are mice getting into the house and gophers eating all the tulip and crocus bulbs. The deer like tulips and crocuses as well, but apparently don’t like daffodils. However, after planting dozens of daffodils, we found that while the deer don’t like them, the gophers still do, so we no longer have daffodils, but do have well fed gophers. And while you can put a cage barrier around the shrubs and newly planted trees to stop deer grazing, the cages do not stop the 7 foot tall moose from grazing off the top 2-3 feet of your woody perennials.
Oh, and don’t try putting a cage around the berry bushes to stop the bears–they’ll knock that cage away without even putting in an effort. And they don’t stop a grazing on berries, they chew anything that catches their interest. Their teeth are very sharp and very strong and will go through the end of a kayak very easily. Canoes are also susceptible to animal damage. We had to repair the sides of our canoe a few years back when a beaver dropped an 8″ diameter poplar onto it!
Then there are the barn swallows that insist of building their mud nests against the speakers on our porch and on the interior walls of the shop or garage if we happened to leave the doors open. On reading up on what to do to deter them, I learned that barn swallows will continue building other nests all summer if they find suitable locations, even if they already have a nest. They are the strip mall moguls of the bird world–burning energy to build nests that they don’t use. How does such behaviour fit into a Darwinian model of survival of the fittest? The solution from the internet nature experts–stop fighting their nest building, sit back and enjoy them. Thanks for the advice.
And now that we are away from mammals and onto birds, every spring and summer, a magpie stakes a territory in our front yard. In some respects this is good because the magpie is quite territorial and keeps the other birds away from the Saskatoon bushes in the front yard (leaving them for the bear). The negative side to this situation is that the bird keeps attacking its reflection in our basement window, thinking this is a trespassing magpie. and throwing itself against the glass. This starts at sunrise (4:30 am in the summer) and lasts all day, interspersed with bouts of feeding. And being “bird-brained”, it never learns that the reflection isn’t a real bird. In fact, the more aggressive it gets, the more aggressive the reflection gets (naturally) and the more riled up the magpie gets. At least this bird problem has a solution–we put thick plastic over the windows so the bird cannot see its reflection. Now we only get the occasional bump when it attacks the usurper in the main floor windows.
But the incident that prompted me to write this entry happened just this spring. We covered our house in metal siding and metal roofing after seeing our neighbour’s wood-sided house with numerous holes from woodpeckers. To that end, the metal works excellently. Now, in the spring, the males of some species of woodpeckers attract potential mates and declare their territory by, naturally, drumming on trees using its beak. One enterprising male discovered, early one spring morning, that knocking its head against the metal of our roof makes an even bigger sound. And if the woodpecker thought it made a bigger sound outside, he should have heard the ruckus inside the house. It sounded like a jackhammer was being used. Now I’m all for live and let live, but it took a few wildly thrown rocks to get the bird off our roof and convince it that there were better places to go a-courtin’.