House in Kent, Connecticut. Designed by Peter Talbot Architects, Washington, CT
My brother Peter has a gift for locating his houses. He finds a spot in the woods where the living room windows will open on a view; and where the driveway approach will allow the house to reveal itself slowly, inviting curiosity and anticipation in its landscape before you drive up, get out of your car and actually enter the house. This house was built on a ledge above North Spectacle Lake in Kent, Connecticut. The ledge was covered with Mountain Laurel so thick you could not pass on foot. If you are not familiar with the bushes, they have a root system evolved for living on ledge. They grow horizontally a couple of inches above the ledge and develop fat burls every so often that send shoots of root down into any crack in the rock to find water and nutrients. The branches run every which way in a nightmarish tangle with crooks and hooks that trip up any beast in a hurry. The first line item in the construction documents was undoubtedly: Site Work: Chop and remove laurel.
While a crew was out on the ledge cutting and clearing the laurel. The owner, his name is Chris, saw Peter, my brother the architect, carry off one of the gnarly roots and stow it carefully under the construction trailer. "What are you planning to do with that junk?" Cris asked. "Going to send it to my brother." "You send your brother junk?" "I want to see what he does with it." "Yeah, OK, sure."
An express delivery box arrived at my shop in California. It was from my brother. I had to sign for it. The mailman was concerned because the box rattled and they aren't supposed to do that. Not knowing what it was and wanting to be sure it wasn't broken, I got a knife, opened the box and dumped out a single burl onto my driveway. "WOW! That's great!" I cried. "Oh. Oh. OK, then. OK...." The mailman, put away his pen, stepped back up into his truck and, with a last look at the scruffy looking root, he drove away.
I made two cups and a tray and sent them back.
I'm a Woodworker: I love burl. What a treat to have burl to play with--especially Mountian Laurel burl because growing up in Connecticut, where it is the State flower, I had tripped and stubbed my bare toes on those gnarly roots on a daily basis during summers. The plants are protected too! So contraband burl out of the blue...altogether a great present. I made him two cups and a tray immediately and sent them back in a sake-less toast to our kinship.
Peter presented the cups and tray to Chris as a gift...and to show what had become of that piece of contraband junk he'd been caught salvaging from the site and setting aside. Peter wrote to thank me and he said he had given the cups to Chris and his wife and that Chris had an inspiration for making a burl sculpture from the tray for the gigantic empty wall over the fireplace. Would I be interested in doing something? "Of course," I said.
A year or so went by. The house was under construction, nearing completion.... I went East to visit my family at Christmas time. Peter invited me to come with him and look at the house and maybe think about the wall sculpture. There were several inches of snow on the ground.
My first glimpse of the house.
An oak near the house with a gnarly looking burl.
Chris hadn't arrived when we got there so we wandered in the woods and Peter showed me a tall thin Oak tree with a large burl...rather high on the tree so it was impossible to examine closely. I couldn't tell if it was a real burl or just a swelling caused by an infestation of insects. The thing oozed yellowish liquid onto the snow. I wondered if the burl would have integrity. I wondered if the whole tree could be sliced the way I had cut the root burl for the tray. I wondered if the portable bandsaw mills people use for making lumber from the trees on their land...could be used to cut 1/2" veneer that I could attach to the wall somehow. I got pretty excited by the idea and Chris came and gave us a tour of the house and told me what he was thinking about. I didn't listen very carefully to him. I was full of the oak tree and burl. I took some photos of the wall and went to Peter's office where he has drafting boards and copiers--great toys.
So I played in the office for a few hours and burned out my idea. When I showed my drawing to Peter and my mother, the response was completely flat. They are polite. Um... in case you're not familiar with New England code: when nobody looks at you...its not a good time to discuss it. If in about two days they say something tactful, you know they HATE it. I began to realize how much work it would be and how difficult to mount it and how would I dry a whole tree and keep it from twisting. I realized something like that would require I stay in the East for a substantial amount of time and.... I sat down to write a proposal but I was uninspired. I realized I didn't want to do it at all if it meant spending the winter and I couldn't work in my own shop. In fact by then I was embarrassed by my drawing. I realized I wasn't listening all that closely while I was taking photographs of the house and thinking my own thoughts. I felt ashamed of myself. I thought I better just say "no". I told Peter I thought I had to decline the work. "Well, just don't make a decision yet" My brother said. "Think about it for a while.... Do you want me to show him your drawing?" "No. I don't want to do it." "OK...I hear you and I'm not going to say anything; are you going to say anything about deciding one way or the other right now?" "No; I mean. I guess not unless I have to." "Good. Don't dismiss it; just think about it. I think I may have given you the wrong idea about the tree." "What do you mean, the wrong idea? You didn't give me any idea. You showed me a tree. I thought maybe I could use the tree burl and get some vertical in the picture..." "What I mean is, just suspend. Don't decide anything." Peter was cool and business-like. A diplomat. "OK." I said.
Chris' sketch that Peter forwarded.
Maybe a week later Chris sent this picture by email. "Oh! I get it. I can do that. That'll be fun! I'm excited!" Peter was careful to say nothing. I wrote a proposal. I asked Peter to send a piece of the burl--another piece--I had seen in his garage so I could play with it and send samples with my proposal. I went to work thinking through the practical aspects of the job, and I made a presentation. The job was relatively easy, now that I didn't have to figure out how to hold an entire tree from twisting while it dried...but I felt insecure. I wanted something more than the shape of the wall and quantity of burl pieces to define this mural. I thought I needed some conceptual image...some justification.
Lacking criterion for arranging pieces drove me a little nuts. I thought about studying the voids between pieces...maybe finding something there. I thought about finding ways to fit them closly together like stones on a pathway. I thought about making patterns. Finally I arranged them any old way on a board and took a photo. I sent the photo to all my friends hoping.... An old friend and fellow woodworker said the photo reminded him of what he saw out the Airplane window as he approached the Galapagos Islands. I Googled Galapagos and found an ariel photo. I was looking at the very top of a vulcano that just peeked above the water. All the power and potential of a vulcano--perhaps a cluster of vulcanos--looming benieth while only subtle hints show on the surface. Exactly! I needed: I relaxed and begin to work.
I sent this photo and called it archepelago
I sent this in a box with the samples used in the archepelago and the photo on glossy paper.
So I was given a "go". They had to wait for the woods to thaw. The roots had to be cleaned and carfully selected and packed and shipped to my shop. My mother volunteered to do the cleaning. She was outside in early spring with a hose and a screwdriver removing dirt from the roots. My brother said she was remarkably cheerful--covered in mud, prying at little stones in the roots with her screw driver, and scrubbing the nooks and crannies clean of caked on mud. 86 years old going on twelve! By the time the boxes of burls arrived in LA, I was out of time. I had two weeks to slice and dry and polish 60 pieces of laurel. I needed a system to affix them to the wall...I began again to question how I would compose a whole wall of these pieces. Five pieces on a desktop made a terrific looking archipelago, but sixty pieces on a very tall wall twelve feet high by eight feet wide.... I built a table in my front yard out of plywood to the correct dimensions and began to experiment.
Showing signs of sleepless desperation, trying to find some order while the pieces were drying in the sun and in my oven set to 170 degrees--as low as it will go.
I studied each piece trying to find some clue.
My time was up. I went to my son's high school graduation. He was going to France and was impatient to see his girlfriend and I had to get him to Boston. Once again, I had no idea how I would finally arrange these things. My niece was packing her things at RISD in Providence and was coming to meet us at my Mother's house. I had been in contact with high school friends I hadn't seen in forty years--since my own high school graduation--we planned an evening of Jazz in New York City.... I had to go. So I stopped. I packed everything into a trunk. I was nervous on the plane. I lost two games of chess to the graduate and went to sleep in a huff. I sent a photo to Chris to let him know I was coming.
My son came to play with me in my father's studio along with my niece the design school student.
I was searching for "concepts" asleep on the plane...while listening to jazz...while eating...while waiting for the trunk in baggage claim. I couldn't let go. We arranged a constellation of stars on the floor of my father's studio... Or was it schools of fish feeding here and there.
I sent a photo of this configuration To Chris saying I was ready for installation. In the morning when I arrived at his house. And set the scaffold and started to get to work...the house phone started ringing. I climbed down from the scaffold to pick up the phone. It was Chris. He asked if I was serious. "Serious," I said..."yes." There was a long pause. "I don't know how to begin." he said. His voice quavered with suppressed emotion.
"That is exactly what I don't want!" And I think I told you that time after time. That's why I think you're joking. I don't want them to seem arranged. I don't want a concept to show. I want pieces to fit the volumn. That's all. Just pieces on the wall that look like maybe a painting by how they're arranged and mounted an inch away from the wall. No frame: no canvas. It's true he had said all of that before and his drawing showed it too. His concept was completely clear to him and it hadn't changed at all. I was silent, thank God. My ego was throwing a fit. I knew it was just too late for me, now. I had to work out a whole new arrangement right there on the floor. No help from my son or niece, no concept...and none allowed. I felt like a kid left alone on a wilderness island.... It was still very early in the morning. Still getting light outside. It was cool and a June rain began to fall. The lake down the hill was black and barely visible through fresh green leaves. Birds flew through the rain with little song and great determination. I quieted my objections. I felt a sudden need to rush to the hardware store. I felt another sudden need to drive away in search of coffee. I did nothing until all objections subsided. Then silently alone in the huge house with the wall and fireplace right there.... I began to work. I suppose I was finally free. My heart was in my mouth. I was all concentration. Two women slammed in through the front door. I nearly jumped out of my skin. They came on in without hesitation. They started bumping around cleaning. They were cheerfully, chatting in Spanish about children and husbands. They wanted to know if I would mind they liked to work with music. I waved off any objection. The leader squinted at me and asked when would I be leaving. "No idea," I said. "I'll clean up behind myself. "
I set up on the floor in the house then traced the pieces onto the paper.
I followed my intuition and stayed with what Chris had asked. I was thinking, "so this is collaboration." I knew my part was mine. I made sure I met what he required. Still, as I left, quite late at night, after taking a photo and sending it to Chris in New York, I wondered what conflict we'd have. Everything felt right. I was too tired to care very much. I still felt compelled to defend myself in an arguement that didn't even exist.
Next morning when I arrived I was ready to go. I hadn't heard from Chris whether he liked my arrangement or not but I knew this would work so I somewhat rashly started drilling holes and attaching the stand-offs I had ready--little one inch dowls I made of maple and stained to dissappear behind the laurel pieces. I had to be very careful of the wall since once I attached the pieces it would be very hard to make repairs or paint. The wall above the fireplace was nothing more than a single sheet of drywall attached to metal studs.
As I began to set them, I got really excited.
I loved the shadow play behind the pieces too.
Then at last there it was.
I saw it. I knew it was something good. My mind refused to rejoice. I still wanted it to be a single thing. It is...and many things at once. But I wanted to understand it better. Somehow a single vessle will present itself to me like a short story. A log in my driveway seems to signal that its ready for transformation. I can see it. I know what to do. Once I'm started I am led to the thing's completion, like having rehearsed lines in a play or like playing a practiced piece of music. And when its done, it's done. I know it. Anybody knows when a bowl is a bowl. This business of arranging things is different. I came to know the pieces but assembled, they became like integers that fill a volume exactly. I need to do more of it to understand it. I am extremely glad to have had this experience. I'm grateful and I seek more like it.