working in the woods

I began last summer to work in clay, reasoning that it would be easier to manipulate and change than the wood I was working with, and while I took away useful lessons in how the clay could be used, the studio situation I found was not going to work for me. I went back to working directly with the wood I was cutting in the forest. A good deal of time went into figuring out what needed to be done to control wood, to prevent checking, splitting and warping, through drying and then sealing the wood in preparation for taking paint, stains and other finishes. I also began to experiment with other approaches to finishing the surfaces, by bleaching and also burning.

It seemed one way to color the wood was to char the surface with flame. My experience in making charcoal no doubt sparked the idea, and research revealed techniques that have been used in Japan, Shou Sugi Ban, a way of charring wood used in buildings, and in the United States, by wood carvers, to add decorative elements to bowls and other forms. The wood bleaches I used result in a coloring very close to white. The bleach would not affect areas that had been charred, resulting in black and white design that is intrinsic to the material.

Drying the wood quickly was accomplished using a wood kiln. This consisted of a cabinet I built from an old chest of drawers, with insulation added and doors that would seal fairly tightly. A heat source, a light bulb, and a small dehumidifier keep the moisture content of the air within the kiln low accelerated a drying process that otherwise might have taken months into a week or so, depending on the volume of the wood. I monitored the progress with a humidity meter, and when the level had stabilized over a period of a couple of days, the wood was dry and ready to work.

Finding the right materials to seal, stain, and prime the wood for additional finishes is a work in progress. A series of layers of shellac, Golden fluid matte medium, Keda water-based stains and Transtint alcohol-based stains, and Crystalac clear wood grain filler are the materials I have settled on after much experimentation. Wood is naturally hygroscopic, and the shellac reduces the absorption of moisture in the air and so prevents movement of the wood, and the matte medium both the leaching of tannins from the wood to the surface, and bleeding of medium from finishes into the wood. Different combinations of these materials for different finishes have to be considered, but those mentioned here result in a surface that retains the natural look of the wood, which is what I was looking for.

My thinking about these works has been changed by the situation I am working in. I have been looking at and to natural forms around me, and considering how these can be pulled into or used to develop ideas I have for the work. Photography and digital manipulation of imagery selected for that use is an important part of the process I am involved in, and a way drawing out ideas. Today I collected stones from the woods, and arranged and photographed them in different patterns, and will work with those in Photoshop. I have been photographing sticks, as a source of line, and cutting larger branches to serve as “rulers” for the same purpose. As always, the process of making the work is the source of the work, and so I think about ways I can invent process that will present new ideas.