Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Thoughts on Wood-Working, or Sycamore from Heaven

Well, one of the main reasons I want to write this is that there's something justifiably nasty I've longed to say about someone for a long time, and this provides the perfect opportunity.  There may be other, perhaps loftier motivations behind this post as well, but at the moment, the thought of even impotent revenge is deeply satisfying.  It being Valentine's Day.  All those arrows.  But not all of them chocolate.

Twenty years ago (screech of the brakes as we realize... twenty years ago?), I started grad school in Rochester NY, at Rochester Institute of Technology, and specifically at their American School of Crafts.  This school, founded by renowned sculptor and furniture-maker Wendell Castle, was first called the American School of Craftsmen.  The official name had only recently been changed.  I thought this was interesting.  When I applied, many of the students were women, even though, as I later learned, in some areas they were not really welcomed into a formerly all-male enclave.  I had also made it clear, on interviewing with the head of glass studies, that as a gay man (in my mid-40's at the time), I wasn't interested in investing time and money at an institution where my private life would be an issue.  Possibly because I was so much taller, the professor assured me it wouldn't be a problem.  He might have gone on to clarify that it wouldn't be a problem... for me.  But...  

I was an MFA candidate in the Glass Department, and in those first disoriented days -- trying to figure out the way from the outdoor glass hot shop, through the ceramics studios and woodworking areas, and then up to the second-floor classrooms where we had meetings about and lectures on glass -- someone recognized me, said hello, and came out of his studio to shake my hand. 

I'll call him Doug.  He was a tall, lanky guy, with a full head of curly dark brown hair, and a bushy beard that, because he was a wood-working student, was flecked with sawdust.  As I was already confused, I'm not sure he noticed that I didn't really know who he was, but he clarified it anyway -- we had met at his elder brother Alan's wedding, in Manhattan, years earlier.  Of course, being a wedding, there had been a mad whirl of faces, and the only person I knew, besides my partner John, was the person Doug's brother Alan was marrying.  It was a singer John and I had met.  A tenor, named Ron.

Well, I knoew that Ron and Alan were still happily together, though I'd lost track of where they were living at the time -- and I told Doug how nice and kind of homey it was, that I nnow had someone at school I could come and visit, and reminisce with about New York City, while he might be planing a board or something, and I might be carrying an armful of new-made glass up to my studio space.  Doug had a gentle, intelligent sweetness, a nice contrast to my own quick, barbed sharpness.  I was fascinated by the processes involved in fine wood work -- clamps bristling from slabs of fine mahogany, mere planks being forcibly transformed into, say, a chest of drawers, or a folding table, or a bed frame.  Once I ran into the central woodworking studio to borrow a nail, and at the word 'nail', everyone looked up sharply and stared, clearly offended.  'This is fine woodworking', someone said coldly.  'We don't use nails.'

During the school week, I might stop by Doug's studio once or twice.  He was making a model for a merry-go-round figure, by cementing thick sheets of blue or pink insulation foam together, to then carve into the shape he had in mind.  Then he would repeat the process in the wood itself.  Working on such a large scale fascinated to me, and Doug had a funny explanation behind his choice of a roly-poly, approachable figure (I think it was a hippo), instead of a dragon, or a horse breathing fire.  In turn, I showed him the new surface textures on my glass -- things that made the glass less decorative, and more like survivors of some misfortune.  We talked for maybe ten minutes at most.  We would say we should get together for dinner, but he lived in a different part of town, and after school, I was too whipped to do anything but sit and stare until the next day.

So I was taken completely off-guard when, well into the first whirling year of grad school, as I stopped to chat with Doug, he got a pained look on his face.  He put down his chisel and asked me to walk outside with him.  And then he said, practically with tears in his eyes, that I shouldn't stop to talk with him anymore, except if it was later in the day, when the professors had gone home, and there weren't as many people around.

Well of course, I always want to accommodate, but I couldn't help asking what was wrong.  And so I learned that, in spite of whatever reassurances I'd been given, regarding my sexual orientation having no bearing on my experience at RIT, there were members of the teaching establishment who didn't have the same breadth of tolerance.  Or, really, much tolerance at all.  But rather than confronting me (about what, one might wonder), the one particular professor had noticed that one of his woodworking students was kind of friendly with the... well, the joke goes like this:  Question -- What's the definition of a fag?  Answer -- That's what you call the homosexual gentleman who just left the room.

So.  Doug had a friend who was the fag.  And Doug was pretty much tortured, during critiques, with a steady barrage of low-level but relentless badgering, of the standard, generalized 'well, do you two get together and kiss' variety.  Nothing was said to me.  When I brought this up to the head of my department, it was dismissed.  He also pointed out that, as I was only tangentially involved, there really wasn't anything I could do, unless Doug himself complained.  

Which step I urged Doug to take.  After all, I reasoned, he had witnesses.  There had been other students in the room while this stream of humiliating innuendo was being dumped all over him.  But no matter how strongly I suggested this, Doug refused -- reasoning that, if he were to bring this mistreatment out into the open, there was every possibility his teachers would learn that, not only did Doug have... a gay friend, but Doug also had... a gay brother.  Who was married (married?) to another man.  And... a gay man at that.  Doug saw his life in the tight-knit woodworking community slowly but surely circling a bright pink porcelain drain.

He quit.

He left behind all the tuition money he'd borrowed, in order pay for the classes in which he had been forced to breathe in this abuse.  He found a teaching position in another state, and did quite well.  He later moved to a university setting, continuing to teach at a high level.  He has a lovely daughter, who is his treasure.  Doug's gay brother is still married to the same gay man, and I still can't keep track of where they live.

I stayed and finished my degree.  But I carried a painful, impotent fury with me.  I still saw the offending professor (protected by tenure, don't you know.  Remind me to tell you the joke about that topic) around campus, and to my face, he was all smiles and cordiality.  Once, when I'd finished a piece of work for my thesis show, and this professor (not the first or the last) suggested that I make the glass light up from inside, I took great pains to explain to him that, so altered, the work would achieve a level of one-dimensionality that I found uninteresting.  Left unlit, I said, the work was more likely to provoke the individual, private narratives that are what I'm most interested in, with regard to works of art -- that there be no set 'meaning', that the successful work goes on shedding meaning like my cat sheds red fur on the front stairs... continuously and, it is to be hoped, with less sneezing.  This man, whom I despised, considered what I'd said, and then sat down on the floor in the hallway outside my workspace, looking at this assemblage (I call it 'The Lung Box', it's in our basement) for about twenty minutes, finally saying that he agreed with me.  I'd been sitting there too, getting a strange savory feeling from this direct confrontation of his, with the work of the homosexual gentleman who has just left the room.  But l was still hating him every moment. 

So I decided, in my impotence, never to work with wood, ever.  I justified it somewhat, by saying that wood is too organic, that I get a more convincing and disturbing feeling of burgeoning life from inorganic or man-made materials, that wood is too fickle, responding too much to atmospheric changes, while glass only melts if the world is coming to an end.  But the real reason is, I don't want to be reminded of this cruel, smug, heedlessly powerful and heedlessly destructive man, who had encountered no personal or professional resistance, as instead of fostering and encouraging the ambitions of one of his students, he befouled them.

Perhaps foulness was all he really had to give -- that, and a few insights into how to hold a chisel.  Current students are safe; this professor having retired some time ago.  Some of his footprints have been preserved, I believe, in a patch of what was once the soft soil outside the wood department door, and are kept there for the possible wonderment of school children in the future.

And now, finally, we come to the current conundrum. 

Next door to my house, beside my driveway, stands a tall sycamore tree -- the kind with the scaly bark and the huge, dinner-plate-sized leaves that, each autumn, cover said driveway, ankle-deep -- even though, each preceding spring, we have stood around wondering if, finally, that tree isn't dead, because those leaves are taking so long to emerge.  It turns out, this is how they do it. 

They live a long time, these American sycamore trees -- up to 400 or 500 years.  In a general way, I'm jealous, though I'm not sure I'd want to stand in the neighbor's yard that long, what with the succession of pitbulls and their inevitable output, both auditory and post-digestive.

Sycamore is also a rather brittle wood, though I'm told it can make fine furniture, if the planing mill has the patience to pare away all the knarls and knots and twists and turns the trees take in their centuries of growth, and after this paring, come up with a few board-feet of salvageable wood.  What I'm mostly confronted with, in my driveway, are the leaves, and an occasional branch or limb, snapped off by a storm and flung in my general direction.  In spite of my self-imposed wood-prohibition, I have secretly (?) collected these tid-bits for almost as long as we've lived in this house -- there's a pile of them in the basement, and even as I toss another sample on the heap, I try not to look at it.

The problem is that they look... alive.  At the junctures where another twig is going to pop forth, a kind of knuckle or knot forms, and instead of progressing in the graceful arc of an oak or maple, these new fingers of sycamore go off at odd, sharp, and almost mathematically precise linear directions.  Looking up into the bare branches, I'm reminded of the the spidery drawing I'd get, if I let a drop of India ink fall onto a piece of slick, clay-coated paper, and then took a drinking straw and blew at the ink, splashing it out and chasing each little dark tendril around until it was all used up.  It's like wooden fireworks, but frozen.  Excluding smoke and excitement.  And including lots of leaves.

First I thought I'd make a chess set -- even though I dislike the metaphor of the game, and wish the boards were less regular, more undulant, like the real bomb-cratered battle fields we know are out there.  These sycamore knots have that gnomish quality, like nightmares; they might start moving around, or reaching out for me, with nothing good in mind.  So they'd be perfect pawns for the front lines of an army; ideal, in bigger chunks, for the malign powers behind the advancing troops; in even longer, twisted lengths, for those whose own fates hinge on those of the less fortunate.

Then we had that ice storm last October, while plate-sized leaves still hung on brittle branches.  I'm still amazed that either through premonition or presence of mind, I moved both our cars to the street end of the driveway, less that twenty minutes before the first torn sycamore limbs came crashing down, just missing our kitchen window.  When the night was over, most of the driveway was filled head-high with sycamore, the mottled bark making the accumulation look like the aftermath of an arboreal war, the fallen still wrapped in tan/green/brown camouflage.

We had contributions from our other tall wooden neighbors too -- a big chunk of choke-cherry (poisonous for humans); a Norway maple limb; two large sections of red oak, one landing leaves-down, like a deciduous parody of a Christmas tree, but too tall to fit into the house, and another, larger broken limb, hanging like an exhausted trapeze artist, from the fork of two thick limbs, some 90 feet up in the air.  John and I dubbed this our Sword of Damocles, and wondered how much it would cost to have it brought down safely.  In a subsequent wind storm, it too fell into the yard.

And in the yard, working with my little hand saws, I gnawed away at one stack or another.  Starting at the small ends and working toward the large.  Whittling things down to a manageable size.  Trying to decide what might work as firewood, and what I might have to drag out to the curb, in the hope that the town would to remove it.  Oak, and crisp red leaves, in this pile.  Cherry, dark and pitted on the bark, over here.  The maple went to the curb right away.  Then there was all that sycamore.

That took almost three days of steady work -- hack and drag and saw and pull -- to get all this sweet, still living wood out to the street lamp.  And as I was nipping away at this accumulation, I just couldn't help it -- one branch was so graceful -- a little knot was so funny -- who could believe that a tree would grow into a shape like this...  A pile of carefully-selected tidbits grew by the back door, lying amid heaps of plate-sized leaves that, days before, had offered us a nice helping of unseasonable ice.

The great hulking limbs -- some thicker than my thigh -- were out of the way.  The smaller branches were stacked with the rest of the detritus.  Our attention, at the time, was focused mostly on surviving without electricity for what turned out to be a week, followed by a week without cable service, and then another week until the initial faulty electric work was finally fixed.  But I still looked out of the corner of my eye at the pile of wood by the back door.  Weighing and balancing the unquestionable visual lure and curiosity of this material, against my still lingering resentment, and my pledge to avoid this material, as a personal statement against abusive intolerance. 

I sometimes say that I try to stay awake.  By this I mean that, in addition to going about what passes for my daily life, I hope to keep an ear out, or to glimpse from the corner of my eye, in case there's the eruption into the mundane, of something... special -- something like an elbow nudge from what I otherwise think of as a vastly indifferent Universe.  Most often I require a good bash on the head before I stop thinking about how many cans of cat food I should have bought when they were on sale.  And in the case before me now, I had almost been buried in something I said I didn't want, but which I now couldn't deny I found compelling.  If I were one of my own students, and had this challenge, my answer would be simple -- go for it!  See where it leads you!  Life can be a wonderful thing!

Which I fervently believe.  For them.

Well, I'll have to say, if the Universe is interested in me tinkering around with these little pieces of wood, said Universe is going to some lengths to make this interest perfectly clear.  While visiting some folks with a local framing shop and gallery, I mentioned my perturbing stack of wood, wood I'd gathered, without really knowing why, and as we talked, the beginnings of a plan emerged.  Well of course, we still have to work out (a) whether we're all serious about this (b) whether we're all really serious about this, and (c) no, really -- are we all really really serious about this?  It could be a kind of little installation/residency, where,,, whatever is going to emerge... does so over the duration of the residency itself.  A month, say?  We could invite school kids at different grade levels, to see what they might like to do, to help create a visual experience (beside talk on their phones...) out of a freakin' pile of sticks.  (Adults -- duh, so stupid...)

About my friend Doug, I'm still overheated.   I don't want to assign too much significance to a perfectly ordinary driveway full of tree limbs.  (Well, I have used the word 'Universe' rather a lot here) But it seems to me, in this case, I might simultaneously let go -- even though my lingering resentment is perfectly justified -- and grasp -- a material I've shunned, even as I've reluctantly learned far more about it than I would have expected, when I made that inward pledge to myself all those years ago.  I don't enjoy the feel of uncertainty, of not knowing what might emerge, and whether or not it will be worth the effort.  To that same imaginary, inner student, I would say -- that's the nature of our work as artists, in some ways -- a willingness to go into the unknown, to take risks and confront the results.

Yesterday, I found another old sycamore branch.  I dissected it, and the back of the van is filled with twisted gnarled things. And if you see some downed branches with the blotchy, tan/green/grey bark, and the knotted joints where the twigs take different directions, like wooden fireworks -- call me.     

 © 2012        Walter Zimmerman     

No comments:

Post a Comment