Monday, May 11, 2009

Stalled Raven

November 11, 2006

I had not made a wood carving of a bird in quite a while, and when the commissions returned to birds I decided to make some serious changes. A client wanted an ebony raven and I revived a project idea from the mid nineties which I had developed for the same collector. This meant a return to the classical format that appealed to me, but I was determined to create something very different.
While I am working on a carving that does not have any radical changes in its basic design the ideas about making changes occur to me regularly. To take advantage of this, I began a second carving, which allowed me to develop these new ideas. I was facing the usual problems of technique and design, but I was prepared to let anything happen.
One carving developed in ebony and the other, The Stalled Raven, in a piece of red oak that I inherited from my father’s garage. About half way through the Stalled Raven I ran out of wood. It was not a surprise, but it did create a problem with colouration. Having a nicely finished carving in a single variety of wood was one thing but two-toning it was not in the plans. Obviously I could have gone out and bought more red oak but I never quite got around to it. I decided to continue with a piece of curly maple that was on hand. It took me a while to decide to proceed this way, and eventually the carving continued.
At about this time, it occurred to me that the carving could be painted. I haven’t used paint on any piece since the late sixties and early seventies. It was a huge commitment to make: if it did not work, there was no going back. However, it could be very successful and an exciting adventure that would lead to other changes. I ran painting experiments and decided go ahead. I painted it in sections and then glued it together. I used a couple of cans of garden-variety matte spray paint to apply about ten coats, and I did a final coat after the carving was assembled. I had a lot of technical and design problems. My early notes on this piece, for example, express disappointment in the way the wings were developing. In an active carving, the wings are crucial in helping to define activity and narrative. I was also concerned with the base.
By now, The Stalled Raven was hanging on a line over my workbench. It had no base and my plans for one were vague at best. I had recently used a series of airborne leaves to help hold a structure together, and I was playing with the idea of using this type of structure as a base. I added armatures in the partially-finished wings and body to allow for blowing leaves to be added in the future. This gave the piece a second life because the combination of the built-in changes to the original design and the creativity involved in the blowing leaves opened up a whole new opportunity
I adjusted the position of the body over the bench and found the piece was becoming very radical in its design. I roughed in the head to stabilize it and waited for the piece to show me how it would develop.
I am not much on making plans for these carvings. There are practical considerations that I always have to keep in mind. This is fairly straightforward for me, and mostly just time-consuming.
However, my pieces are first and foremost works of art. I have to face the practicalities of the work in progress and be open to solving problems as they are created. Making a plan would destroy the spontaneity involved in the carving. If there is another direction to turn toward, then having the ability to problem solve on the spot is a necessity.
The bird itself was challenging but nowhere near the complication of the blowing leaves. It took four or five attempts to get them right. The carving of the bird remained hanging from the ceiling as I wrapped the leaves around it. Once the leaves were set up it helped to stabilize the hanging piece. I decided the carving’s height by placing it over piece of glass and adjusting the distance between the carving and an imaginary base line, everything was set up from those datum points. As the leaves progressed, I wired them together into strings or long lines. That worked structurally, but the strings of leaves were obvious so I had to develop an aesthetic to cover this problem off. The armature that was installed in the raven itself had its short falls, and the carving went for months without being touched while I figured out what to do next. It all came together in a sort of cathartic event late in October 06 and it slid together after that. During this period the carving rolled over in my mind.
It became far less of a wooden bird carving and far more of an ethereal event. It is an event for the raven; it’s not a problem. Ravens are very intelligent birds and it could be that this bird is playing on the wind or the bird is simply caught in a gust of wind and will regain its composure. It could have been picked up off the ground or interrupted in its flight path the bird could also be playing in the wind.
It is flinching in surprise at the approach of the leaves that are rolling over its shoulder. The leaves wrapped around the bird are just blowing by, a measurement of the time frame for this happening. The power of the gust is apparent, picking up both bird and leaves, and depositing the leaves somewhere as the bird moves back onto its own way.
This became two carvings: the bird and the leaves. I know how to carve a bird, but using the leaves as a base was new. I am pleased that the blowing leaves do live up to the original idea, even surpass it. Both the base and the bird combine to give the effect that I was looking for. I started the whole piece as an experiment on many different levels and the innovations I devised allowed me to achieve a bold new look with my art. My bases will never be the same because I have developed new ideas and techniques. This is what I hope for as I continually try to push the envelope.

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