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Holly boxes cut from a holly tree killed in Mount Holly in 1996

Back in 1996, as I was enjoying the Olympics in Atlanta, tornadoes ripped through Mount Holly, NJ. That’s right – tornadoes. Imagine my surprise when I saw that on the Weather Channel. I had parked my car there before traveling to Atlanta with a friend in an admittedly better car, and when I got back I discovered that the sudden pressure change had blown out my air conditioner. The tornado also snapped off many of the town’s eponymous holly trees, and blew them around the neighborhood.

The boxes you see are made from that wood. I think it’s fun to use the tree itself as a guide to design, since so many leaves are attractive and distinct. Holly’s tough to work. It’s hard and stringy, and it can heat up and burn when it’s cut with power tools, but the tight grain is very pretty and polishes well. The wood won’t stay this white forever – exposure to air and light will turn it butter yellow someday, but for now, it’s almost as pale as when I cut it open.

I’ll show these at the upcoming event in Metuchen, ‘Eat, Drink, and Buy Art’, this weekend. Here’s the link: http://www.boroughimprovementleague.org/8.html. The Borough Improvement League always runs a great event, so if you’re thinking of picking up some holiday gifts, stop by and see these very boxes and lots of other good stuff.


Fine Time for a Fairy Garden

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It’s hard to get motivated about even the cutest fairy garden in the world when snow is falling on the leaves you didn’t rake up, but it’s not really my problem. This is a commission piece for a neighbor, and her yard is tidy. She’ll put it out in spring for her new grandchild. It’s about 18 inches wide, carved from a solid block of 2″ mahogany. Mahogany is not only water-resistant (the Coast Guard built cutters out of it for years), it’s also very pretty. It carves well. It’s not the smoothest wood, and most is too coarse for fine detail, but this is a big piece and tiny details wouldn’t read clearly from a distance, no matter what wood I used.

I wanted to show the grain and color of the wood, yet also incorporate color, since it’s a whimsical piece for a child. The pigment is good old Crayola watercolor paint. The top coat is also water based; I think that oil based spar varnish is tougher, but the waterbased finishes are crystal-clear, and all the oil finishes are yellow. They make the wood look richer, and they’d be fine over the leaves, but they’d make the violets brown and the border salmon. Audrey’s fairies do not like salmon.

This is intended for a little girl, of course. Do little boys like fairy gardens? Sure they do, until some bigger boy tells them they shouldn’t. So someday, if baby Audrey has a little brother who scorns violets, Grandma can add the Fairy Motocross, the Fairy Rock Climbing Wall, and the Fairy Skate Park.

All Over Town

I’m home from vacation again. August flew by, and now I’m back in the Tomb Room, and all over town. A piece of my work has been accepted by Transformations Gallery for their current show, Doors, at the Old Franklin Schoolhouse. I made this piece for the show, out of found and new materials, and you can see it for yourself any time you stop by the Schoolhouse for a cultural event, or on Gallery Walk day, October 21st, from 1:00-5:00. I’ll be there. https://www.facebook.com/Transformations-Gallery

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I will also have two pieces in Nails in the Wall Gallery, at St. Luke’s  Episcopal Church. One is very old; I was learning about the properties and possibilities of different wood, and I was also trying to create pieces that tell a story. So I used bubinga, rosewood, and cedar to show Jonah in the Belly of the Whale. I also carved a new piece that I had wanted to do for a long time; it’s a box in the shape of the scarab, which the Egyptians took as a symbol of eternity and resurrection. It’s cut from one block of mahogany. The show will open September 11, from 2:00-5:00. https://www.stlukesmetuchen.org/exhibits.html

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Over the years, I’ve become more interested in locally sourced wood. It’s hard to know whether bubinga or mahogany is being sustainably harvested (probably but not always), and rosewood is almost gone. My little piece was salvaged from a broken piece of furniture. So my sloths, still in progress, are cut from basswood, a farmed lumber. The sloths are coming along slowly…

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I have also been accidentally displayed at Metuchen Library, because the main case in the lobby was empty. Every piece there is carved from species that grow in Metuchen, and harvested most of the wood myself. So drop by and see my work while you’re around town.

Sloths: From Sin to Superstar

Back from vacation, and I’m figuring out what’s next in the Tomb Room. I’ve finished three projects: two pieces submitted to local juried shows, and one commission. Commission work is the most fun because I get to tell a story. In this case, it’s more of an idea, just one word, 5 feet long: ‘Disbelief’. We should all suspend disbelief now and then.

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So what’s next? I’m starting fresh on two series of work. These aren’t custom works that tell a story; they’re forms that interest me and might interest other people. A colleague suggested sloths. I hadn’t realized that sloths are having a moment – sure, everyone likes whales and owls and elephants, but sloths? Suddenly they’re the most popular Deadly Sin ever. Perhaps the sloth is your spirit animal! I like the upside-down-ness of the composition.

The challenge here is to plan efficient production of the rough form. I’m drilling holes first, then I’ll cut the shape out. The drill press has a drop of only 2 1/2 inches so I drilled the longitudinal holes by hand with a power drill.

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The wood is a Tilia subspecies, what Americans call basswood when it’s lumber and linden when it’s a tree. Basswood is the best wood for hand carving, hands down. It’s soft, it’s consistent, it doesn’t split, it takes color. This wood is farmed and kiln-dried, but Tilia americana seeds itself in Metuchen, often growing with multiple trunks. Hybrids are planted as street trees and bear the sad name of Tilia x vulgaris.

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Compare the commercial wood to Tilia from down the block, on Hillside Avenue. A tree is aging, and huge pieces broke off a few years ago. You can see the ‘spalting’ where fungi have stained the wood. I use a dust collector so I don’t inhale fungal spores. I’ve rough-cut a big branch into two chunks that could be customized walking sticks, and I’ll be telling someone’s story again. But for now… sloths.

A Basket of Scraps

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When I lived along the Lehigh Valley spur which is now the Greenway, the property edge was overrun with choke cherry, Prunus virginiana. It’s one of the trees that make up the natural forest here, insofar as forest is allowed to grow. It’s not fussy about soil. It likes some sun but sprouts as an understory tree. It has no commercial value, but the fruit can be used to make wine or jelly. The wood is very pretty, but it’s small. For years, I helped prune or cut down these volunteers. One sunny day my mother put me on the garage roof and handed me a chain saw and asked me to take down a few big limbs. Sure, why not! It builds confidence, standing on a roof with a power tool. I kept the wood because you never know – it could be handy later. I’ve made a walking stick and a few other things from it. This year I found a stack of it that I had sliced on a band saw, about 30 years ago. That’s long enough; it had to get useful right now.

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I chose some black cherry (Prunus serotina) that I salvaged from a tree I lost recently. It may also have been a volunteer, since black cherry seeds itself here too. Black cherry is a much bigger tree; I sawed a slab into supportive ends for a basket. It has good color, but not as much figure as the choke cherry; each of the chokecherries had speckles or stripes or blotches of red or brown.

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I found white pine root that my father gave me because he thought it might be useful later. I sawed it into slats which had pretty swirly grain. I found a choke cherry branch with the bark still on. I bought brass screws. The old chokecherry slats were warped and twisted, so I had to notch the end boards to accept them. This is why the colonists held onto their furniture; it’s hard to make anything with straight lines! I managed to get the end boards vertical although the footprint of the box isn’t exactly square. But overall, the plain ends serve to show off the busy pattern of the smaller cherry.

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This is a basket with provenance. We’re on a first name basis; I know where it all came from. I cut some of it down. But lumber is not a pet, so it’s time for it to move on.

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The Sarcophagus

May 22, 2018

This is my Moravian work bench. It’s splendid. All I know about it’s prior history is that my father obtained it when his father’s friend Emil died, and Emil’s friends lived in apartments and couldn’t take it. Emil was a metalworker, and how he came to possess this splendid product of Moravian workmanship in Queens, I don’t know.

I call it the Sarcophagus because its about as big as tomb furniture; visit U Penn’s online catalogue and see what I mean.  https://penntoday.upenn.edu/2012-01-19/features/virtual-catalog-penn-museum-collections/

It’s made of maple, and it breaks down for portability. Hah! It takes two men to lift the top off. But then the legs can be detached from the braces with a tap of a mallet. It’s the kind of thing you hope to do only every 30 years or so. The work surface is held in place by gravity; slots in its belly fit over the legs. Most benches have round holes to accommodate traditional blacksmithed or modern spring clamps, but the Moravians had their own ideas, and their peg holes are square. The original pegs are long gone, and I’ve made my own. I don’t use them much but they make a nice wood library; the wenge and imbuye are imports, and the white thing is Corian, but the rest are local wood, in some cases very, very local. The lilac is from Spring Street. The choke cherry is from Graham Avenue. The black walnut may be from Highland Avenue. The holly is from… Mount Holly.

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This is the heart of the operations at Sondra Flite Artworks, and when the day comes to hang up my chisels, It will become the world’s biggest end table.