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The "Woody" Worry-Stone

Introducing my "Woody" Worry-Stones.

As work on The DoT edition winds down, I had been gearing up to start some larger projects. But a lot has changed in the world over the last few weeks (an understatement for sure) and all of a sudden, long term plans seem fraught, so instead I have changed gears and decided to tackle something much simpler and fun.

With all the worry going around, I felt a new pocket art (worry-stone) project would have a more immediate, positive, and diverting (for me anyway) effect. So I whipped up something with a twist that connects it to the current arc in my work by incorporating natural materials.

I really feel there is just something iconic about the way knife makers blend the use of metal and wood. There is a visual balance to their work that really speaks to the language that all tools seem to possess. I wanted to embody that in my own way, through the use of natural materials, composition, and proportion, if not necessarily through pointy-ness or function. 

The aesthetics of this piece will likely feel familiar to those who have been following along for the last few years, and while this work looks nothing at all like a knife, it is in fact, another small tribute to the craft of knife making.

These worry-stones look and feel great in the hand and the nature of wood means that each one will truly be a one of a kind piece. 

The materials for these early prototypes are as follows. The first four (bottom row) are all ironwood and really shows off the variety of grain and colors one can get with such a material. I especially like the two-tone one on the far right with a bit of sapwood showing. The remaining three (top row from left to right) are Redwood Burl, a striking piece of Boxelder (green dyed), and finally Black Palm.

Much like various metal alloys, each of these different materials has its own properties and challenges. I am very much enjoying the opportunity to experiment and learn more about each of these exotic hardwoods as I go.

A few people have also offered to mail me different species to further expand this experiment.

Of the different varieties, ironwood is the most fun to turn on my machines hands down, it is very hard (for wood) and it has a dense grain that does not easily tear-out when performing an offset turning operation.

The Black Palm on the other hand is very fibrous and splintery, it is much more prone to tear-out and even splitting. It took me a few tries to get that one right.

Likewise, the redwood Burl is almost chalky or powder like. It behaves more like a mineral in turning and is prone to chipping rather than tear-out. I have had poor luck mitigating this so far, but have some other things I’d like to try.

Regardless, the redwood and Black palm inserts have needed considerably more handwork to clean them up, but there is no denying how great they look. 

While the news everywhere is currently full of troubling stories and predictions of doom, the early response to this work has been extremely positive.

So in my own small way, I am thrilled to be able to put forward a project that is resonating with so many of you. There is just no better time to be making art. If anything, just to create a sense of normalcy and put something positive out into the world.

However I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little uncomfortable trying to overtly sell art in this moment of global crisis. 

Because of this, I have been dithering on how to proceed with this work, I almost didn't post it at all.

 There are people out there doing incredible things to help each other and I must admit to moments where my work feels a little trivial in comparison. Also, blatant commerce in the face of human suffering just feels discordant. I know everyone has to make a living, but I am also human, so if I am being honest, I was hesitant about whether to put up a pre-order for this new experiment.

But after giving it a lot of thought, I realize opportunities to do good are everywhere and this work is no exception. Everyone must use the tools available to them to make a difference, these are mine.

With dire predictions about the impending economic fallout from this pandemic, I want to do my part to help support the arts here in Baltimore. I know there will be quite a lot of need very soon, and I want to ensure that the artists of my place and time can weather the storm that is coming. 

So, I will be posting a pre-order for this work later this week. And with this release, I will be setting aside a portion of each sale and donating it to help the arts here in Baltimore. What shape that support takes has yet to be determined, I think the landscape is still shifting as galleries, museums, and non profits cancel events for the foreseeable future. There will likely be a number of nonprofits who will have urgent need very shortly, and there will likely also be more direct ways I can lend assistance as well.

Strategically it makes sense to wait to see where these dollars can be most effectively applied. But I am committed to do my bit. A full accounting of all my donations will be released once I get that part sorted out. 

For now, lets get a date on the calendar for the pre-order sign up, say
April 2nd at 12:30 PM EST.

The sign up period will be an entire week, as this is intended to help raise charity funds. I will post the link to the sign up form here on this blog, on my Instagram account, and in a newsletter that will go out when the sign up period begins.

Material choices will be laid out broadly as each work will be unique due to the character and availability of the wood itself. I want to give you all some personal choice between a narrow range of works, so when you sign up, you will be able to specify your preferences, and then I will contact you individually as work progresses to allow you a final say in what specific work you claim as your own. 

I hope this all makes sense, and of course, pricing and more details will be available on the sign up form when it posts.
(I do not post pricing on publicly facing media)

This is going to be an enjoyable project, and I am glad I can bend it to do something publicly beneficial as well.

As always, thoughts and comments are welcome.


Sharps #2

Welcome to the second installment in what I am calling the “Sharps” series. Like the name implies, this work (titled Sharps #2) has seven razor sharp sculptural blade forms around its circumference. It also incorporates a number of elements directly inspired by the knife making community. 

In an earlier post, I detailed the origins of my exploration into the fringes of knife making, how I am curious what might be learned from a craft with a rich history of blending old and new technology, so I will refer there for more background. 

On the left is Sharps #2, On the right is the Sculptural Knife Vase (now called Sharps #1)

It is hard to talk about this piece apart from the Sculptural Knife Vase that came before it. This sculpture is intended as a sort of contrast to the vase as it shares many of the same elements, yet eschews it's utility in favor of being an object free of context clues or function. 

The thesis for the vase piece was as a conceptual bridge between my vocation as a machinist and some of the other industrial craft traditions I look to for inspiration. This second, more sculptural piece, represents one potential destination that metaphorical bridge was meant to reach.

Aesthetically, “Sharps #2” departs from the Vase in a number of significant ways. For starters, rather than being free standing, this work was intended to hang vertically from either a ceiling or some other surface above the viewer. This gives it a very different feel and helps distinguish it from the compact nature of a vessel or some other utilitarian object. That it hangs from above also helps to pull it back, if only a little, from being immediately interpreted as a weapon or some other kind of striking object. While I don’t mind the comparison (as it is apt) I wanted to present this work as a traditional art object in a way that one might recognize. I try to avoid using the “art on a stick” motif as much as I can, but I recognize that it is a sculptural format that people will unknowingly accept, so it has been strategically employed here. 

Another point of difference is the wood elements that are the jewels of this sculpture. The wooden forms, intermittently placed between the cold sharp steel blades, are soft and warm and contrast beautifully. They really make this piece a step forward rather than just an iteration on its predecessor.

 Using natural materials has always hung in the back of my mind, and in the context of knife making, it is a very logical step to take. It is something which I feel I can easily carry forward and find new creative ground.

Even with all of the differences I pointed out above, I think it is clear that the two works (the vase and this sculpture) are reasonably similar objects overall. That they share the exact same blade design and arrangement should make it clear that they came from the same drafting table. So then one may ask, why make one a functional object that may be taken for an instance of craft, and the other a non-functional piece that may be taken for an instance of fine art. And why wrap the whole thing in an experiment on knife making?

For starters, why not? 

But also, because while I am generally accepting of varying interpretations of the things that I make, the question of “is my work fine art or craft?” is one that arises with a fair amount of regularity. And while I try to remain as open minded as possible, I feel that this distinction between craft and art keeps many makers on the fence when it comes to experimenting with more freeform types of creating.

Most conversations I have had about “what is art” tend to center on artistic intent and the context in which the work is placed. These are things that can be very difficult to know and are often outside of an artist’s control anyway. You don't always get to choose your audience (or where the work is seen) and can hardly control what the viewer knows about you or your intent. So that these are some of the main criteria for “what is art” is highly problematic, and it makes the whole “craft versus fine art” conversation a strangely stubborn one to put to rest. 

This is a simplification of course, but as a theme, I think there is room to be intellectually playful with the idea that there should be any distinction at all between craft, fine art, and other types of design. To put it another way, these distinctions may be useful to collectors, curators, and art lovers (the audience), but they just aren't that useful to people who actually make stuff.

Strangely this dynamic also plays out in the world of knife making, where utilitarian knife design (think useful knives) stand alongside what are called “fantasy” or “art” knives (think less useful knives). From what I understand, there is lively discussion about the merits and value of each of these as well. 

Trying to place various types of art, craft, and design in neat little boxes is a phenomenon that I see in many disciplines as people seek to distinguish their work or collections from one another. As an artist, it can be both a fascinating and harmful lens with which to view one's own work. Addressing it directly through this project is a way to understand, and maybe push back a little, on a quirk of the creative arts. 

Calling out some of the art worlds academic biases and demystifying the process of making sculpture is the best way I see to encourage craftspeople and makers of all stripes to jump in and try and make weird and beautiful sculptures of their own. 

But that is just one layer in this project, and I can't wait to dig deeper. So stay tuned. 

Process notes:

The blades for this piece were made at the same time as the blades for the Sculptural Knife Vase. The tip profile is slightly different, but there is not a whole lot new to report process wise. If you read the post about the Sculptural Knife Vase, you know the trials and tribulations I faced. If you didn't, here is that link again (seriously its a good read I promise

That said, there was some grumbling after I posted the vase piece that I did not include the obligatory proof that the knives were indeed sharp, so please see the video above. The edges on both the vase and this sculpture are plenty sharp, enough to shave with. I shot a video of me doing so (shaving some arm hair!!!), but it is just not a pleasant thing to see, so I went with a paper slicing demo instead.

The blades are a bit thick compared to standard knife blades, so they don't quite sail straight through the paper. This is simply because the paper needs to bend to get around the 3/16” thickness of the cheek on each blade. The T slot at the Spine is a full ¼” so the cut curves to the side, toward the path of less resistance purely because the back end of the knife is so wedge shaped. That is neat physics in itself, but this should give an idea of how absolutely sharp this sculpture really is.

The wood elements: knife making has a long tradition of incorporating natural materials of all kinds, bone, horns, and wood to name just a few. I had always avoided bringing wood into my work (for too many reasons to list), however this was the next logical element to bring into an exploration of knife making. Now that I have, I find myself wondering why I waited so long. 

While these may first seem like they are inlays, the wood forms actually stand proud of the body of the sculpture. This is a small distinction I know, but I wanted them to have mass and presence like any other element in my work, and the wood grain makes each one unique in a way that metal parts never could 
(I know, Damascus! I am being dramatic).

For the wood itself, I selected Amboyna burl, it is a wonderfully figured wood and it is quite hard. Amboyna has excellent dimensional stability, which is important to a machinist who is accustomed to keeping tolerances. Most woods have a tendency to change size (and shape) depending on the temperature and humidity, something that would drive a person like me crazy, but I actually found it rather pleasing to work with and cut. 

Like most burl wood (or wood in general), Amboyna burls can contain small voids or gaps in the grain that can interrupt an otherwise smooth surface. I suspect a younger me would have hated this, but embracing natural materials also means inviting the wabi-sabi they embody into your work. Some knife makers will go to great pains to repair or fill small voids in the wood they choose for knife handles, I felt no need to do so, and have quite intentionally decided to leave them for this piece.

Turning wood instead of metal was something I hadn't researched very well, and that had its own special considerations. For starters, I had no clue what an appropriate feed rate and spindle speed for turning hardwood might be, especially from a cnc machining stand point. 

I reasoned that wood turners generally do their work by hand and just feel their way through it, so I presumed it would be much more forgiving than metal. So I guessed at a faster than usual spindle speed, and went with a slower than usual feed rate, and it all worked just fine. This time anyway. 

I still have quite a lot to learn about working with natural materials, but learning by doing is where all of my best ideas come from. It is anyones guess where this will take me next, but I am glad I get the chance to share this work and the rest of my journey with all of you.

As always, comments and questions are welcome.