The road taken

I picked up scars on the road to enlightenment. I wear gloves now. They were the gloves I use to pilfer japonica berries and forsythia on the roadside. I kept them in the driver-side door pocket, where they fit neatly with my spring-loaded pruners.

Now I use those same gloves to protect my aging hands from the sudden deep cut a chisel can make, eliciting a plump red blob of blood that quickly spreads to obscure the perfect crescent of open skin in the first joint of an index finger. That was my first scar on the road to you-know-what.

I treasure it. It still aches a little. The scar itself is not impressive. It would be hard for you to see. It happened so fast and with so little force that its depth surprised me. As I finished an early cut into a piece of black walnut that had tossed around the garage for over a decade, waiting for me to carve it, I lifted both hands from the vise with a sense of jubilation. My right hand held the new Stuba chisel #11; my left hand was floating freely after holding firm to the wood. The Stuba tilted slightly left, brushing the tip of my left index finger. You know the rest.

Before returning to the studio, I retrieved my gloves from the car. “Shouldn’t you be wearing gloves?” a friend had asked pre-scar. “Nobody else does,” I answered sheepishly. I was working in a studio at The Art Students League in Manhattan. I am barely even a student of art, let alone an artist. My studio-mates have all been at this a while. Selma started carving stone when she was 30. That was 55 years ago. “I’m old!” she declares triumphantly. But she turns solid stone into round bears and bats huddling in a cave together and fish that seem to swim in the air.

My mother would be Selma’s age now. It was the memory of her and her lost art that spurred me to join the League this winter. That, and the “mid-winter jicker” that threatened to sink my spirits with its cold and damp. My inspiration to carve wood started with the loss of a favored piece of sculpture she had made before I was born. I had always been curious about the process of transforming solid wood into flowing forms. And I missed that piece my mother had made.

I started by making a clay maquette of the shape I remembered by sight and by touch. When I showed my instructor the piece of black walnut I brought to class, he encouraged me to have at it by taking his own chisel to the flat varnished surface. “Enough,” I said, “Let me try. It looks like fun!” “It is,” he agreed delightedly, handing me the chisel.

Starting out, I knew I would not be able to recreate my mother’s sculpture. That was not the point. I knew I would find my own vision in the process of carving and I was curious what it would be. Mimicking her form would help me see into a part of her I never really knew.

What I found was that an artist’s work is all about process. It is deeply meditative. As I carved and chipped, the end result became less important to me. It was an exercise in introspection. Time evaporated. I stood at my work-table for hours chipping and shaping in deep communion with wood and steel. At home, I collapsed with fatigue, eager to return to the studio the next day to begin again. The road to enlightenment is long. Bring gloves.


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