Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Artist in Residence at Grailville

My goal when I went to Grailville was to see if I could make my living as an environmental artist. They didn't pay me but gave me a cheap/then free place to live and allowed me to carve anything I wanted. They have 380 acres of rural land on the northeast outskirts of Cincinnati and the property is wooded with creeks, but mostly had fields where cows grazed. I wasn't really sure what path I would take but decided to start by hiking the property thoroughly, photographing it and seeing where that led me. My first attempt was to carve earthspirit faces into dead trees, logs, and fenceposts along their southern hiking trail. I visualized people walking along and being surprised at seeing a face in the wood. That was in the early spring. By the time summer came along almost all of the earthspirits were invisible, hidden by the dense greenery.

I was a bit discouraged and before I went to bed one night I asked my subconscious/ guardian angel/god to help me find an answer. I wanted to create portable, yet stand alone earthspirits that I could move close to the trails if I wanted. That night there was a storm with a lot of wind. The next morning I looked out my studio window to see that my neighbor's tree had been blown into my yard. I went outside to investigate and saw that the tree had been long dead and all the thick greenery on it was from a flourishing ivy plant that had strangled it to death. The more I looked at it though, I realized that if I cut it up just right I could get several interesting looking figures out of it. I grabbed my chainsaw and set to work. I turned the base of the log upside down on its "legs" and carved a half woman/half tree. She became a Greek Dryad, a tree nymph born full grown from an ancient oak. Okay, the tree wasn't oak, but hey. Wherever there were branches enough to have some kind of trunk and legs I cut. The sticks I kept and eventually made into running deer which we hope to turn into topiaries. We planted local flowering ivy type plants underneath them and if they don't fall down first they might end up interesting looking. Later I put them up at the head of the driveway to look as if they were running away from something. I found a hovering looking branch creature in the woods and dragged it out(with the help of Kim and John) to chase the deer. In the photo, behind the creature is the house of Joy where, for severalo months, I lived in the tower.

I found this earthspirit while hiking behind the house I lived in for my first year at Grailville. The woods in back of my place was on a steep, but hikeable, slope and I found her trapping two young trees in a deadly embrace where she had fallen. The chain around the branch was obviously very old and the tree was very dead, its rootball pulled out of the ground. It turned out that it was exactly 180 feet from my house, I know because that is how many extension cords I had to use to reach it to cut it away, release the two trees and allow me (and a nice guy) to drag her down the hill to my studio.

Occassionally the ground maintenance people would cut down a dead tree and I had first dibs on the logs. If I marked them they would cut them to my needs. That's how I acquired the carcasses of a pine and a catalpa tree. With the pine I carved the stump into a young girl with an attitude, a little angel and a sitting dog. The pine had a black mold that discolored the little girl's face and bothered me but she otherwise turned out like the photo I used as a model. The picture of this sculpture shows her next to a wheelbarrow full of every piece of wood I cut off her. A friend bought the dog. Three times when I've become worried about money what I did was carve a dog with character (tilted head, understanding eyes, etc.), strap it into the passenger seat of my truck with the seatbelt, and drive around with it as my sidekick, running errands. Each time within a couple of weeks someone bought them. Artists have to use many tricks to survive.

My favorite tree that they cut down was the catalpa tree. From that I carved several sculptures. The trunk, which turned out to be hollow, I carved into a mother and schoolgirl with a little dog and it stands on Grailville property across the street next to the driveway of an elementary school. The tree died when the school put their new driveway too close to it and disturbed the roots. Because the retreat center was in Loveland, Ohio I decided to carve a series of pieces representing love and that is how my three pieces called "The Kiss" came into being. The first was a mother kissing a baby, 9 feet tall; the second was a dog licking a little girl, about 3 feet talk; and the third was a mother, stooping and holding her daughter and leaning to kiss her, also three feet tall. I also carved a little dog for a friend and a young girl who sits on a bench in a friend's garden. With the last piece of catalpa wood I had I carved a Quan Yin for the Zen Center in Sebastopol, Ca.

While hiking in the woods I found lots of fossils and a wonderful earthmother tree. When I asked everyone if they had ever noticed her, no one had. Since she was so hard to find and so amazing to see I cleared a path through the woods to her and tied up strips from a white cotton sheet with words like "love", "heal", "be happy", etc. written on them. I lined the path with them and tied them to the rusted barbed wire shooting out of her abdomen. Hollow, looking like a giant female torso, with walking legs and a perfect shrine area at the base, only her "arms" lived. I cut off barbed wire digging into one of her living arms. Although she would probably have grown around it and lived on I didn't want to take a chance.

I collected stone slabs from the creeks that were filled with fossils. I went by myself or with my friends Carol Vogt or Carre Gibbons. Then Carol would drill holes through them and make oils lamps that were beautiful. She donated them to the gift shop at Grailville and they sold many of them. I forgot to photograph any of them.

Over the years I've been collecting weird wood specimens, including lots of hollow logs. I turned a number of them into flower pots when my friend Carol gave me lots of flats of flowers and I had to do something with them. I also ate lots of homemade pesto made with all the basil plants she gave me. I never knew when she was going to drop over and leave me vast amounts of produce from her garden.

I also survived by teaching workshops at Grailville and at an afterschool program called SPICYAM in Shawnee, Ohio where they hired me to teach two workshops, bookmaking (carving the covers and binding them, not horse racing) and woodcarving to the kids during the summer.

I was at Grailville for almost a year when I finally landed my dream job and achieved my goal to get a carving job as a recognized environmental artist. I got a chance to recycle three large trees that had been blown down in a windstorm for a children's park in the Hamilton County Park District in Cincinnati. It was beginning to seem to me that in Cincinnati, opportunities came my way with windstorms. Continue scrolling down to see photos of the great Discovery Garden Tree Recycling Project.


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