Refining the Crude…(No, I’m not going into the oil business.)
Updated: May 18
One of the most challenging aspects of my art education has been to get to the right textures. As one who started out as a woodworker, I had a tendency toward highly refined surfaces.
Sweet curves and fine joinery were a part of the craft, and craftsmanship was at the heart of the fine woodworking movement of the 1970’s. I was inspired by the works of Sam Maloof, Judy Kensley McKie, Victor DiNovi, and others, who made beautiful forms from beautiful
hardwoods. I still like clean sculptural forms in wood. They have a comforting and compelling
feel about them that makes one want to sit a bit, and feel the perfection of the form. But over time, and for me, not very much time, I found myself wanting textures that are better suited to metal, and compositions that are not at all suited for furniture.
If I was going to spend six weeks, or six months making a thing, I did not want every surface and every proportion predefined as to a function: Thou shalt do this! A chair seat shall be smooth, and lie between 16 and 18 inches from the floor! A chair leg shall be durable, and
situated such that it is stable under the weights of various sitters, sitting in various ways. A chair back shall fit the average body comfortably. A chair shall be made of a tough and beautiful wood, and shall be crafted and finished to perfection.
My first forays into sculpture, as I departed from functional forms, were made of wood, and
were as refined and cleanly crafted as would be appropriate for a piece of furniture. Even my
early bronze works had that mark of tidy craftsmanship that is familiar to any fine woodworker. But as my work, and particularly my understanding of the potential of wax progressed, so did my textures. Soon I was making a satisfying mess of most every surface, and that mess has become one of the most complex, difficult, (and satisfying) aspects of my work. Getting the right texture for the intended look is a constant challenge, both in terms of finding that texture I’m looking for, and in terms of making that texture a reality in metal. Complex textures that might seem to the viewer to be a nonchalant smear or splatter, or an otherwise messy relic of a distracted method, or shoddy materials, are, in the end, just plain harder to make. Where a smooth and sensual depression might adequately form the small of the back in a human form, I might more likely complicate the depth of such a depression with deep gouges, and tool marks that take much of the reflected light away from the hollow. And by doing so, I’ve added a bit of rhythm, depth, or character to an otherwise simple depression. Complex textures multiply dimension. They can alter or swallow reflected light, as desired, while accentuating color fields and depth. They give the eye something more to discover, and rest upon, as one studies a form. And, while textures are often easy to do in wax, they add a whole lot of extra work in the finishing stages of the bronze casting process.
Textures trap air bubbles in the ceramic slurry that the wax must be dipped into in order to make a lost wax casting, and each of these air bubbles become a tiny bead on the surface of the casting. Enter, dental burs! Lots of tiny little beads to remove from the details of texturally complex areas of the casting. To me, these “nerds”, as foundry people often call them, are just a part of life in the process of getting the finish I want. But textures are a real time expense in the making of a finished piece that just isn’t there in a smooth surface where the default nature of certain power tools skews heavily toward the making of a refined car-body-like surface.
A friend of mine paid me a compliment that helped affirm my feelings about texture, when
he said, “I like that your pieces get more interesting as I get closer to them. Unlike with most bronze work, I’m never let down when I get in there and really look.”
On the other hand, not everyone appreciates my complex textures. On one occasion, when I found myself in need of help with my air compressor switch, our local electrician (and part time buffalo rancher) walked into my shop. He spied a casting of a buffalo I was just then finishing up on. He looked at it, and he looked some more, and then finally he said, “Is there any way to fix that with a welder, or do you have to just throw it away and start all over?”
I like that the work it takes to make these complex textures is appreciated by some, while I also realize that it can come across as crudeness to others. For me, crude has been one of the most difficult of art concepts to refine. Constructing a history, or the evidence of the making of a thing into that final product is a type of refinement that the perfect surface of an auto body, or a $2.00 plastic comb just doesn’t share. I appreciate a perfect surface, and I have to be capable of doing that where it is the right surface, but I’m not really engaged by it as I am by rich and complicated textures.