Green Building Archive

The Work of Art

Monday, April 5th, 2010

It has always seemed to me that the central activity of humankind is art, that our common job consists of fitting each and every one of our unique and individual selves into a whole life and landscape, into our communities, into our common stories. (Irish pun intended) features some essays about that work — the day-to-day making and fitting together of whatever parts and pieces that come to hand, to make beauty.

Like so much of industrial and post-industrial life, art suffers from fragmentation, isolation, separation between self and community. And artists have had little choice but to accept the terms they've been given — to "be an artist" you have to make it pay. So artists either have to work for wealth and power, or they have to work for advertisers, entertainers, and various purveyors of lies or inanity.

But real art — from washing the dishes to hoeing the beans — as well as the painting and drawing and sculpting —  requires celebration and sharing of common beauties. Success comes not in the form of money, or fame, or status, but in the continued life of all those various beauties that we no longer know, and that we can't, perhaps, understand: the beauty of life itself; the miracles of sun, moon, and earth; night and day; stars and seasons, and the utter uniqueness of our small blue and green planet. 

Such beauty only makes sense when shared. That, to me, is the primary and ultimate motive for art. Wealth, power, markets, or even ballots make lots of money, noise, and mayhem, but only art makes beauty. 

Essays will be posted in order, as formatting gets figured out and as time allows. It's a work-in-progress, so comments are welcome, here or there!


Tuesday, March 9th, 2010
Carving with Bill

As part of our yurt-building adventure with Bill Coperthwaite, we spent two days carving: one day for spoons, another for bowls. There's no more beautiful—nor useful shape than the full, swelling hollow of a well-designed and well-made spoon.

Bill’s Spoon

Note the lovely detail where handle meets bowl on the small serving spoon that Bill left with us—his contribution to spoon design.

For bowl carving, Bill invented this simple jig that sits on a bench to hold your bowl-blank, and greatly eases the job of hand-carving a bowl. He has also adapted the traditional Swedish pulling harness for the crooked knife, reducing it to a cord and a toggle handle with which to pull the knife.

Bowl Carving

Just before X-mas, a friend gave me a book on Shaker hand-craft: Hands to Work and Hearts to God. I saw this one-piece, wooden grain shovel, and wanted to make one just like it—except that we don't grow enough grain to warrant making—much less storing it.


On the next page was a dustpan. The two images clicked against each other, amidst chips and excitement from a couple of bowls and spoons I'd made in the aftermath of the yurt. So I decided to make this maple dustpan as an X-mas present for Hannah. A side-benefit was getting rid of the butt-ugly plastic pan we endured every time we swept. A neighbor provided a piece of green maple firewood, which had some lovely bird's-eyes in it. Now I wish I had copied the high, rounded, form of the Shaker shovel, but it's lovely and light, a pleasure to use, and durable.

Dustpan 1


Dustpan 2

I roughed it out with a chainsaw and this adze (from Kestrel tool on Lopez Island, in WA), and finished it with crooked knives, one from kestrel, the other from Pinewood forge in MN — there are interesting design differences between the two knives, but both are just wonderfully beautiful tools (both visible at left in the spoons photo that follows).


Knives and adze are the best hand tools I've got (except, maybe, for my favorite spoon and my Austrian scythe blades). The knives work better than any gouge, and require no mallet, no workbench. The adze is so sharp, light, and so accurate that a "roughed out" piece can be very close to finished.

Since then, I've been carving spoons, bowls, and sticks of various kinds, inspired not only by Bill, but also by aeons of sculpture by all my ancestors who lived by and for beauty, and for whom work was merely a way of participating in what was, and is, both universal and useful—divinely useless, and essential. Particular inspiration this winter came in the form of two books: Patterns that Connect, by Schuster and Carpenter, and Baule: African Art, Western Eyes, by Susan Vogel. The pattern book is just that: a thousand drawings of patterns and patterned objects all representing, according to the authors, a universal human story about who we are and were we come from. It makes far more sense than most "art" books I've ever read (it is also a summary of a previous work that runs to 7,000 illustrations in 12 volumes). Both titles provide abundant evidence of and inspiration for the obvious argument that "art" should not mean things for sale, but a way to live in creative harmony with a universe that spawns endless beauty.

Beauty as gift makes better sense than beauty as commodity, but also makes it hard to hold onto a spoon long enough to photograph it…

Here's a collection of works-in-progress.

Spoons 1


Spoons 2

and a poem written during my visit to Bill's home, Dickinson's Reach, in northern Maine.

Everything turns,

the sun rises.

I fill a wooden bowl with oats and fruit

And with a wooden spoon,

empty it again,

Every day.

Which master makes us

lay down spoon and bowl

for pen and sword?

Two-tier yurt with Bill Coperthwaite

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

Here's the lovely, two-tier yurt that Bill Coperthwaite helped us build last October. It's on the grounds of the Ancient Arts Center near Alsea, just a long leap over a couple of ridges, into the next drainage south of us (the Alsea River). We'll finish the woven willow and mud walls this May. If you want to come help, we'll be having two workshops, 1st and last weekends in May. (see for more info)


It took us ten days to get this far. Nearly all the cross cuts we did with hand saws (most were compound angles). The first time I met Bill, he was putting a new post under his own yurt, in Maine. I got to help, and while we cut various things, he said he was still learning how to use a saw, after nearly 70 years! With his help, I learned how to make a straight cut through a 4×4 (finally!) I had always assumed that with two lines, one vertical and the other horizontal, I ought to be get a straight cut. When I didn't, I assumed the fault was due to my lack of skill or some technical magic. Well, technical magic it was: you need a third line! Every cut since has been (almost) perfectly straight. Slow motion gets you there faster. Amazing, now, to notice how few people use all the teeth in the blade when they cut with a handsaw. If you only use the middle third of the blade, you can push and pull very fast, and feel like a machine, and make big mistakes quick. When you use all the teeth, you go slow, so the blade stays securely in the cut. Meanwhile, the saw rakes the wood with two or three times as many teeth, cuts much faster, and you can put your attention where it belongs, on the line you're cutting to…

Hanging Yurt

It shouldn't have been such a surprise to me that we built it from the top down, but I didn't think about it until after Bill asked for materials I'd planned to get later. We discussed raising the top tier onto it's support pole by hand, and some were surprised when Bill suggested a machine, since he's the "do-it-by-hand" guy. After he reminded us that he'd arrived by jet plane, we rented a telescoping forklift. We happened to have a rigger named Skelk on the crew, who arranged the ropes, and a neighbor, Russ, who had moved a lot of big, heavy things and had also just gotten a crane operator's license. As soon as the rest of us got out of the way, Russ and son set it down on the locust center pole just as pretty as you please. After the whole thing was up, Bill mused that "you could probably cut that post out completely, since the roof and cable are holding everything in place anyway…" As he also pointed out, however, "do you really want to see exactly how many rivets you can take out of the airplane?"

Zak Inside

Perhaps the most beautiful part of the building is the interior surface of the upper roof, which consists of two layers of 3/8" fir boards. We carefully tied the first layer of sticks into the requisite curve, making a series of lovely bows, which we secured top and middle by tying them to steel rings. We nailed them around the eave. The tension in the boards would have twisted the whole thing, so after we cut the strings, we screwed the second layer down to the first, which fixed it all firm. Each shingle was hand cut to fit. That was a lovely day's work for a team of about 4, with Bill leading from top center.

Inside Yurt

After the top was done, the rest happened pretty quick. Bill's gift is to organize a large crew (17, in our case) so that everyone always has something worthwhile to do, and so that all the pieces are cut to size and ready to go when needed—similar, I imagine, to the leader's role in an old-fashioned Amish barn-raising. He also knows the design well, and dreams in numbers—even when there were surprises, he spotted and fixed them quickly. He didn't relax until we were all done. The highpoints, for me, were postscripts: sitting around our table—me, Hannah, two boys, and Bill, shelling corn into a big bowl. Also a long ride in the car, during which Bill talked about Emily Dickinson and other authors who have kept him company over the years. And finally, the ride to the airport, and complex thinking about little things, details of life which escape our notice—unless they're absent—and then we lose the whole kingdom for want of a nail, or a shoe, or a spoon. If more of us spent more time and attention on making good nails and shoes and spoons, we'd have less want, less violence, less war. It's an easy message, but a demanding discipline.