I'm calling this piece "The Tree of Life." Looked at from certain angles, it evokes individual dancers entwined in one mass. The elements are moving toward one another and writhing to escape.
Maya Angelou once said that nothing that man makes can be alien to man. She was talking about our fear of things considered unnatural, all the Others we push away and to the edge of society or accept only with grudging skepticism. Technology is one of our reigning Boogeymen, even as we become more and more dependent. I ricochet between wanting to keep the beeping and the screen time spent hunched over one metallic device or another to the fewest possible hours, and feeling as if cell phones, tablets, computers—the entire electronic maelstrom—may be the way that so many of us will realize ideas and dreams to an extent we can't even imagine right now, and never would have otherwise. Wearable computers and nanobots and athletic tracking devices are already piggybacking outside and inside our bodies; myoelectric prosthese
How Was It Made?
Each of these seed pods takes about an hour to make. The thousands of ceramic capacitors and radial varistors I use need to have the long, insecty metal "legs" clipped off. Different sized putty balls are formed. And then I press the computer parts into the balls. After the finished seed pods dry, I fasten them to the wood with glue and nails. I did a quick count and I've used about 200 seed pods for just this piece. Which means 200 hours, not counting the time to attach the pods or to first track down the wood. Oh, and freezer time: 3 days. It's amazing how something takes on a life of its own.
I've added two large grape-vine trunks and several small branches to the tree sculpture I'm working on, the last in this series. This feels like the right fullness to me. Frankly, I'm glad I have any kind of tree at all.
About a month ago, I discovered borer beetles were feasting on the wood: the tiny holes in the wood and the piles of sawdust I woke up to each morning were the tip-off (see previous post). Every day, more holes and more sawdust. At the rate the beetles seemed to be indulging, my sculpture would soon be a useless sieve.
This series of artworks is about integrating nature, spirit, and technology, elements that we often assume don't cohabitate all that well. Technology, in my mind, was the material I was subduing: after all, aren't cell phones and computers and our increasingly mechanized world significant contributors to the anxiety so many people are feeling nowadays, and adding to our growing disconnection from each other? For the moment, though, it wasn't the computer parts—mostly ceramic clay varistors and capacitors—that were giving me problems, it was these beautiful pieces of organic wood and the pests they were hosting.
To keep the beetles from spreading, I sealed the wood in multiple layers of plastic using heavy packing tape. Orkin Exterminators makes house calls, so an inspector, Earl, came out to take a look. He liked what I'd done with the plastic. I poked a hole in it and Earl shook his head. For $1,800, he said, he could gas the buggers, which seemed out of the question to me. Then he shared an exterminator's secret: I could either put the wood in the oven for several hours, or in a freezer for two or three days. The idea of cooking the wood made me squeamish; plus, my oven was too small. The freezer above my refrigerator also wouldn't accommodate the biggest pieces of wood. But surely someone had a freezer that would work?
I put on a jacket and went outside. I talked to the man who owns the pizza parlor a block north of my apartment. He is a huge fan of art, and someone who has always seemed game to me. When I explained my problem, he laughed and said, "Sounds like you're hiding drugs." I assured him I wasn't, but he said he still couldn't help since all he had was an oversized refrigerator. I walked a half-block north, to the ice cream shop. There's always a crowd out front, and that day was no different. I stared at the shop's pristine white walls and immaculate tiled floor and the counter help all dressed in white shirts. I didn't even bother to go in. But across from the ice cream shop is a corner grocery where I've been shopping for 18 years. I've only known the current owner for five of those years, but maybe that would count for something. The owner told me he did have a room-sized walk-in freezer, accessible from outside. But he was concerned that a 20-pound block of ice might fall on the wood and then he'd be liable. I assured him that what I had was merely a work in progress all safely sealed in thick plastic—Orkin approved—basically junk wood worthless in its present form, so he agreed to let me store it in his freezer for three days.
After I got the wood back home, I unwrapped it and for days I circled the piece, watching and waiting. I'd read recently that a slab of ancient moss had suddenly begun growing again, and I wondered if the borer beetles could do something similar. I kept my vigil up for a week, but I saw and heard nothing. (When the beetles are eating, there is a distinct and constant clicking or rattling sound that they make. Some entomologist decided the sound was similar to the one humans often make when we're gasping for breath at the end of life, and so the beetles were nicknamed the deathwatch beetle.) This weekend, satisfied that the beetles were gone, I attached the extra pieces of wood to the base tree with dowels and glue. I stood back. I'd subdued something, which is what culture is, after all. And art grows out of culture. Then why wasn't I entirely pleased?
Step Three: Coming soon...
It's exciting and a bit anxiety inducing to start a new piece of art. The goal is always to push beyond the parameters of the last piece, but not to fall off the edge.
My goal in this series has been to create works that harmonize elements that we don't typically think of as fitting easily or comfortably together: natural/organic elements, spiritual or cosmic aspects + technology. What I've accomplished so far is up in the portfolio section of my website (www.daleeastman.com).
With this piece, I wanted to push myself to create something larger than the previous pieces. Could I suggest the vastness and beauty of a forest (nature) as well as its wildness and mystery (spirit) and still incorporate technological elements? When completed, I want a viewer to be able to look at this piece and initially see harmony/unity, and only later realize that the different parts exist in precarious symbiosis.
Step 1: Using several branches of grape vine wood, dowling plugs and industrial strength glue, I've begun to build a stand of trees. I had to fit them together like a vertical puzzle, while also making sure they were balanced in a way that they won't tip over once I affix the canopy. The wood came from a garden center out near the coast. Without a car, I had to schlep out and back by train, carrying the wood in my arms, a juggling act that left me scraped up and pretty dirty. Several times I was asked, "What's that?" After my explanation, I got similar replies: "Wow, cool," or "Gosh, how interesting." The individual pieces of wood look a bit like misshapen swords, an implement that's mysterious or magical looking and maybe even a little dangerous in the wrong hands. At least half a dozen people stopped and asked me about the wood. They were all either young boys or women my own age.
Step 2: Next up....
One of Kako Ueda's intricate paper cuts is up at the Museum of Craft and Design in SF. Ueda is fascinated by the constantly shifting boundaries between nature and culture, as well as the way those two states influence/support each other, and her work can often look as if it's one careless X-acto knife slice away from collapsing back into the void. The 50" X 50" piece in this show, Memento Mori, looms over the exhibition's entrance. This might have been a misstep on the curator's part. The piece is so intensely detailed, it works like a narcotic pulling you deeper and deeper in. Even studying it for 15 minutes didn't seem like enough time to me. By then, though, I was in other people's way and a little exhausted so I moved on. The rest of the show, "Obsessive Reductive" (up through March 30), is wonderful. Sadly, I gave the remaining artists' work shorter shrift. But maybe, I reasoned, this was the only piece I needed to see closely. What's that saying: an entire world in a grain of sand.
At some level, everything feels connected to me. This blog is about discovering those linkages as well as other artists and writers working and thinking in similar ways.