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Tag Archives: wood

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the patience of wood…

my father's workshop ~ the wood shelvesSpanish missionaries were the first to plant native Brazilian orange trees in Southern California; by the time of the gold rush the broad sprawl of the San Fernando Valley was quilted with groves of orange, lemon and grapefruit trees. But in the post-war boom of the 1950s, the groves were mowed down, the lots cleared and the trees gave way to houses. It took decades to get rid of all those trees, evidence of their presence remaining as backyard citrus…and my father’s woodcarvings.

Citrus trees are not huge, not suitable for lumber, but the wood is hard and golden, with tight, smooth grain that rarely splinters. Occasionally, on weekends, my father would drive over the Sepulveda pass into the Valley and cruise around looking for downed trees left at the roadside. He’d return home with a trunkload of wood — straight or curved or branched — and begin the long tending that might eventually yield a sculpture.

He removed the bark, checking for pests, painted the cut ends, and marked each piece with the date and place he’d found it. Then he stacked the wood in a special open bin in the cool, unfinished basement of our house and there it would stay. For at least seven years.

He would visit the wood there, examine it, perhaps turn it to see if a future sculpture had begun to suggest itself. Sometimes he’d sketch a few lines on the wood with a black china marker. But mostly he’d leave it alone to dry undisturbed.

After that long wait, a piece of wood might find its way into his workshop in the garage — sometimes directly onto the workbench, but more often onto another set of shelves, where it became a more active participant in what he described as waiting to see what the wood had to say.

Even once he’d begun to carve the wood, there was nothing hasty about the process, each tap of the mallet against the chisel a commitment of intention that could not be undone. Each stroke of the rasp, each with-the-grain caress of the sandpaper another word in my father’s long conversation with a piece of wood.

toy season…

toys by LRKIn addition to his woodcarving, my father made toys. From a furniture manufacturer and the local hardwood lumber yard (if you live in a big enough city, there is a hardwood lumber yard!) he would collect scraps of wood and bring them to his shop, a car-trunkful at a time.

With a minimum of fuss — a drilled eye, a slice of smile, a quick bit of sanding to knock off the splinters — the scraps turned into beings. These, at the rate of a thousand or more a year (mostly around the holidays), he would pile into cartons and deliver to children’s wards in hospitals all over Los Angeles.

He also gave them away to friends and family, often “discovering” that he had one or two tucked into a jacket pocket. At the front door, on Halloween, instead of candy, he let the princesses and goblins choose a toy of their own from a big bowl.

After he was gone, when there would be no more toys, years later, and in another city, I filled a big basket with most of those remaining and gave them away one Halloween. It was surprising to watch the reactions, and poignant to feel myself costumed in his persona. I’ve never really wanted to celebrate Halloween since.

stone not stone…

wood stone by LRKThe piece of wood is rounded smooth as a river stone. Set to spin, it wobbles, but what it does best is stillness.

Soothing, familiar, faintly scarred with tiny cracks and something red — a streak of ink or paint — warm and light, glossy, wrapped in its tight spill of rings, it is made for the hand and I do not resist its invitation.
wood stone by LRK

my father’s workshop…5

small sculpture ~ LRK93A woodcarving was not finished until its surface was silken and flawlessly smooth, achieved with hours of sanding, first with rasps and files, then with ever-finer grades of sandpaper. As a sculpture approached completion, my father would brush off the dust and test the finish again and again with his hand and then with a soft, white cloth, his senses attuned to the faintest suggestion of a snag. When he was satisfied, he would inscribe the piece with his blended initials — LRK — and the year, and, ever the engineer, record its completion in his sketchbook.

My father loved the glossy perfection of the wood and he encouraged touching. He relished the expressions of amazement and delight as someone’s hand discovered the smoothed contours, round and inviting as flesh. Once awakened to this wonder, the visitor’s hand might stray toward one of my mother’s paintings or constructions, but Dorothy hovered nearby and was quick to bark, “Don’t touch!”

It was a nice snapshot of who they were: my father generous, embracing and warm, my mother ever fearful of the wounding touch.

my father’s workshop…4

LRK's sculpture shelves

My father refused to sell his sculpture. “I already have a career,” he would say, shaking his head. But he gifted his carvings to relatives and friends in celebration of births and birthdays, graduations and housewarmings, anniversaries and affection. He had a sort of sculpture library, complete with a check-out list, putting pieces on long-term loan, trading them for different pieces and, often, after a time, turning the loan into a gift.

From the first chunk of wood whittled with a pocket knife when he was in the Army, carving became my father’s after-work, weekend, retirement hobby and he was enormously productive. Even with all of his gifting, and the revolving exhibit inside the house, the shelves in the basement were crowded with sculpture.

my father’s workshop…3

LRK chain sculpture 1969 ~ 1 and 2

Most evenings after dinner, and for a large part of each weekend, my father could be found in his workshop in the garage, carving. Stacked in the basement and on a long, deep shelf in the garage were pieces of trees – orange, lemon, grapefruit, walnut, olive. Bark removed, sorted by size and identified by species and date, the logs lay untouched for seven or more years, drying slowly as he monitored them for pests and checking.

Eventually, his workbench cleared of another project, he would pull a piece of wood from the stack and consider it for long hours, turning it this way and that, standing it on end, sometimes sketching a form on paper, or on the wood itself. Looking for the sculpture within the wood, he slowly began to release it.

He took great pleasure in the labor, in the tree’s lingering personality, in the slow reveal of contour and grain…

LRK chain sculpture 1969 ~ 3 and 4

LRK sculpture #132 ~ orange wood ~ 1969 ~ collection of Jon & Chet Lappen

my father’s workshop…

my father's workshopAn engineer by trade and temperament and a woodcarver by hobby, my father believed that there was a tool for every job. If it didn’t exist, he would invent it; if it existed, he would improve it. His workshop was triangular — a wedge of space in the garage where he retreated almost every evening after dinner and passed long hours on the weekends.

His primary workbench stretched along most of the short side of the triangle below a wall of exquisitely-sharp tools; one of the two long sides had a second workbench and more tools, plus shelves stacked with the neatly categorized miscellany of his imagination: scraps of wood, metal, rubber, leather and string; images cut from magazines; sketchbooks; vast stores of sandpaper; unfinished carvings; and a small box of licorice that my mother wouldn’t allow in the house. The third side of the triangle was open to the garage, the car nearest his workbench coated with sawdust and freckled with curls of wood that sprang away from his chisel.

A large box beneath the workbench was filled with the unfinished projects of the young neighbors, friends and cousins who visited his shop; on each one, a name was scrawled in crayon. An open garage door signaled Welcome! and the kids would descend the steep driveway for a lesson in hammering or sanding or carving. My father was friends with neighborhood kids I had never seen, a pied piper of woodcraft, a lover of tools and a believer that, with patience and practice, everyone could master life’s simple skills…


my father's workshop

The rhythmic pounding of chisel against wood reverberated up through the floor from the garage where my father had his workshop. He’d retreat there most evenings after dinner for an hour or two and spend long weekends there among the finely-honed chisels and the temporary company of the neighborhood children. Each of the children had a piece of wood, a lesson in carving or sawing or nailing, a talk about safety, and the freedom to come and go. He was the pied piper of wood.

Tap tap tap tap—wooden mallet on wooden-handled metal chisel, gouging deep blonde curls of lemon or orange or grapefruit wood from a piece of a tree he had scavenged and nurtured and observed, sometimes for years, as it aged to a perfection of ripeness for carving.

Above the drumbeat of his work the radio blared symphonies or mystery stories. Fragrant curls of wood gathered around him on the work bench, on the floor, in the pockets of his shop apron, in his hair.

The tapping anchored the house—our little boat was not adrift if we could hear him tapping.