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LRK Pisces sculptureAn engineer by training and trade, my father had a firm grasp on reality. He was practical and believed that problems had solutions. He had a fierce work ethic and great determination. At the same time, he was willing to entertain — on an intellectual level — all manner of thought. He was a voracious and eclectic reader and enjoyed pondering the mysteries of the universe.

Among the mysteries that intrigued him were symbols of all sorts. He studied them, sketched them and, eventually, carved them. He had little use for astrology, but its symbols were among those that interested him and when he was about 60 he began sculpting his way through the zodiac.

On my 22nd birthday, he gave me this Pisces sculpture. Balanced on a steel strap above a marble base, the piece stands about 21 inches high. The pair of sanded-to-a-gloss fishes — lemon and orange wood, according to his notes — leap from a teak sea.

Though years, and my father, have passed, and the wood has darkened slightly, the sculpture remains to remind me of his engineer’s precision, his wide-ranging mind…and his love.


mallets by LRKMy father was a fierce advocate of the tool-for-every-job philosophy. He also believed that owning tools was a partnership and that a tool would function well only if it was maintained properly. I can see him testing a knife or chisel blade against the pad of his thumb; a chisel that was not sharp was not worthy of the name.

An engineer by trade and nature, he also understood that things didn’t always work as intended. If the tool didn’t do the job, he would figure out a way to make it work.

Before repetitive motion injury had entered the vocabulary, tool handles were one of Les’s most persistent frustrations. A wood sculpture might require thousands of mallet hits against the chisel, hours of abrading with rasps and files and sandpaper blocks. If the tool didn’t fit the hand, the entire body paid the price.

So new or modified handles were one of his most consistent fixes. Sometimes it was just a matter of carving a smooth thumb-well into a chisel handle to keep the chisel from rotating; other times a new handle became a sculpture in itself. Or an entirely new tool.

Thumb testing the blade of this musing, I see that words are also tools. Practice, sharpen, adapt, invent. Repeat.
. . . . .
mallets by LRK, 1963

my father’s workshop…7

crochet hooks by jikAny child who spent time in my father’s workshop in the garage — and most of the neighborhood kids and cousins did — was given basic instruction in the use of hand tools. In my father’s world view, a person needed to know how to wield a hammer and saw, how to position an object in a vice and how to accomplish these things without injury.

The longer we spent in the shop, the more technical our lessons. In these, my father was severe about only two things: safety and cleanup. For the rest, we were encouraged to follow our whims as we worked on our birds and fire trucks and boats. He was watchful and didn’t interfere but was available for problem solving, and that often meant a short lesson in some new tool.

By the time I was 10, I was comfortable, if not skilled, with a chisel and mallet and had a half-dozen unfinished projects stashed in the box under the work bench. But I had no real passion for woodcarving and with adolescence my carving was forgotten.

More than 15 years went by before I picked up a chisel again. In that time I had immersed myself in the world of fiber, first weaving, then moving off-loom and eventually crocheting exclusively. My work and my materials got larger and commercial crochet hooks became pretty useless.

So I visited my father in his workshop and told him I wanted to make some larger hooks. He was more than simply happy to help. One of his persistent fears was that he would die and no one would care for his tools. He saw my return to the shop as both reassuring and hopeful.

He showed me dozens of pieces of wood — dowels and boards and branches — and I eventually chose two: a piece of hickory trim and a larger chunk of wood he had harvested from a roadside pile of lemon trees cleared for a housing development.

I wasn’t living at home, so the project took quite a few visits, but his lessons all came back to me. I sketched the outlines of the hooks onto the wood, first with pencil, then with crayon. Then I made careful saw cuts where the big chunks had to come out and used the chisel and mallet to shape the hooks. After that it was rasps and files and laboriously ascending grades of sandpaper until the two hooks achieved the silky gloss of real woodcarvings.

As it turned out, the smaller hook was a fine addition to my tool chest, but the large one, beautiful as it was to handle, could do little that I couldn’t accomplish more easily with my hands alone. Still, of all the things I did during my father’s life, I think this was the one that made him happiest.

. . . . .
crochet hooks by j.i. kleinberg
size K hook for comparison
A photograph of these hooks appears in the book Crochet (Little, Brown and Co.) by Mary Tibbals Ventre.

trying to write…

my father's work benchAgain I’m drawn back to the pictures of my father’s workshop… It was a place of the senses: always much to see; the tap tap tap of mallet hitting chisel and the background of classical music or radio drama (Fibber McGee and Molly, Suspense); the smell of wood, each cut releasing a sweet fragrance; the taste of licorice, of Juicy Fruit gum; the feel of the wood as he worked it: the scooped grooves of the chisel, the rasped wood’s bristled hide, the slow progress toward smooth as the sandpaper numbers rose, until finally the wood had no texture at all, glossed, warm, silken. It was a place of welcome, of refuge, of tidy safety and messy imagination.

As I look again at this photo, I notice how much work is underway. There are about 15 pieces of sculpture on the workbench, in various sizes and various degrees of completion. The Möbius piece (which I wrote about here) sits on the sandbag that was my father’s preferred sculpture support surface and is probably the piece he was working on at the time the photo was taken. But others sit nearby, where he would contemplate their form, sometimes drawing on the wood with a china marker or a carpenter’s pencil, often switching between them to work first on one, then another.

This morning, the photo shows me something about my father that I recognize in myself: this pleasure in multiple projects. This is the way I work best, advancing in small steps on several fronts, accelerating toward deadlines, juicing the process with visits to other work, other words.

My workbench, my desk, is arrayed with projects in various states of completion, these words sculpting themselves on the sandbag of my laptop. No licorice, no Juicy Fruit, but strong coffee and sugarless peppermint gum. No music or radio, just the busy sparrows and chickadees, gulls and crows outside.

The words burred drafts, unpolished. Snapshot.

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…