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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.


garage wallMy parents were both prolific in their art-making. In addition to pieces on display, closets were crowded with paintings and sculpture, and, in the basement, my father constructed special storage shelves that held hundreds more.

Dorothy was not averse to reworking a canvas, transforming an earlier image, perhaps preserving some aspect of it, perhaps not. She often worked on several paintings concurrently, one taking its place on the easel, others standing to the side. Arranged by size, unfinished paintings leaned lightly against one another, five or more deep, faces turned to the studio wall.

Sometimes, for reasons known only to her, Dorothy would give up on a painting, finding it toxic or irretrievable. Then she would take it out to the trash bin, stuffing it inside if possible, or leaning it against the can as it had leaned against the studio wall. My father, who built perhaps thousands of stretcher bars and frames for her, otherwise interfered little with Dorothy’s artmaking impulses. But occasionally, smack in the face of her objections, he would rescue one of these discards, pull it from the trash heap and hang it on the wall of the garage, where he could see it from his workshop.

This wall. Dorothy’s rejects. That’s a picture of me on the far left.
. . . . .
There’s a larger view of the painting on the upper right here.

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.

my father’s workshop…6

my father's workshop

I’ve written before about my father’s workshop and I thought that was the direction I was going this morning, examining this photo of the other wall of his shop, which delights me with its careful array of tools: rasps and pliers, levels and ratchets, saws and vice grips, rolling pin and toothbrush. There are some mystery objects as well — for example, what looks like a piece of wood with the words LONG SLOPE printed in my father’s neat caps. It was these strange, unidentifiable tools that brought the hanger to mind.

hanger by LRKMy father was always solving problems. His solutions were simple, sometimes elegant, cobbled together from the materials at hand to accomplish a repeated task. After he died, when it came time to disassemble his workshop, I found scores of these little tools — a dowel with a cup hook glued to one end, a bolt outfitted with a handgrip — that seemed the very essence of who he was — thoughtful, inventive, resourceful, engineer.

The hanger may not have been one of his best inventions, but before the marketplace was flooded with plastic, it was his solution to the dual needs of tidiness and suitcase weight reduction. It has always amused me, with its almost-symmetry, its slightly splintery holes. Not exactly light — for this, one might actually forego the pants hanger altogether — it is, perhaps, a draft. An idea tested, tried out on a trip to Greece or Italy, but never given the full attention, the careful sanding, the re-varnished wood, that would signal his satisfaction with a tool well made.

More than a tool, it’s a cartoon…hod carrier…homunculus…flightless bird…and it reminds me that behind his serious, scholarly demeanor, my father was a person of tremendous warmth, love and humor.

trying to write…and remember…

wordsYesterday I opened a three-ring binder that was on the shelf next to my desk. It was filled with information about writing workshops, all dated from 2003. Neatly snapped into the notebook was a small envelope with this apparently random collection of words. At first, they meant nothing, my mind a blank. Then, using 2003 as a clue, I began to piece together a jigsaw memory.

My mother had recently died. I was hobbling on a badly arthritic hip. My writing business had been perking along for a while, but the ‘other side’ of my writing life consisted primarily of a bulging shelf of gloomy journals. A workshop seemed just the thing.

So I spent a long weekend at a writing retreat in Northern California. I remember being a little scared, not knowing what was expected of me, assuming, as always, that the other participants were more accomplished, more confident and more capable. I remember the peculiarity of the place — modest bungalows set alongside a collection of rescued exotic cats and equally exotic birds in huge cages.

Looking back into my journal, I see that our first assignment was to write a piece that included the phrases My real name is; Yesterday my name was; Tomorrow my name will be; In my dream my name is or was. I don’t recall whether the phrases were assigned all at once or doled out one at a time as we wrote. We were also to incorporate words we drew from somewhere — a list, an envelope, a hat. Here’s what I wrote:

My real name is doubt beneath strength. Wrapped in a thin skin of milk my days reveal my unnamed soul. Slipping beneath a barrage of words I hide who I am. I hide from myself and pretend to understand the tundra. Yesterday my name was bound in ropes, hidden in the Paleolithic Diaspora of dreaming, doubled over in interlocking chains of queries and bent, ironic question marks. Tomorrow my name will be carried on the wind through the cobbled streets of Budapest. It will be inscribed on the tusk of an ancient mastodon, livid with hope, illuminated with randomness. In my dream, my name is color, frothing along the tear-streaked tracks of secret roads slippery with desire, opulent with sinuous form, luminous with pearly light, an unfolding fan of dénouement.

I don’t know whether the words in the binder (except for tusk) are words I never got around to using, or how I happened to keep them. But once I’d pieced together the memory, everything else went into the recycling bin.

The geography of candy…

LicoriceYesterday I walked into a huge candy store — a child’s fantasy place, with every possible shape and style of confection, vintage and new. Being there reminded me how much my father loved licorice. He favored the not-too-hard, almost oily, shiny black ridged bites or ropes, the kind that would turn your tongue black but wouldn’t pull out your dentures.

My mother could not stand the smell of licorice and would not allow it in the house, not even for my father. But in his workshop she held no sway, so he always kept a small white paper bag of the stuff on a certain shelf next to the big binder that held sheets of sandpaper. Now and then, the rumpled, smudged bag would be replaced with a crisp, new, full one.

In the shop, while he carved or sanded or sketched or guided neighborhood kids in the use of tools, he would pack a chunk of licorice into his cheek like chaw. And of course he shared — with the kids, and with me. And before we’d go back into the house, into my mother’s presence, we’d linger in our shared secret until the telltale scent of licorice had faded from our breath.

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…2

be careful signPresiding over the workshop was an enameled metal sign that warned, BE CAREFUL. The warning was passed along in my father’s instruction, which emphasized the importance of anchoring your project in a vice and, especially, where — and where not — to put your hands. Though his own hands regularly bore signs of splinters and abrasions, I think he truly enjoyed the company of his young visitors and didn’t want them getting hurt. Beyond that, he wanted them to succeed, to love the process as much as the product.

He insisted that each child replace tools and clean up the work area, but beyond his modest rules and warnings, the kids were free to explore their own imagination. He would provide the materials and tools and help with the engineering if asked, but it was up to the kids to say what they wanted to make. Airplanes and boats were particularly popular, dogs and fish close behind.

After my father died we had, as he requested, an informal gathering at the house. Among the throngs of people that showed up that day, numerous men and women introduced themselves to me with names I had seen crayoned on scraps of wood in the shop, years and years before. My father would have been pleased to know that his young charges remembered him warmly, that his lessons weren’t too harsh and his cautions well attended…

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…