figuring, figural, figure, disfigure

Its been a month of struggle so far, Frank and I were invited to make a proposal for a book, about construction and ornament which, as usual, I think too much about and somewhere inside feel relates to life in general. This is likely not the case, but as is true for all these blog entries, I’ll make a start, see where it goes and try to wrestle it to a conclusion before my few readers click away to something more interesting.

A book about construction and ornament is a curious thing in our time. Ornament has largely been abandoned by architecture since 1908 or so when Adolph Loos thought we needed a break from using it, because the ornament, that thing added to utility to make something more beautiful, had become applied and meaningless.

I thought about ornament and life today, looking at jewelry. Some jewelry is precious in its own right, some very ordinary in terms of its substances, but meaningful in an associative way.

I’d seen a necklace in Chicago this summer, one made of a simple loop of a woven fabric, and hanging from the loop was a sort of rectangular (not geometrically perfect) bit of bark from a Birch tree.

The piece struck me immediately. Maybe it was the bark itself, which I strongly associate with summers in Minnesota where we peeled Birchbark from the trees that fell the previous winter and stored the bark in the tinder box next to the stone fireplace. Mom and Dad would take us to the big city, Grand Rapids from time to time when a part was needed for the outboard, and all six of us would get to walk through the big northwoods souvenir store. A place filled with moccasins, boxes made from aromatic cedar, and all things birchbark.

I like the history of birchbark in Minnesota. Dad once took us to meet a fellow who made birchbark canoes on the banks of the Bigfork river. He was really old then, maybe in his 60’s, but he took time and explained the whole process to us, a process he had learned from the Chippewa Ojibwe Native American tribe. They’d drive stakes in the sand on a flat beach to outline the gunwales, and using split spruce roots, tie spruce and steamed cedar together to form the ribs of the canoe, then overlay the rib structure with large sheets of birchbark, lace them onto the ribs using spruce root, and paint over each joint with pine tar. There’s a great description of a Smithsonian recreation at this link

As he spoke, Mr. Hafeman would pick up a bit of root that he kept in a barrel of water, split it with a knife at the end, and pull the entire length in half. I remember the swampy smell of the barrel of roots (you just HAVE to poke your nose in things when you’re 12) and pull some cedar from under a tarp billowing steam to show us how to split (same knife) and form it, and the heated pine tar pot that at least one of us poked a finger in and smeared all over our “good” tee shirt.

He told us the birchbark was an essential part of the Ojibwe life, and that it was disappearing. For many years I thought he meant the birchbark, but now i realize he was speaking of a way of life, where raw things were refined by hand with the benefit of years of traditional knowledge passed on with story and demonstration, just as he had done that day for us. Birchbark had been transportation, shelter, food storage, and a way to preserve the sparse history of each family.

In the souvenir store I had thought the black gridlines on the toy canoes were just a pattern, an ornament, something optional. But that afternoon, Bill Hafeman taught us that those lines were a critical part of the process of making the canoe…without those pine pitch lines, the canoe would leak, and be useless, or worse, dangerous.

I’ve been back and forth to Weiss College at Rice University this past week. To observe and photograph the surfaces of the dormitory. Marcel was good enough to come along and teach me a bit more about digital photography, perspective correction, and exposures for deeply shaded spaces. Early in the week I’d scouted the complex with my point and shoot camera, seeing the curious treatment of mortar joints, the staggered window pattern, distinctive projection of the window head flashing beyond the windows and the exposure of certain supporting lintels.

Instinctively I believed there was something to all this. The surface was too carefully worked to just be a pragmatic solution. Certain things were changed, made more visible than usual. These were all necessary things to be sure. The lintels were needed to support the brick between columns and above windows, flashing needed to protect the lintels, control joints needed to prevent cracking and associated water intrusion…but until just now, I didn’t realize I was looking at the canoe. The raised prow at the front and back decorative but has a role in wave breaking, and gives the Northwoods canoe its distinctive figure. The canoe builder’s knowledge of surroundings, knowing where the large birch trees are, becomes visually apparent looking at the canoe. One with few pitch lines used large bark, one with many used the bark from small birch trees, and more joints means…more leaks down the road…

Somehow I’m trying to think of people in all this, because in many ways, we are the objects we make….or the things we make-make us…I think Churchill said that. “We form our spaces and thereafter they form us” or something. So what is our ornament? Is it just a necklace or a watch? Is it part of us or something we can take off or put on without it changing us? What other outward visually apparent signs of our knowledge (or lack of) do we carry?

I wonder about this because I’ve carried a mark of my carelessness around this week, prominently displayed on my nose!

Last Sunday I was working in my garage/shop/storage space and had stood some square edged (now I know why they “ease” or radius the edges) oak boards that I was going to make into sculpture bases. I was kneeling down, plugging the saw into my improvised electrical center and tugged a cord…that ran under some plywood…that had some pine leaned against it…that was next to the oak…that had the square edge.

Can you see the outcome? I tugged the cord, it shifted the plywood, but my focus was on the cord and on not getting my fingers across the terminals of the receptacle (hey i know THAT much about electricity!) i heard the pine shift but it was a ways away from me so I didn’t look but then (suddenly) i heard the oak next to me (a distinctive oaky sound) and looked up just in time to see the board inches from my face. I closed my eyes, turned my head, but still got smacked with the oak, its square edge neatly scraping most of the skin from the tip of my nose. I was unahppy with the oak, but holding my nose and after some first aid and a nap (don’t work with power tools when you’re tired or grumpy!) went back, cleaned up the fallen cascade of wood, and finished the project…but now a week later, the nose is healing but not pretty. So I mostly hide out here at home, sitting and typing about ornament, birchbark, and meaningful figures and patterns….

The moral of the story…he who has not arranged things neatly (in life) is likely to suffer injury at the hand of his improvisations.

or something

Take Care, be well, watch out for falling oak!

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