Whittling at SDSU

I had a great visit to San Diego State University last weekend. I got to spend time with Matt Hebert who did his MFA at CCA through the Furniture Program a ways back and is now an Assistant Professor at SDSU where he works with the incredible Prof. Wendy Maruyama – who used to teach at CCA!

I also got to spend time with some of the graduate and undergrad students there. We got some serious whittling done together and Matt and I worked on a series of digitally manifested versions of one of my aWay station whittlings. Manual and automated whittling and various translations thereof.

Matt sent me this sweet little video that he compiled capturing some of our activities.

Post-Headlands post – The Headlands Worriers

“He’s whittlin’ on a piece of wood.

I’ve gotta feeling, when he stops whittlin’,

Something’s gonna happen!”

Cheyenne – Once Upon a Time in the West – Sergio Leone 

The Headlands Worriers jammin’

A great group of people came out and spent time with me in the aWay station in August. Friends, colleagues, fellow artists in residence, headlands staff and interns. People from Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Canada, England and all over the US.  

A total of  50 whittlings were made by more than 40 people (and three dogs!). Some spent 2-3 hours in the aWay station, some spent days!

I’ve am building an archive of all the whittles on the aWay station page which you can get to by clicking the link at the top of the page or from any aWay station post by clicking on the first mention of the aWay station.

If your piece is incorrectly cited please let me know. All the pieces are now en-route back to their creators – dispersed across the globe.

Thank you everyone!!

Whittling: The Last Class by John Stone

What has been written
about whittling
is not true

most of it

It is the discovery
that keeps
the fingers moving

not idleness

but the knife looking for
the right plane
that will let the secret out

Whittling is no pastime

he says
who has been whittling
in spare minutes at the wood

of his life for forty years

Three rules he thinks
have helped
Make small cuts

In this way

you may be able to stop before
what was to be an arm
has to be something else

Always whittle away from yourself

and toward something.
For God’s sake
and your own
know when to stop

Whittling is the best example
I know of what most
may happen when

least expected

bad or good
Hurry before
angina comes like a pair of pliers

over your left shoulder

There is plenty of wood
for everyone
and you

Go ahead now

May you find
in the waiting wood
rough unspoken

what is true

nearly true

true enough.

“Whittling: The Last Class” by John Stone, from Music from Apartment 8. © Louisiana State University Press, 2004.

Thanks to both Lawrence and Emma-Louise for forwarding this on to me.

Day 30 – Artifact and Translation

There are two terms which have become pathways to think about my work that have become very important to me here. I’m now starting to think about how they can be applied to other works – both scientific and artistic.

They are Artifact and Translation. You can look them up in the OED, if you still own one!

But to my mind their definitions can be paraphrased as –


In the archaeological sense, an object or device created in connection with a culture, or in fact any cultural element – both the television set and ‘I Love Lucy’ are artifacts of mid-20thC American culture.

In the scientific sense, a (mostly unexpected and/or undesirable) attribute or effect of using a particular process.

I made a comment in a previous blog that an artifact and a ‘mark’ are very similar – artists cherish the unexpected or particular attributes of a process and in some disciplines it is called or defined as a ‘mark’.

In the aWay station, the first example of artifact/mark was the mark made from the knife while whittling. At first its a simple consequence of knife against wood, then it starts to flow along the form of the whittling, and soon it becomes the finishing detail that defines the tactile quality of the finished object. Another artifact that is at the heart of the Rodeo Project is the characteristic curlycue of ‘live trace’ – a tool or artifact of Adobe Illustrator. I  used and abused this tool to make the images in the Rodeo project and its the source of the fractal landscape/camouflage effect in the detail of these prints.

Whittling facets – knife artifacts

Rodeo charlie – riddled with live trace artifacts


All of the works I’ve made in the aWay station (and some earlier works in the Genius loci series) have gone through some form of digital translation, where object, images or sounds from the real world are abstracted into the virtual/digital world and then outputted again to the physical with a scale, medium and/or dimensional translation. I’ve been wondering what gets lost and what gets gained in these translations. Any new material or process of rendering the translation carries its own artifacts and associations. These need to be ‘mastered’, tweaked and left feral to express their inherent qualities.

I’m still looking for the material qualities I would like to see in the translations for my whittlings.

During my recent public talk at the aWay station, in defining ‘artifact’, I talked about the birth of radio astronomy in the work of Karl Jansky in the 1930’s. While Jansky was working with Bell Telephone Labs he tried to work out the source of the strange noise found in all short wave, trans-Atlantic radio transmissions. He thought it was an ‘artifact’, an incidental unwanted signal arising from the equipment used, but no matter how much he twiddled and fiddled it wouldn’t go away. It wasn’t until he traced the source to the sky, noted the cycle of its activity and consulted astrophysicists, that he realized the artifact was in fact an artifact of the galaxy – the radio frequency electromagnetic radiation emanating from the dense center of the Milky Way.

The moral?  Sometimes the most important information is buried in the smallest scale artifacts.

Day 29 – The digital stereopticon

The digital stereopticon has reached its first level of completion.

I’ve already used it in the field to capture stereo movies using a pair of matching pearl handled Nikon D90 cameras.

Now the viewing aspect is complete – apart from whittling a few details. And I can take it for a good test run to see what else needs to be tweaked or added next.

My fellow Headlands AIR (artist in residence) Sean McFarland sent me a great image from 1922 of Captn. John Noel setting up his Kinematograph on the Chang La near Everest. A nearly invisible sherpa is bracing the tripod and presumably another is snapping the pic.

It’s 1922. Captain John Noel sets up his kinematograph camera at 23,000ft on the Chang La pass that connects Mount Everest to Chantse in Tibet.

This is me in my dreams! But the digital stereopticon does have the feeling and function of a good piece of experiemental apparatus.

It also reminds me of Harrison’s first chronometer (still dreaming); an amazing and unsurpassed piece of apparatus concocted by a carpeneter. I love the way Harrison continually tinkered with it by adding bits that would correct for problems as they arose  (‘artifacts’) rather than trash it and start again with a device that wouldn’t have those unwanted artifacts. I wonder if he realized that all devices or mechanisms would have artifacts – by definition, they are unexpected – and so starting over would just give him a new set to correct for. A tinkerer rather than a designer perhaps? An artist rather than a scientist?

I’m wondering if what  a scientist would call an ‘artifact’, an artist would call a ‘mark’?

Harrison's H-1 Marine chronometer - 1735

Anyhow, back to the digital stereopticon. I will get the chance to test it thoroughly tomorrow at its first public viewing here at the Headlands.

Sandra being my white mouse

eyepiece details with whittled elements

The mirrors reflect two time matched video images from the two sides of the screen into each eyeball and your brain combines them into one stereoscopic and apparently 3 dimensional moving image. I chose to film the two video with camera’s mounted about 40″ apart so that the depth effect is exagerated. Its as if your eyes were set 40″ apart on your head, giving extraordinary depth perception. It’s somewhat vertiginous, but I like the exaggerated reality.

I’m looking forward to making more video experiments to optimize the spacing for the cameras and then to explore the imagery itself in more depth.

In the meantime, I’ve chosen a movie that reflects my original intent to dissolve the walls of the Project Space. It’s a view from the edge of the beach looking due west, pretty much in line of sight from the central axis of the aWay station.

Here’s a single frame from the paired videos.

3D still (if you can cross your eyes) from the first digital stereopticon movie.

Here’s the completed digital stereopticon in front of the first three proofs of the Rodeo Project prints.

digital stereopticon with (l. to r.) rodeo alpha, rodeo bravo, rodeo charlie.

This arrangement has made it obvious that I should create a pair of 3D Rodeo Project prints to use with the digital stereopticon. That will have to be after I leave though.

It’s great that I still have so much work to do following up from the research I’ve done here. Very much how a research station should operate – lots of lab-work to follow up from the field-work.

Day 25 – the Rodeo Project

Despite the fact that I have only a few days left here – boo hoo – I’m starting some new projects. I might not have time to resolve them fully, but it’s exciting to see new directions opening up.

Though the ‘Rodeo Project’ (working title) isn’t entirely a new direction. It harks back to my first Australian residency in Hobart where I made Correspondence, which turned out to be the first in the Genius Loci series of works which aWay station is definitely part of.

I’ve been collecting stones along Rodeo Beach. I tried to resist but it’s impossible!

These stones with quartz veins through them drew my attention. The strong contrast between the quartz and its matrix conjures thoughts of larger landscapes or the foam of the nearby surf. I enjoy this fractal quality – the tiny reflects and embodies the huge and vice versa.

All of the work I’ve been making in the aWay station has been using scale and medium translations often mediated through at least one digital technology. When I’m not building furniture, whittling or cutting out and lashing skin forms, I’m on my trusty laptop fiddling about with video, imagery, or 3-D models (and blogging of course). The digital seems to be where the forms, images and concepts are abstracted. The output might be purely digital or result in a second (or third) round of hand-work. I’ve become interested in the ‘artifact’ – both the tool and the coincidental characteristics that adhere to a certain technology – the facets left by a knife on a whittled form, the curlycue patterns and abstracted color choices resulting from live trace, the strange natural/technological double vision provided by zipties.

Rodeo Beach selection

A collection of pebbles from Rodeo beach has been arrayed on the trestles for a few days. I was thinking about transposing them by hand with pen and ink illustrations that I would then modify digitally in some way. But I started fiddling with ‘live trace’ in Illustrator, which I experimented with during my residency at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center a few years ago. I want the final images to conjure contour maps, and some of the extraordinary close up images we have recently seen of asteroids. And for them to have that fractal quality adhere to them so that they reflect themselves at all scales.

I’ve started working with these two stones. Which I’m calling Rodeo alpha and Rodeo bravo – in honor of the former uses of Fort Cronkhite.

Rodeo alpha and Rodeo bravo

Here is just a sneak peak of the fine detail of some of the in-process images from Rodeo bravo.

Flows, within flows, within flows…

You will have to come out to the Headlands this coming Sunday at 1pm to see the completed prints and to enjoy the other works in the aWay station.

Day 24 – Out and about

Despite the inherent attractions of the aWay station, I’m trying to spend as much of the precious few days remaining of my residency exploring.

I snuck down to Rodeo Beach and surfed the point at Fort Cronkhite on my inflatable airmat this morning. What a hoot! My sinuses are much clearer now.

On Saturday, I wandered the bunkers above the beach with my darling wife Sandra Kelch and two old friends Mary Little and Peter Wheeler (of bius fame). Sandra took some very cool images of the patina and graffiti on the steel shutters and doors of the bunkers.

Day 23 – The aWay station furniture

I’d like to tell you a bit  about the ‘furniture’ in aWay station. I started my artistic career as a furniture maker and it’s still an important part of my art practice. Most of the furniture in the aWay station was made specifically for it prior to and during my residency. And many other pieces were made by furniture making friends (Yvonne Mouser’s versatile bucket stools and Richard LaTrobe Bateman’s robust split blackwood stool which I work at every day).

aWay station

The are three distinct furniture-ish components in the aWay station that I’ve created – the articulated library, the trestles and the digital stereopticon.

the articulated library

The articulated library was the first piece envisioned for the aWay station. In part, it was a response to the size of the Project Space (1800 sq. ft.); a pretty daunting space to ‘fill’. I considered making a smaller hut or shack inside the space within which to work. Literally a field station that could be relocated to other sites of inquiry after my residency ended. But it seemed a cowardly response to such a generous space. So the shack opened up and spilled out to fill up the Project Space. There is now a ‘working’ space defined by Yvonne Mouser’s bucket stools and the almost overflowing crate of hand crafted whittle chips, a ‘resting’ place with butterfly chairs, rug and banjo at hand, and a ‘sleeping’ place with a folding camp stretcher and handwoven blanket from Oaxaca. The walls of the shack morphed into the articulated library; a set of simple boards and boxes made from Jarrah which can be reconfigured readily and secured with exquisite little brass Japanese sash cramps. The articulated library has constantly changing roles as storage (for books, whittling blocks, tools), display (my whittling efforts, the scaled skin forms, found flotsam) and rehearsal (of the digital stereopticon and its projector).

articulated library in use, with digital stereopticon in progress behind

The trestles were the next pieces conceived and were the first made and installed. They were designed as the main work and display tables for the aWay station. They’ve been amazingly useful and have been the center of all my activities.  They’ll be used purely for display towards the end of my stay as there is just so much work on hand thanks to the ever expanding worry of whittlers.

The trestles are in constant use

The digital stereopticon is the final piece that I’ve been designing and building here at the Headlands and it’s still coming together. One of my initial desires with the aWay station was to dissolve the walls of the Project Space by creating tools that capture and map the external space onto and through the walls of the interior space – visual, auditory or experiential. The digital stereopticon is the distillation of this notion. It is both a capturing device and a viewing device for  digital stereoscopic movies made in the immediate physical environs. I’m going to wait until it’s finished to post images – both of the stereopticon and some of the images that can be viewed through it.

One of my whittling guests, Maggie Sasso, asked a perceptive question which has been playing on my mind over the last few weeks while I’ve lived in the aWay station. She asked what was my attitude to nostalgia? I went to a lot of effort to make most of the furniture in the aWay station from scratch and to use equipment which was not antique, aged or nostalgic. Yet aWay station is clearly connected to the work of other contemporary artists who are interested in the histories of collecting and museology – Mark Dion, Michael C. McMillen (whose extraordinary retrospective just finished at the Oakland Museum of California), Rosamond Purcell, Fred Wilson, David Wilson (of Museum of Jurassic Technology fame) and others. Artist’s who mostly use found and modified objects to create their installations. I greatly admire and enjoy these artists’ work. However, one aspect of some of this work that I don’t relish is their use of illusion: the fact that their works are simulating historical precedents and conjure this history through appropriating materials or objects which have the patina of age and use. Nostalgia is used to draw in an audience through romantic (or sometimes dissonant or uncomfortable) associations and to create the illusion of reality when in fact the tableau are contemporary and fictional. I wanted the aWay station feel more like a Victorian gentlman-naturalist’s study when it was freshly minted – when it had the freshness of new discoveries yet to be made. And for it not to carry any steam-punk, sideshow connotations at all. I hope I’ve been successful, but wonder if an audience fails to make the connection with scientific discovery without the appropriate overt signifiers – either aged mahogany and brass, or stainless steel and pyrex.

I would be interested in hearing your comments on nostalgia and its use in contemporary art in the comments section.

Day 19 – The Rules of Whittling

Here are 12 ‘Rules’ I’ve developed during these last few intense weeks of whittling solo and with friends.

The Technical Rules

Rule 1 – Try not to bleed.

Rule 2 – Always whittle away from your body.

Rule 3 – One tool per whittle – one tool makes it whittling rather than carving in my opinion.

Rule 4 – A blunt tools only cuts you.

Rule 5 – Consider the hard edges, the soft edges and the marks the tools leaves.

Rule 6 – Sandpaper is for wusses!

The Conceptual Rules

Rule 1 – Do not start with a preconceived design or form in mind.

Rule 2 – Let the tool, the wood and your hands think along with your mind.

Rule 3 – The piece also whittles you.

Rule 4 – Stop when it’s finished

Rule 5 – There are no rules!

Rule 6 – Take breaks!

Day 18 – Beyond whittling.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I plan to use some of the whittled forms that have been created at the  aWay station as seeds for further works. Representing, reinterpreting, reinventing them in different materials, scales and forms.

The first iteration is coming together.

Starting with this little tool-like form in Monterey Cypress from the Headlands.

Cypress tool – almost 2″ long

Of course the very first thing to do with a humble, hand-whittled form that arises from the material, the tool and the hand  is to totally detach it from the real world and create a synthetic idealized form in the virtual world.

Enter the Rhinoceros

And then through a MUCH more time consuming (and irritating) process than the original whittling, to design a series of pattern pieces for what I call a ‘skin’.

Cypress tool flayed in virtual space

Then print out at suitable scale (say 10 times in this case) to create pattern pieces I can work with. If I had my portable, pedal powered laser-cutter with me a the aWay station I’d be tempted to use it. But the hand-made version seems more in keeping with the project at hand.

Paper patterns – Gabriel would be proud of me.

Then from these I can cut pieces for the skin from any material I choose. I am using HDPE for this piece as it is easy to cut and punch and is about as far removed from the original material as I can get – sheets of shiny, translucent plastic.

Marked out skin pieces

Cut them out and lash them together – with good old zipties in this case. The lashing together feels almost as direct and  as traditional a process as basket weaving or sewing.

The form starts to materialize as the lashing continues.

The finished form and its inspiration.

It is a very different object from its source. It seems to have been dredged up from the depths – like something I might find on nearby Rodeo Beach perhaps?

Day 17 – Whittling Soirée #3

Last night, I held the third Whittling Soirée in the aWay station. It was open only to Headlands Center for the Arts artists in residence, affilliates, interns and staff.

Over 16 people turned up after a delicious dinner of fire baked pizzas and grapefruit sorbet created by Keith, Stephanie and Damon in the stellar kitchen here at the Headlands.

A worry of whittlers

It’s harder than it looks!

WARNING – Redheads with knives!!!

I only have 12 whittling knives so it was great that some folk bought their own knives. It was fabulous having such a crowd of talented people all gathered in the aWay station – talking, whittling, listening to Bruce Molsky.

We didn’t get started till after 8pm so many couldn’t stay to finish their whittling. But a hard core group of 5 stayed until after 2am as the fog settled around us all like a ghostly comforter.

I like the way the many unfinished pieces have a rawness and open-endedness to them – under-determined as Swintak would say. And it also means that friends will be dropping by the aWay station to worry their pieces a bit more.


Some completed forms – 5 hours later! Thanks Liam, Mark and Damon!

Time for bed….

Day 14 – Why whittle?

Gabriel Russo and me whittling at Whittling Soiree #2

Some visitors to the aWay station have asked me to define whittling. To paraphrase one old time whittler “The difference between carving and whittling is that for carving you need equipment and talent, for whittling all you need is a knife and time”.

Brian Karl out here at the Headlands suggests that I call it ‘worrying’. I like that!

But my wife Sandra loves the connotation of lightness and ease that comes with ‘whittling’. Perhaps resulting from the only whittling metaphor common in English, ‘to whittle away the hours’.

For me, the attraction to whittling comes from over 25 years of woodworking – making things that require a huge amount of planning and upfront design work and then hours and hours of painstaking construction using a huge variety of hand tools, machines and jigs. It’s incredibly refreshing and liberating to  sit down for an afternoon with a small piece of wood (a piece that I would regularly discard in my studio), a single sharp knife and my hands and mind, to worry or whittle out a form for which I have no preconceived notion or plan.

I think back over 100’s of thousands of years of humans doing something similar; two stones, a sharpened stone edge and a stick, a blade of bronze or iron or steel. Its feels so natural and so strange – both at the same time. Strange in that few people in our culture and our time are engaged in this direct process of tool on material at all. Least of all the meditative act of working a piece of natural material with a single, simple but versatile tool.

I love the way the final outcomes vary so much from person to person. Its tempting to put on the psychoanalyst’s hat – or pipe.

So many of the forms feel so good in your hand, like the handle of a sweet tool. It’s as if they are ‘of’ the hand.

I’m excited to see how much of this inter-connectedness of the hand, the tool and the material can be carried into other objects or images created from these simple little sculptures.