Artifact and Translation

The climax of my stay at ANU was the exhibition “Artifact and Translation” that ran from October 1-5, 2013.

Here is the flier!


It was a great opportunity to show the digital images I developed as a consequence of our field trip to the Kioloa Field Research Station, along with the whittlings and translations that we have all been working on.

Here’s the view when you entered the Foyer Gallery from the main entrance of the ANU School of Art.

Entering the gallery

Entering the gallery

With four large prints on the left,  my whittle translation in the center and everyone else’s whittles and translations along the far wall.

The four large ‘Old Blotchy’ prints. Developed from images taken of the gnarled and wrinkled skin of that grand old survivor.

Maculaata (Old Blotchy) #1-#4

Maculata (Old Blotchy) #1-#4

And a close up to see how it looks in real life.The photorealism breaks down.  The patterning which is an artifact of the Live trace software has been tuned to closely resemble the patterning that is natural to the Spotted Gum tree bark which flakes off periodically leaving pastel colored scars with the occasional bright orange scar from humans sgraffito. Natural artifact mapped into software artifact.

Maculata (Old Blotchy) #1 detail

Maculata (Old Blotchy) #1 detail

And my whittle translation. This is the first time I’ve used digitally manipulated images of whittles in my work – another digital translation of the hand made.

Teatree topology

Teatree topology

Each whittle was from a successive slice from a branch of Teatree harvested at Kioloa. It was interesting treating each successive, subtly different, slice as if I had never worked that material or form before. Exploring what moves with the knife worked and what the existing convoluted branch forms suggested.

Chunk of teatree.

Chunk of teatree.

First teatree whittle.

First teatree whittle.

Teatree topology translation

Teatree topology translation

Teatree topology detail

Teatree topology detail

Along the opposite wall was the series of 6 smaller prints.

Maculata #1-6

Maculata #1 – #6

I think this one is my favorite.

Maculata #4

Maculata #4

And close up.

Maculata #4 detail

Maculata #4 detail

The final portion of the show was the whittlings and inspired translations by all of the folk who joined in the field trip to Kioloa.

We arranged the whittlings along the wall on a narrow shelf (thanks for the timber donation Tim!), each accompanied by its translation into another medium or process, and a swing tag giving some clue as to its identity.

An array of whittles and translations.

An array of whittles and translations.

Some details.

Whittle, translations and tag by Pia Nemec

Whittle, translations and tag by Pia Nemec

Translation by Andrew Carvolth

Translation by Andrew Carvolth

Andrew created a tool, and used it on a piece of wood to create marks. The essence of whittling, translated into a whole new entity! Nice work.

Ashley, Brian and Shep trying to solve the puzzle.

Ashley and Brian trying to solve the puzzles.

Shep just savoring the full sensory experience.

Shep just savoring the full sensory experience.

Huge thanks to everyone who made this exhibition possible. Especially to Ashley Eriksmoen who invited me to ANU and who was such a generous, supportive and inspiring host. To Jason O’Brien who did such wonderful work with my prints and who was forever cheerful despite my constant hounding. To Jason Kochel for all his help with the gallery. And finally to all the staff and students of the Furniture Workshop at the ANU School of Art, who welcomed me, worked late at night with me, and who dedicated themselves to the art, whimsy and mystery of whittling.

Hybrid Artifact #2 (for John Bartram) – with Matthew Hebert

My colleague and co-conspirator Matthew Hebert (San Diego State University) and I have just completed a new work in our series (two makes a series, yes?) of Hybrid Artifacts that marry the ancient craft of whittling with contemporary digital manufacturing technologies. This is the culmination of our project at the Bartram Gardens in Philadelphia which I posted about on my first visit for the project in November 2011. Its been a long term project and we’ve worked with many collaborators along the way – the list of whittlers is at the end of this post. There is a summary of the project on my portfolio page.  I thought a more expanded description might be appreciated here on the blog.

Here’s our statement about the piece – illustrated along the way with process shots!

“John Bartram’s garden and collecting expeditions provided the first systematic exports of the botanical wonders of North America to England and then on to Europe. This happened in the midst of the European Enlightenment and the materials that Bartram supplied helped establish the foundations of the modern scientific fields of taxonomy and plant hybridization. The transport of these specimens in ‘Bartram’s Boxes’ was a technical (and often logistical and political) accomplishment in its own right. The seeds, seedlings and plants that travelled on the long and dangerous voyage across the Atlantic ended their journey in the hands and glasshouses of some of the most advanced plant biologists living at the time. In effect they inspired and provided the substance of a revolution in biological science that is still being played out today. Interestingly enough, this happened through a direct correspondence between two individuals on opposite sides of the ocean. Two men who both displayed extraordinary passion for the North American flora, a certain impatience and frustration with the tyranny of the distance between them, and a long-standing friendship and collegiality, which was never consummated by them meeting face to face. These two men were John Bartram, striving to both farm and explore the newly colonized East coast of America, and Peter Collinson in England, working hard to both enrich his own modest garden and to help distribute Bartram’s Boxes to the leading gardens and research facilities in England and Europe.

The seeds for “Hybrid Artifact#2 (for John Bartram)” originated from Bartram’s garden in Philadelphia. Donald Fortescue milled a freshly fallen Willow Oak tree on site and made 16 green wood ‘Fortescue’s boxes’.

'Milling' willow oak - part 1

‘Milling’ willow oak at the gardens.

'Milling' willow oak - Part 2

‘Milling’ willow oak at Michael Hurwitz’s studio.

Raw (and very wet) lumber

Raw (and very wet) lumber

Box building production line

Box building production line

Fortescue's boxes

Fortescue’s boxes

A group of enthusiastic students from the University of the Arts, the Buck’s County Community College and the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, hand whittled small wooden sculptures from wood from the Gardens and provided a hypothetical text description of the completed pieces. These small sculptures were then individually and carefully packed in the ‘Fortescue’s Boxes’ and shipped across the country to Matthew Hebert waiting with great anticipation in San Diego, California, all the way across the US – 2,700 miles (a tad less than the 3,550 miles covered by Bartram’s Boxes).

Happy whittlers

Happy whittlers

Caterpillar Skate

Caterpillar Skate


Kubrick Shifter

The full collection of Bartram whittles and their 'toe tags'

The full collection of Bartram whittles and their ‘toe tags’

Bon voyage!!

Bon voyage!!

Matthew then opened the boxes (conserving them carefully) and began work on his technical translation of Donald’s specimens. Utilizing an array of reverse engineering (3D scanners) and digital fabrication technologies (CNC machines and 3D Printers), Matthew translated the hand-hewn objects into 3D computer models, manipulated them in software, and then re-created them as physical objects. He created negatives of the whittlings and then remounted these in the original boxes; framed and lit from within like Victorian cameos. The descriptions provided by the whittlers were read by artists in Australia and then linked to their respective cameos.

Printing whittles

Printing whittles

The 16 artifacts are arrayed to reflect notions of hybridization, mutation, and genealogy. The subtle textures created by both the hand of the whittler and the processes of digital fabrication highlight the problematic space of contemporary making. The radical changes in society resulting from the scientific revolution in John Bartram’s time are drawn into parallel with the radical changes in contemporary society arising from digital manufacturing.”

Hybrid Artifact #2, 2013

Hybrid Artifact #2, 2013



A whittle cameo

A whittle cameo

A whittle cameo lit within

A whittle cameo lit from within


Huge thanks to Don Miller Jr. and Michael Hurwitz in Philadelphia, to the intrepid  troop of whittlers from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, the Bucks County Community College, and the Indiana University at Pennsylvania for their enthusiasm and contributions to this project, and to the following whittlers for the use of their work –  Lily Baker, Steve Loar, Don Miller Jr., Donald Blankenship, Robert Haskell, Joshua Skott, Catherine Caulfield, Olivia Mays, Sarah Martin, Kevin Bogan, BA Harrington, Kerin Posobiec, Ryan Berardi, Janice Smith and Colin Pezzano, 

Kioloa – Australia

I’m just getting going on a one month residency at the Australian National University School of Art – my alma mater. As soon as I arrived and settled in, the entire Furniture program loaded up and headed down to the south coast of New South Wales to the ANU’s coastal campus and  field research station at Kioloa. Set in a rich forest of spotted gums and blackbutts and right on the edge of a beautiful string of golden beaches its was a great place to meet the students and check out some of the local woods.

Heading to the beach

Heading to the beach

Students completing local habitat analysis.

Students exploring the local habitat.

Prof. Fortescue's technial demonstration.

Prof. Fortescue’s technical demonstration.

I wasn't the only galah on the beach.

I wasn’t the only galah on the beach.

Off into the forest with a trailer load of testosterone.

Off into the forest with a trailer load of testosterone.

The spotted gum forest is so engaging. There were magpies and rosellas soaring through the trees and yabbering away to each other and a discrete lyrebird working on his repertoire down amongst the tea trees.

The spotted gum forest

The spotted gum forest

Spotted gum bark

Spotted gum bark.

I’m interested in using images of the spotted gum bark for a series of prints while I’m here. The markings are remarkably similar to the artifacts of ‘livetrace’ that I have been exploring recently.

I wonder how they will turn out?

Felling an Acacia to take back to the station for whittling.

Clare Solomon felling a mighty Acacia to take back to the station for whittling.

Night whittling

Night whittling

Whittles in Native cherry, Acacia and Teatree.

Whittles in Native cherry, Acacia and Teatree.

Ian Guthridge took me out to see ‘Old Blotchy’ a huge and ancient spotted gum that has been around since before the whitefella landed on these shores.

Ian Guthridge gives scale to Old Blotchy.

Ian Guthridge gives scale to Old Blotchy.

What a magnficent vegetable!

What a magnficent vegetable!

... with gnarled and wrinkled skin.

… with gnarled and wrinkled skin.

A local enjoying the sunset.

A local enjoying the sunset.

More soon as I get going on some new work here in Canberra.

Natural whittling

At the aWay station two dogs helped out by whittling alongside us arguably more dexterous whittlers and created quite interesting works – at least to me. Clearly dogs are a different species – or maybe I would have come up with something similar if I was limited to my sharpened canines.

In my beach wanderings of late I’ve been collecting naturally occurring whittles. They are just driftwood pieces, but somehow they look as if they were more carefully shaped than by the random processes of water, wind, sand, sun,

and toredo worm!

Towards a Poetics of Making

Lately, I have been considering what I find to be the most engaging questions in my field and wondering if the theory that is available is of much use to me – or to my students. My friend at CCA, Dean Schneider, has been reading David Pye on the Nature and Art of Workmanship as part of his final thesis and it occurs to me that Pye’s notions of Workmanship of Risk and Certainty are still some of the most useful concepts for me when thinking about art, craft and design. I’m wondering if there aren’t other parameters and concepts that I find relevant in my work that might be more universally and usefully applied across the field.

But where to start on such a project? I’ve titled this project ‘Towards a Poetics of Making’. Admittedly somewhat pompous, but I think appropriate. I’m searching for qualities in making that can be identified clearly and that help understand the nature of making and at the same time provide tools for makers to think about, conceptualize and move their practice forward. Much like the notions of simile, metaphor, meter and other tools help poets to understand and construct their work while achieving a transcendent and culturally valuable outcome.

So what aspects of making could be relevant to this project? I’ve already talked about some concepts which I’ve been finding useful in some earlier posts. In my recent travels and spending time with students, faculty and the general public I have been introducing, discussing and enriching my own understanding of the notions of  ‘artifact’ and ‘translation’ that I introduced in  a previous post – which you can read here.

An over-arching question which I’ve been finding a useful tool arises from my thinking on ‘artifact’.

What concepts or cultural values adhere to a particular process?

In defining artifact I have focussed on the idea from science of an artifact being  a direct affect (often unintended, unexpected or unwanted) from a particular process or tool. In art making this is often referred to as a ‘mark’ and the consequence of using a tool is ‘mark-making’. The quality of the mark is determined both by the nature of the tool (be it pencil, or oilstick, or chainsaw), the ‘fluency’ and intention of the artist, and the medium which supports the mark.

I my thinking about translation, I have wondered what is gained or lost in translation as a concept or action gets transferred across media? In my own recent collaboration with Matt Hebert of SDSU using both hand whittling and digital fabrication, I have wondered if the inherent qualities of the whittlings – the form and surface that derives from the subtle interplay between the initial shape and material properties of the wooden piece, the shape of the knife, and my own thinking with both hand and mind – get lost or augmented by their subsequent translation through digital processes into objects of radically different scale, process and materiality? And then, what new attributes come from the translation that add to or contradict the initial qualities and readings provided by the whittlings? Of course, these attributes can be both physical and conceptual. I’m still thinking about it, and I’m hoping the works that we make together over the next few months help me discover some answers.

One thing I have concluded, is that the works in design, craft and art that engage me the most are those that have the process of making and the meanings that adhere to those processes at the forefront of their conceptual underpinning.

Which leads me inevitably to some thoughts on ‘craft’. At a discussion following Fo Wilson’s recent lecture at CCA, someone made the statement that ‘craft is an activity that brings you closer to the source.’ I like that! The notion that any activity that brings you closer to the core values and qualities of that medium or field is ‘craft’. So cooking involving all unprocessed ingredients where you are close to the source of those materials and understand the cultural histories and values of all of the materials and processes involved is close to the ‘craft’ of cooking. And this applies to both the cook and the diner – both the artist and the connoisseur. The source is in the sauce!

This way of thinking clearly applies to traditional notions of craft practice and allows us to expand the use of the term ‘craft’ to cooking, writing, and even designing video games. I have mourned the passing of a useful definition of craft as it has been applied to any activity which requires human intervention – the craft of shopping? Perhaps these notions of ‘source’ and ‘artifact’ can help me reclaim the terms as something useful to me as a maker who loves and is embroiled in the histories and stories imbedded in the tools, materials and processes I employ.

I welcome any thoughts you might have! These tools will only be useful if other people find them handy!

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 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.