Why I Make Art – Part 5

The Sprout – Heart of the Matter



In Part 4 – The Goal – Anatomy of a Revelation, I spoke about the Doppler effect. I wrote:


… the Doppler effect, is a term used in classical physics concerning sound waves and changes of frequency, etc. But, to me, the effect represents something in the psychical realm as well as in the physical one … I went on to state that the dominant characteristic of my goal and intention in making art was to replicate that feeling – a kind of psycho-physical Doppler effect – and have it resonate in others. Then, I summarized the episodes in which I experienced the surge of revelation I’m talking about:


1) The photographs on the cellar floor

2) The Daguerreotype experience

3) The discovery of my namesake in Israel

4) The spidery visage in the small mirror


I concluded this train of thought by saying: Yet, one more incident, perhaps more potent in terms of my artistic development than all of the above, needs inclusion.


Now, I take up that thread once again:




At the heart of everything I do in art is the Sprout. Everything I have done as a maturing maker of art was engendered by my discovery and realization of the Sprout form. It was the Doppler effect of my personal art history, the climactic event, as explosive as the revelatory climaxes of the peak experiences I discussed in Part 4 – Anatomy of a Revelation.

Since the Sprout is the blood that beats the heart of my art, I’ll include a brief history of its development here, framed in the context of a project inspired by an old tree stump at the back of a house my wife and I were considering buying in 1994. I entitled that project Pilgrim on the Way of Return: The Stump Chronicles. I am the Pilgrim of the title and the Sprout is my Way of Return.


From The Stump Chronicles:


“Pilgrim on the Way of Return: The Stump Chronicles” is a year-long meditation in images and text in which the chronicler (Pilgrim) sets about knowing himself through the agency of an old tree stump.




The first time The Pilgrim saw the home in which he now lives, one of its features stood out from the rest. This salient sign had more to do with his eventual purchase of the house than anything. And not surprisingly. Similar inclinations had often caused him to decide in favour of one dwelling over others when he was looking for a place to live.

     Features like the rocky, driftwood-filled beach, guarding the tiny cottage on the tide line of the Straits of Georgia, in the town of Roberts Creek, B.C. The scruffy, redolent, yellow-blossoming sagebrush, clinging to the weathered clapboard of his shack outside Drumheller, in the badlands of Alberta. The rickety widow’s walk of the old captain’s house, looking out across the back harbour to the best sailing winds in the world, in Chester, on the south shore of Nova Scotia. Beacons all. Calling him home.

     The real estate agent was about to ring the doorbell, to show the Pilgrim and his wife the house. But she couldn’t find the Pilgrim. He seemed to have disappeared – somewhere between the car and the front door. Puzzled, she rang the bell anyway. The Pilgrim’s wife entered the dusty home with the good old bones first, and, in that logical, unemotional way prudent homebuyers employ, turned to the agent and mouthed, “I want this house!” 

     The agent introduced the wife to the 92-year-old woman who had occupied the home for the past fifty years. The three women sat a while over tea and shortbread, and chatted about the house, and about flowers, and about the deceased, and other things. The Pilgrim’s wife spoke in calm tones. She was acutely sensitive to the old lady’s imminent displacement, to the emotional torment of the uprooting ahead. “Suppose we have a look, then” she said softly at last. The Pilgrim was still nowhere to be found. “Don’t worry,” said his wife. “He’ll catch up.”

     The Pilgrim had bigger fish to fry. More important things to take care of. He had always told his wife what his father told his interminably put-upon spouse: “You take care of the little things in life, I’ll take care of the big things.” With a twinkle in his eye he’d inform anyone who’d listen that the little things were: taking care of the house, paying the monthly bills, and bringing up the children. The big things, his province, were the fixing of the national budget, and deciding if the country should go to war.

     So the Pilgrim was off taking care of big things, while his wife and the agent took care of the trifles: inspecting the electrical service, the plumbing, the roof, the very foundation upon which the house was built. Things like that. The Pilgrim: he was looking for a sign. An omen. Something that would tell him if this was to be their new home. And he found it!

     A tree stump of such magnificence as he had never before seen. A twisted, gnarled, baroque old warrior, whose power seemed hardly diminished by the fact that the Pilgrim was gazing at its remains. He closed his eyes and imagined the tree in its arboreal prime, lord and host over the society of creatures dependent on its outward manifestation. One energy; two directions. Upwards and down from ground zero: coursing at once. Surging sap, pulsing like blood through the heartwood stem, throwing rustling, sun-seeking branches into the changing skies; burrowing roots whose mightiness could flip an entire neighbourhood into the air, if the great tree had a mind to consolidate its power. “Oh, there you are,” the Pilgrim heard. And the spell was broken. “I’m sold,” he said. “Do you see that stump? It was a tree for the ages, a tree for the gods!”

     They bought the house with the good old bones. And many were the days the Pilgrim went out back and visited the Stump. It became a living thing to him. Host to a nature much different than while it thrived. The death of the body is an invitation to the worm. And when it became too mysterious to him to leave untold, the Pilgrim thought he’d begin to tell the old stump’s story. And so he did.




The Stump Chronicles: Day 106


Twenty-two years ago the Pilgrim’s wife was 14 years old. Concurrently, the Pilgrim, living at the time on a farm in rural Ontario, bundled some cannabis seeds in a moist terrycloth face towel and put them away in a dark corner of a kitchen cupboard. He checked a week later to see what he had spawned. When he unwrapped the cloth he was astonished! The seeds had germinated, burrowed their taproots through the tiny loops of the cotton pile, had so grown strong from the fabric’s resistance. Though he had never done such a thing in his life the Pilgrim was so amazed by the vision that he gathered up some pencils and paper and struggled to sketch what he saw before him. He wanted to celebrate the experience. He wanted to express the impact it had made on him. He wanted to share it with others. The problems were prohibitive, of representing in two dimensions the three-dimensional phenomena of the sprouting seeds, and the Pilgrim achieved only a meager success.

     Some time later the Pilgrim moved to British Columbia. The ubiquitous Haida art inspired him and he apprenticed himself to a jade carver. He was soon fired though, because of artistic differences. But he was smitten, had to carve, and soon found himself sounding stone in quarry yards for suitable pieces from which to coax his Sprout form.

     He began searching natural outcroppings for the best stone. He backpacked inland, to the sources of mountain springs. He sailed the west coast of Vancouver Island to explore the inlets where the Nootka greeted Captain Cook two hundred years earlier. Eventually he found a piece of marble, immediately recognizing it as the material from which he would reveal the Sprout form. The resulting carving was a consummate resolution of three-dimensional form. Autonomous, requiring no base, it was at once masculine and feminine, internal and external. Though monumental in size, its mass rested on two points, of no virtual area whatsoever. Basically it floated rather than rested.

     But the Sprout’s perfection was also its worst feature. The Pilgrim could not decide what to carve next. He made sketches, and modeled maquettes: forms whose legacy was that they be second best. As a sculptor he was the prisoner of having already created the best of which he was capable. He had made his Citizen Kane.

     One strategy was open to him. He could realize the Sprout form in other materials, and in other sizes. He carved it in steatite, then in limestone. He sculpted it in soapstone, and then in oak. He modeled it in wax and cast it in metals. He was obsessed with the form and considered no other form worth rendering. He became known among West Coast sculptors as the Sprout Man. It was all he did.

     A curious thing happened though: each new sculpture was smaller than the one before. Whereas the original marble form was the size of a pregnant woman’s belly, the pieces could now be closed within a small child’s hand. Still he considered no other design. Still he worked the scale smaller. He produced a Sprout in silver the size of a small pendant. One sculptor said the Pilgrim’s work would not be finished until he made a life-sized Sprout.

     The Pilgrim never went to that extreme. The tiny silver pendant Sprouts were his last. There was, however, one application he hoped someday to realize but could maybe never afford to. He wanted to make one in that most glorious of metals. He wanted to make one in gold.




The Stump Chronicles: Day 107


The Pilgrim’s wife turned 36 today. This evening, after she had dressed herself beautifully in black, see-through silk pants, and a black, mohair bolero, he gave her a painted Kashmiri box, wrapped in wide, sheer, guilt-trimmed mauve ribbon, and fastened with a string of pearl stars. Inside the little wooden box was a gold chain from which dangled and blazed a tiny gold Sprout.




My fixation with the Sprout form presented a great dilemma for me. As with any sustained cathexis, it became debilitating. Idolatry! I realized that my creative development was at stake and I devised a plan:




The Stump Chronicles: Day 115


To get out of his aesthetic rut the Pilgrim decided to create a sculpture that would be diametrically contrary to the Sprout Form. He made a list of features that were the opposite of those of the Sprout, and then carved a plaster maquette incorporating those qualities.

     The Sprout was closed and monolithic. His new form was an openwork design. The Sprout was organic. The Pilgrim’s antipode was inorganic and robot like. Though the Pilgrim had used power tools to sculpt the Sprout, it could have been carved entirely by hand. His new form required that machines be used to realize certain design elements. Though both male and female passages could be read in the Sprout, the birthing aspect of the form rendered it essentially female. The new form was exclusively male. The Sprout was continuous – transitions developed from point to point. The new design was episodic, transitions developed from aspect to aspect. The original Sprout was carved in a white marble. The plaster maquette for its formal opposite was marbleized to simulate a black stone. At every turn the Pilgrim made choices that were the converse of those he had made creating the Sprout.




What a transformative development this new form was! It gave the Sprout context. If the Sprout was the heart, the Owl form was its body – that’s what I came to call the new sculpture: Owl Form. There was no special significance in the name; the design just resembled an owl without my intending it to. The essential design element – cores pulled from the block at right angles to one another – created this impression. In time, the Sprout would find its way to the interior crossways of the cored spaces in the Owl, and this marriage would engender the ultimate phase of my mature work.




Why I Make Art – Part 6

The Owl – The Heart Finds a Home




The Stump Chronicles: Day 116


While the Pilgrim struggled to develop a new design for his sculpture, an odd bit of information filtered down to him. A party of canoe enthusiasts who had recently camped in the area sighted reports of stone outcroppings near Friendly Cove, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The reports indicated that an ancient quarry, replete with stacked boulders, lay abandoned in tiny Valdes Bay, near the mouth of Muchalat Inlet, twenty-five kilometres down river from the lumber town of Gold River. 

     The Pilgrim was one of a party of four sculptors who followed up on the report. On a late summer night in 1976, the sculptors slipped into the rugged town of Gold River toting canvas bags that were heavily laden with stone-cutting points, flats, mallets, and bush hammers. They had come as hired-gun representatives of a Vancouver art college to deal for any stone they found. Half would go to the college, half to themselves. First though, the existence of the stone had to be proved.

     As dawn broke coldly the next morning the four sculptors motored, huddled, down-inlet in a battered skiff borrowed from the Tahsis Lumber Co., later to arrive, chilled through, at Valdes Bay. They secured the boat and jumped ashore. No quarry, no stone was visible, but a small, rusted rail ran off into the bush and tailed out of sight behind a stand of first-growth cedars. “This way please,” the track may have said. The four sculptors accepted the implicit invitation and followed the rail line into the dark woods.

     They emerged in the dappled light of a small clearing. A natural pool, fed by underground springs and rainwater, lay at the centre. Ringed about, like ancient Stonehenge, stood columns of quarried stone, thick with velvet carpets of moss. Cathedral walls of Douglas fir sprang up behind the black marble piers. Shafts of light shooting down through the green-ribbed vaults of the wooden giants cast dancing diamonds into the quarry pool. God may have built a cathedral like this for sculptors to pray in. 




The Stump Chronicles: Day 118


The four sculptors set out their tools and began testing the stone for its carving qualities. Their ringing strikes, cutting into the black marble, alerted wildlife to sounds not heard in this place since before the moss began to shroud the stone. Sea otter and sea lion gathered in the bay, and bald eagles filled the sky. The sculptors made an inventory of the quarried stone (more than two hundred tons by their calculations). They claimed and dated each piece with marks carved into the blocks. They drew lots for their individual bounty: distributed eight massive boulders ranging from nine to fifteen tons among themselves. The winner would choose first and eighth, and so on down to the loser, who would choose fourth and fifth. At the conclusion of the draw the sculptors cut signatures into their chosen stones. For the first time that day they were hungry. They hadn’t eaten since before dawn. Nor had they brought along any food, but for some rice bread and tea No matter. The ebbing tide provided for them. As the inlet’s finger of sea withdrew to the ocean, the sculptors whacked saucer-sized oysters off the tide line with their mallets, threw them on a fire to cook and squeal in their own liquor, and dined elegantly, on black marble tables, at the dimming of the day.




The Stump Chronicles: Day 119


The morning after the four sculptors discovered the old quarry they presented themselves at the district land registry to stake a claim on behalf of themselves and the art college. It was clear sailing. All previous claims had expired. They learned that stone from the quarry had ninety years earlier gone into the construction of British Columbia’s parliament buildings. The marble had been carted along the now-rusted rails, loaded on flatbed barges, and rafted down island to Victoria. They also learned that Chinese, imported to do the work at pitifully meager wages, had quarried the stone. On completion of construction, over quarried stone was left at the site, and the coolies were sent home.

     The sculptors still had to arrange delivery of the stone to the college. Though the stone was free, the cost of shipping it to the mainland by normal production methods was prohibitive. This would involve a crane with a 15-ton capacity, to yard the blocks at the site; a barge with a 200-ton capacity to get the marble and crane back upstream to Gold River; four flatbed trucks, each with a 50-ton capacity to cart the stone overland to Nanaimo; a boat to ferry the flatbeds across the Straits of Georgia to Horseshoe Bay from whence the trucks would continue on to North Vancouver; and another crane with a 15-ton capacity to off-load the stone at the campus. It would cost maybe $25,000. Maybe more.

     The sculptors went into action. They arranged a meeting with the superintendent of operations at the Tahsis Lumber Co. in Gold River and convinced him to donate the entire resources and services of the company for the purpose of transferring the stone at the quarry site to the college campus. They reasoned that because the college was an educational institution, the lumber company could write the gift off as a tax deduction. Also, they suggested, the philanthropic giving of the gift was a wonderful public relations strategy. The four sculptors really knew how to sing for their stone. The superintendent countered: the yarding operations at the site would be provided for one day only. The crane and barges would leave Gold River at dawn, on a day suitable to the company, and would pack it in time to get back before sundown.

     Four weeks later the trucks rolled onto the college’s campus, the black marble monoliths chained securely to groaning flat beds, and glistening in the West Coast rain. Though the yarding operations at the site had not been 100 percent successful, the day’s take was about 150 tons. The four sculptors had their eight massive blocks, and a few small pieces each to boot.





A Cube of Space


Go inside a stone,

That would be my way. – Charles Simic




The dawning of each day presents me with the joy of uncertainty; the beauty of indifference; the happiness of happenstance; and the possibility that I may do things I’ve never done before. (And, with the grace of God, may never do again.) A one-time-only existence is a blueprint for the death of boredom. And today I did such a one-time thing:

In a walkabout I came across a builder of memorials. I stopped short and stood transfixed: I’m a sucker for stone, and the granite slabs out front of the building made my mouth water. It’s the sculptor in me. And though I haven’t done a stone sculpture in almost twenty years, I continue to collect suitable pieces whenever I find them. Stone carving is my desert island activity, and I don’t mean to be caught short. So I entered this storehouse of stone.

“I’d like to buy a cube of granite space,” I said to the sober-looking man inside.

“A cube of granite space?” he said.

“Yes, please. Well, a cube. You know, six equal faces, twelve boundary lines. In granite.”

“How big? Is this to be a headstone?”

“Well, sort of; but, not exactly. How much does a cubic foot weigh?”

“About 200 pounds,” he said.

“Well, it doesn’t have to be that big,” I said. “It just has to be a perfect cube. It has to fit into this space, you see.”

“What space?”

“The space around it. And we’ll have to pull cores out of the block so the space can get in. And the holes will have to be at right angles to one another. Three cored holes, joining the opposing faces of the block. And we’ll have to cut a section out of the first core piece, where it meets the others at the centre of the block, so that when we slide the core sections back in, the interior centre will be a perfect sphere of air. Into which we can put something. Will you be able to do that for me?”

“Well, we’ll have to speak to the cutters, but yes, I think we can do that at our shop,” he said.

I left the building and headed home, happy to have taken care of this business. While walking, I made some calculations: six faces of the cube and its interior centre are assigned to the seven double letters of the alphabet; the three interior coordinates correspond to the three mother letters; and the twelve boundary lines represent the twelve simple letters. Perfect, all twenty-two letters of the alphabet. God’s alphabet. And in the sphere of air at the centre of the stone: a place for my ashes. There: now that’s something you only have to do once.






(C) 2012 arne torneck all rights reserved

google images