I remember as a little kid struggling to peer over my dad’s arms while he whittled us kids flutes made from the hollow stems of squash leaves. Though the instruments more or less squawked, you could truthfully say they worked …at least for a minute or two before turning to mush.
One day at around age eight, I just happened to observe something going on that was not meant for my young eyes. My dad and older brother were seated at the kitchen table where my dad had a knife and wood in hand. Working on a scouting requirement, my dad’s attention was rightfully on my brother, not me. By and by, and not wanting to be left out, I made it to the tool shed where a chisel and piece of 2×4 caught my attention. It didn’t take long for the chisel to find its way off the wood, severely splitting the end of my finger. Scared to death and having to show the dripping wound to my dad, he pulled out the doctoring stuff and went to work. As always, his last move was to give me a smile, give the bandage a squeeze and then gave me the warning not to do that again. To this day my unhealed scar and split nail are always there reminding me of the good memories of youth. The accident also drove me on a journey that has defined my adult life. For many years I’d rather be carving wood than eating a good meal.
Though I knew little of art as a kid, I did know what I liked. And for me, classical American landscapes have always pulled me to another day and time. From images of animals grazing, people at work, the glow of early morning light, and maybe a ray of sun glistening on a faraway hill, the 1800’s luminst style of painting in particular speaks to my heart.
One of my favorite paintings was “Shooting for the Beef” by Caleb Bingham. Even though I was a city kid, I got the message that the painting was of a scene like a turkey shoot with the prize being a beef cow. I loved how the image captured real life in rural Americana.
Acting on my desire to recreate the image in wood, my dad carried me to a lumber yard where he bought me a huge piece of mahogany that I cut, glued up and carved on for years. Since the wood turned out to be longer in scale than the painting, it was necessary to be creative by exploring my own ideas to lengthen the carving. As the painting showed only the front end of the cow, I decided to include all of the animal for which a wonderful photo was found in the family set of Encyclopedia Britannica.
After countless hours of work, my carving was complete and I was truly proud. Giving it to my parents to go over their mantel, my dad helped to make brackets and bought a special light. It made me happy to see my parent’s pride in sharing my work with friends and neighbors.
And then one day, late in my grandmother’s life, dad brought her to the house for a weekend visit. My grandmother lived to 98 and was a person who actually lived the kind of days and life portrayed in my work. She grew up in hard times and was yet the warmest soul I will ever be privileged to know. Not being able to say enough good about my grandmother, I’ll never forget her remark after seeing my carving. With chin in hand, she gazed the people and landscape until her eyes reached the cow. She shook her head, smiled, and said “why child, you’d eat Bessie?”
Failing to acknowledge the importance of the working ends of beef cattle vs. a dairy cow, all the time and effort I had spent boiled down to whether an animal had teats or not. And my grandmother was right on. You’d never take the life of such a prized Jersey cow to fill a plate with meat! For me, this was a valuable lesson. There’s so much that you need to get right in life and there’s plenty of opportunity for mistake. Know your subject and do your best to get the story right. Composition is more than the image, it’s also the resulting story that’s being told.