A Natural Object

The other day I wrote a description of a new piece for our current newsletter, which goes out in two days, and I find that I keep thinking about the piece.  That’s partly because it’s sitting in our living room, where I can keep an eye on it as it gradually settles in, but I also suspect that I haven’t finished writing about it.

hydrology table no. 2

This is the piece.  It’s a coffee table with a top that’s 33″ by 22″, which features a wide top board of local western maple salvaged from millyard scrap.  Once again, a very unpromising board surprised us by cleaning up nicely and making a uniquely beautiful top, one which combines evidence of past water damage with extensive use of epoxy – tinted in a range of blue tones – to repair cracks and fill voids.

The top is literally unique, because it displays the particular history of what happened to it after the tree was harvested.  Woodboring insects attacked the green lumber, leaving the typical large exit holes in the wood surface.  Water stained the wood surface.  The wood cracked in several places;  it was nearly broken in two in the middle.  The wood was quite cupped from uncontrolled drying.  Traces of all these events are visible in the finished top;  in fact, the tinted epoxy makes the repaired areas stand out.

The resulting table is a useful article that celebrates this particular history and thereby does what environmental art must do in our age:  call attention to our intimate relationship with the natural environment.  The history of what happened to this board is a history of human actions (or neglect) combined with the processes of nature.  Nature produced not only the beautiful tree but also the water damage, insect decay and so on, with humans playing an important role.  The table points out our relationship to the natural environment as something in need of repair.

Shifting gears, I recently returned from a trip to the town where I grew up, and memories of a 1950’s Texas boyhood are resurfacing.  I remember as a little guy asking my Dad where the gasoline was stored at our neighborhood gas station, since all you could see was the pump.  When I found out that the gas was in underground tanks, I remember asking him what happened if they leaked.  He said in his judicious way that it didn’t seem to be a problem.  My father was an engineer who worked at that time for an oil company, besides being a scrupulously honest man, so I figure he knew what informed professionals knew – which was quite wrong, it turns out.

The other memory that’s coming up is a biblical quote:  the stone that the builders rejected has become the head of the corner, and that seems to sum up this table nicely.

Hall Tables

Last fall, when I was making plans for the winter, a gallery owner I’ve known a long time happened to mention something about hall tables, and for some reason the idea took root. It struck me that a simple one-drawer table at counter height, which one might place in an entry hall, is useful but not overly constrained by the nature of its use.

As it happened, I had some new pieces of salvaged wood which seemed like a natural vehicle for the whimsical ideas which were attacking me right about then.  In the end I made three pieces, all of them sized for convenient use near the front door, except that one – the troll table – decided to be short.

All three tables explore the expressive power of salvaged wood.  The design of each of them starts with a finger-jointed drawer case made of walnut, and the structure is otherwise open, with the top and legs set off from the case by a quarter-inch reveal;  otherwise they are quite different, each of the tables following a design logic inspired by the distinctive wood slabs featured.

Hall Table 2015 no. 1 detail 72dpi

Detail, Table No. 1


Table no. 1 has a slab of locally salvaged eucalyptus on top.  When eucalyptus trees were introduced to northern California a hundred years ago, they were expected to provide useful lumber, along with various other benefits.  This is a gorgeous piece of wood, but you can see why eucalyptus turned out to be problematic for furniture:  many large cracks appeared in the top during drying.  In this case, however, the cracks make a beautiful feather-like pattern that adds a feeling of lightness without detracting from the solid usefulness of the table.  There is also a drawer front – of salvaged local walnut, like the drawer case – that preserves on its face some of the mill marks it came to us with.  We were able to save their visual and tactile qualities while buffing with 400 grit sandpaper, always a delight.  The legs are of curly eastern walnut that adds yet another bit of visual texture, and all of these woody surfaces are set off by polished chrome hardware.

Hall Table 2015 no. 2 72dpi

Table No. 2


Table no. 2 features wood from an old elm that our friend and photographer Eric had to remove from his Oakland back yard in 2010, after it died of Dutch elm disease.  A nice selection of boards found their way to Napa, where we dried them and have started turning them into furniture.  The table incorporates some graphic ideas we have lately been experimenting with, notably our finelines details and the use of tinted epoxy to fill voids.  And the table has one leg that seems to be going its own whimsical way, in contrast to its well-behaved siblings, a consequence of the way that particular bit of wood dried.  In the lumber, I remember that the wild leg was directly adjacent to the knot that you see on the drawer front, which is no doubt responsible for the warp.


The Troll Table principally features local orchard walnut we got from a man on Darms Lane in 2014, and we have again taken pains to preserve visual and tactile signs of the origins of the material.  This coffee-height table uses plain steel spacers rather than chrome, on the thinking that trolls wouldn’t have chrome.

The Troll Table is on display at the Highlight Gallery in Mendocino, along with Hall Table No. 1.  We still have table no. 2 on hand and will be showing it at Open Studios Napa Valley this September.


Proposing River Art

A while back I mentioned a letter of inquiry to an arts funding organization, which I submitted in partnership with the Friends of the Napa River organization.  We want to create riverside art out of woody debris that originated in the river system.  We were invited to submit a full proposal, and part of the task was for me, as lead artist, to write a brief statement about how I approached the project.  Writing the statement turned out to be so rewarding that I thought I would share it here:

Two trends in my life are on a collision course.  I have been making wood furniture professionally since 1980, trying to channel the natural beauty of wood into objects people can use;  and since 1995 I have been intensely involved with environmental issues in Napa County, mainly as a professional hydrologist employed by a local conservation district.

The problem is nature.  For the wood artisan, nature is classically something to be revered, something eternal to which we pay homage.  But this attitude is at odds with an attentive regard for our physical surroundings. As a scientist, I have spent a lot of time studying creeks and observing what has happened to them under our stewardship, and I have  come to agree with Timothy Morton that the concept of nature as something pristine and apart just gets in the way of appreciating what we have.  What we have is an environment, which we take a noisy and active part in, for good or ill.

The environment is never pristine, and my current furniture isn’t either;  it’s all about the back-and-forth that characterizes most relationships.  In recent years there are more and more unusual salvaged pieces of lumber and random edges in my work:  unique bits of wood with expressive power.  The objects I make out of this material tell the story of my interaction with it.

The project we are proposing addresses this connectedness to the natural world.  The materials will specifically refer to their source in the river.  The wood will tell its own story, and we hope to enhance the story by subtly referring to the river restoration work that has made extensive use of such large woody debris in habitat restoration along the banks.

I am personally quite familiar with the Napa River and with the river project.  I was employed as a full-time hydrologist by Napa County Resource Conservation District from 1995 through 2009, and I spent considerable time studying the river system, building a hydraulic river model and making laborious field measurements.  At the same time, I was a close observer of the community process that led to the living river design and of its implementation beginning in 1998.  I am an original and current member of the Napa River Flood Project Technical Advisory Panel, a group charged with reviewing final project designs for each stage of work, to ensure fidelity to the original community process.

My collaborator in the present project, the Friends of the Napa River, is the principal non-governmental voice for the community in anything that concerns the river.  For over two decades they have been the heart and soul of the river community, and I am confident of an efficient collaboration between the two of us and local government stakeholders.

Although the proposed project comes under the broad heading of woodworking, there are fundamental differences from my previous work that make it a new departure for me.  The situation & the material suggest strongly that the scale will be more massive than the furniture I have made in the past, so that the tools and methods will also be quite different.  Individual work pieces may weigh tons;  the project budget reflects the cost of frequently moving these large pieces of wood during fabrication.

The design process will also have to be different.  I expect that the balance between simplicity and complexity, always key to my furniture pieces, will have to shift, in view of the massive scale, the roughness of the material, and the outdoor site.

Hydroman inspects a model with simulated root wad

Hydroman inspects a design model with simulated root wad