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

One Response to “Proposing River Art”

  1. Evelyn Zlomke says:

    Hydroman is an inspiring guy. This is gonna be so much fun!

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