Artist / Craftsman / Author
A WORK IN PROGRESS
By Drew Langsner
I’m one of those people who have been making things all my life. (Born L.A. 1942) As a kid I often prefer to make things, rather than earn money in order to buy something. Sometimes this was artwork. My parents always had art supplies available for my use. I enjoyed weekly art lessons with Adalaide Fogg and Mary Gordon for a year or so before my 13th birthday, instead of studying for a bar mitzvah. In college I majored in anthropology but gravitated to painting and sculpture for graduate school. After the M.A., my friend Jay Beckwith and I invented and improvised a 3-year partnership building children’s “adventure playgrounds.” We utilized salvaged wooden beams, tree trunks, recycled conventional playground equipment that was cut up and re-assembled, exhaust pipe seconds, fero-cement, segments of stone columns from a Spanish monestary. I was pretty good at working all these materials – welding, using concrete, fiberglass, spray paints, etc.
One approach to making art that was bypassed in art school was carving wood (or stone for that matter) with a mallet, gouges and chisels. Among my friends, no one ever thought about those old ways of making art. But somehow my background in anthropology also kept me interested vernacular crafts. I always liked things that are handmade, using natural materials and relatively simple hand tools.
Jump 10 years. I began carving bowls (and spoons) in 1977, when Swedish woodworker and teacher Wille Sundqvist visited our farmstead in the mountains of western North Carolina. Wille is a master of the traditional Scandinavian forms, which he has personalized in a very refined way during a lifetime of carving. I really like the fact that these bowls are started by felling a tree, followed by cross-cutting a log section which is then split into halves. All done with simple tools – a chainsaw (although a 2-man cross cut saw works fine), steel wedges, an iron maul and an axe. The bowl is initially hollowed with an adze, an ancient tool shaped something like a large very large gouge mounted crosswise on an axe handle. The adze work is refined with gouges. Traditionally, bowl carvers worked for a smooth surface. They didn’t want to leave tool marks (tracks). The outside is shaped with an axe (quite unbelievable, until you learn how) and then smoothed with a type of hand plane called a spokeshave. All this is often done with freshly cut, green wood.
In 1992 I made my first bowls using the very un-intuitive orientation with the bark up and pith down. The split surface becomes the base and the hollow is carved into the curved half-cylinder. This idea was pioneered in the 1960’s by the great Swedish bowl carver Bengt Lidström. When this is done the potential size is reduced and the range of shapes becomes more limited. The attraction is that this orientation lends itself to carving bowls that are very wide and low in the mid-section and quite tall and narrow at each end. An attractive (Viking inspired) boat-like form emerges. The pattern of the growth rings also changes. On the exterior growth rings take long semi-parallel curves, not unlike lapstrake ship siding. On the interior, the growth rings have an attractive concentric pattern.
The down-side of working “up-side-down” (bark up/pithdown) has to do with how wood shrinks as it dries, and the fact that the orientation is much more challenging to work with successfully. Never-the-less, I very much enjoyed working this way. And I believe that I created a number of very beautiful and unique serving bowls. These are mostly used for salads at our home. I carved these up-side-down bowls mainly from tulip poplar, but also did several using walnut, butternut and ash. Some of these can be seen at Work From the Archives.
I’m interested in what is visually interesting. In this perspective, the thing of a thing becomes irrelevant. These are views, not things. Interesting views can show up anywhere. In nature –frequently — or manmade. (Of course, I’m very aware that we are part of nature, so the distinction is for convenience.)
Manmade can be art, or not. That also doesn’t matter. What matters is that the view is interesting, sometimes amazing, to look at.
The things from nature that I paint – which are almost exclusively wood in different states – are painted partially to disguise the fact that they are bits of wood. I’m both honoring the woodiness of the wood, and hiding it. So that the viewer will look at the view, as just a view. The art is no longer a bit of interesting wood.
These painted sculptures are also meant to be looked at tacitly, with your hands and fingers. Blind people might say ‘Let me look at that’ and then run their hands all around an object, seeing something much better than many visually not-impaired viewers.
Natural views. Why does almost anyone enjoy and appreciate a great view, or some flowers, or for that matter, a rock? I’ve thought about this throughout my lifetime. The same anyone who appreciates a random rock may walk past an object that’s basically identical if it’s in an art museum. It’s a good question.
We can come offer many similar examples. Where I live — in the mountains of western North Carolina — there’s a very nice, although not spectacular, view almost anywhere I take the time to look. I look out our windows every day. It’s a wonderful view, always interesting, and renewing. The window glass has dividers — not functional kind that hold separate small panes, but the contemporary kind put inside a double wall thermal, just for looks. The view through any individual pane is invariably interesting.
I’m now looking at the window as lots of little pictures. Each one interesting and somehow attractive. I’m looking at a cultivated magnolia that is just now developing tiny buds on the twig ends, our yard with raggedy grass and shrubbery, and a mountain side about one mile from here. Different panels display different pictures; some are just twigs. (I’m writing at the very tail end of winter, so leaves haven’t started to emerge from the deciduous trees and shrubs.) All are appreciated.
The magnolia was planted thirty years ago. And I trim it back almost every year. How it grows is never-the-less how nature wants that magnolia in that circumstance to grow. It can’t grow differently.
Any rock also got to be what it is because it could only be what it is with its history of pre-historic formation, and everything that happened to it until now. In any one situation that rock can only do what that rock can do. Nothing else.
In this perspective, the view and the rock are perfect. I think that’s one reason why we like and appreciate views and rocks. We humans admire perfection. Maybe an artist is someone who strives for perfection, at an endeavor, or lifestyle. Maybe that’s why we admire watching highly skilled athletes, or listening to genius musicians.
An artist can start a painting from a totally blank canvas, or a hunk of clay. There can be a theme, such as an arrangement of flowers in a vase on a table. Or not. I work with the or not. But that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that what happens is something worth looking at. The view. Not just now. But in ten years. (The ten year idea can become an interesting digression.)
My goalis to make something as perfect – visually – as a lemon or a walnut shell. I’m not believing that ever make something as fabulous as a lemon or walnut, but something that is that inspiring to look at, with eyes and fingers.
This isn’t a modern art idea. Look at the paintings of J.M.W. Turner, or take a close look at the brush work of Peter Paul Rubens. Or, the expressive and inventive patterns of aborigine art from Australia. Or traditional African sculpture.
I also have an idea that my sculptures should be a little mysterious. I’m wanting the sculptures to look like they are something found in — or part of — nature. At the same time, they are obviously not be natural.
‘This thing has to be man-made.’
‘But what is it?’
‘Art. To be looked at. Picked up. Enjoyed in some way. Hopefully loved ten years from now’
Perhaps I’ll still be around to find out.
‘Nuff said. For here, anyway.
Born: Los Angeles, California; November 13, 1942
Artist / Craftsman / Author
1978 – 2017. Administration and Teaching: Country Workshops, Inc. (A 501 (c)(3) non-profit educational organization.)
1966 – 1970 Partner in Beckwith & Langsner, designers and builders of children’s’ adventure playgrounds.
1966 M.A. Painting and Sculpture; San Francisco State University
1964 B.A. Anthropology; San Francisco State University
Studies in Art and Woodworking
1980 Three weeks advanced cooperage with Reudi Kohler, Wenklin-Horben, Bern, Switzerland
1972 Apprenticeship in Swiss Alpine cooperage with Kufermeister Ruedi Kohler
1954 Art lessons with Adalaide Fogg and Mary Gordon. In preparation for 13th birthday.
Books authored (I also did most of the photographs and preliminary drawings for these publications.)
The Chairmaker’s Workshop (Lark Books)
1995 Green Woodworking – revised edition (Lark Books)
Green Woodworking (Rodale Press)
A Log Builder’s Handbook (Rodale Press)
Country Woodcraft (Rodale Press)
Handmade (Harmony Books)
Magazine articles. Numerous publications 1975 to present in “Fine Woodworking”, “Woodwork”, ”American Woodworker”, “Today’s Woodworker”, “Fine Homebuilding”, “Organic Gardening”, “Countryside”, “Harrowsmith” and others.
1978 to 2017 at Country Workshops. Numerous 2 – 6 day courses including Swiss Cooperage, Ladderback Chairmaking, Windsor Chairmaking, Rustic Windsor Chairmaking, Carving Bowls and Spoons. I have also taught 5 – 7 day courses in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Japan.
Producer for Country Workshops’ video “Carved Swedish Bowls with Bengt Lidström.
Producer for Country Workshops’ video “Swiss Cooperage: Two Days in the Workshop of Ruedi Kohler.”
1991 – 2017. I organized and co-hosted 18 handcraft tours in Switzerland/France, England/Wales, Sweden/Norway and Japan.
1994 Juried member of Southern Highland Craft Guild