Mature Motivation aka Life Lessons

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To paraphrase Janis Joplin…Failure is just another word for nothing left to learn. My primary project in my seasonal wood shop was to use the remaining 100-year-old beams removed from the original cottage & make an outdoor bench showcasing the beauty of  recycled lumber. Making rustic furniture with recycled wood is much better than just adding to the landfills. It’s a small step but rewarding. I also like the idea of extending the history of what a tree created. The imperfections in the wood also provide a balance to my limited woodworking experience & skills.

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My motivational inspiration came from a graphical representation of the mathematical symbol of Pi. The basic symbol is from the Greek alphabet but many artistic licenses have been taken to this form. In addition, the purity of it’s never ending sequence without a pattern is fascinating. When I fist saw this particular form my minds eye envisioned a comfortable bench to set beside the Mini-Meadow I’ve been cultivating.

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I visualized the bench with 4 primary pieces on each end. Using enlargements of the symbol as templates I adjusted the patterns to fit the limitations of a 7-inch wide beam. By my calculations I had about 20% more board feet than needed. It gave some room for error but not a whole lot. The rough cuts of the first pieces were very encouraging. I was pleased with the beauty of the grain on the century old pieces.

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As I was beginning to work on some of the more challenging parts I ran into an unexpected problem. At first I dismissed some of the imperfections in the beams as flaws that would provide character. In reality it became a design-changing dilemma.

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I hadn’t expected the beams to be rotten. Beams I had used a few years ago for a dinning room table was fine. These were not. At first it seemed like the rot was not in areas that would experience stress so I still had hope. The basic form that motivated me would be preserved. Initially, I used wood glue to repair & keep structural integrity.

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As I cut more of the primary pieces I found lots more rot & realized I would need to attempt/inject some more serious repairs. It is always worthwhile to make a plan before you start. The Boy Scout motto of “Be Prepared” was an early & valuable lesson. As I got older, especially in my Freelance Career, I navigated challenges with a mantra of “Making It Up as You Go Along.” Even, when following your plan you encounter unexpected challenges & must adjust.

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Filler, putty & even Bondo for Wood made the beautiful old lumber into a Frankenstein creation. I realized I would have to put some “lipstick on this pig” to cover the problems. I adjusted my plans & decided to paint the bench hiding the ugly patches made. At least the design would still be there even if I couldn’t highlight the pure color & grain.

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I anticipated proportions of the basic sections would need to be tweaked. Before I assembled what I had cut I staged the 4 primary pieces. I saw it would require more than just a tweak. The basic concept was still good. But, for a functional bench, adjustments to the design proportions would need to be made.

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Using an old bench side for scale I saw that I was close but the shortcomings of the Pi Bench were pretty extreme. I didn’t have enough lumber to re-cut so I procrastinated & pondered for a while. I’ve learned patience has value.

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It might be maturity or a twist on being stubborn but I refused to abandon my idea. I went ahead & assembled 3 pieces for one side. I liked the form but realized continuing to make what I had into a bench would be disappointing on many levels. I know myself well enough that if I moved forward with the bench,  every time I looked at the finished work I would see flaws & compromises I made. My plans had become a failure.

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I told a neighbor about my mistakes & he said to call it practice. Making lemonade out of lemons now became a reference for my next step. These simple & memorable phrases can be helpful. I had learned a lot from the process, the problems I encountered & design errors. That simple nomenclature adjustment did change my perspective. I decided to use what I had cut & make a plant stand!

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Now when I look at what I made I don’t see mistakes & problems. I see a decisions that made the best out of a bad situation. I also see the next steps in learning how to take a good idea & bring it to completion. Instead of a Pi bench I came up with something else. I call it the Practice Stand.

Serendipitous Motivation

However, that night I stumbled on influence from a different direction that literally caught my eye & turned my neck.

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I’m taking a pause from posting about Cuba. At the end of last year I went to see the work of Xzya Cruz Bacani being displayed at the Manchester Craftsman Guild & to listen to her lecture. The subject of her images Modern Slavery resonated with the deep-down photojournalist in me. Her work & the perspective she provided were haunting.

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However, that night I stumbled on influence from a different direction that literally caught my eye & turned my neck. In earlier posts I’ve mentioned how architecture & woodworking grab my eye. Entering the Manchester Craftsman Guild  an alcove with a wooden accent built into a brick semicircle did just that. In one glance I saw customized shelves, entryway, utility, separation & focus blended into one compact area. If I ever tried to describe a union of form & function this would be a strong example. The synergy of structure, materials & openness was as harmonious as anything I have seen.

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Ms Gubser, the executive assistant at MCG, noticed my wide-open eyes. She told me about the woodworker & invited me to look at more of the craftsman’s work in the boardroom.

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After seeing more finely crafted pieces, in a wonderful serendipitous moment, she introduced me to the artist who had also come to the lecture.

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Meeting Tadao Arimoto & discussing his work was delightful. After humbly listening to my praise of his work he invited me to his workshop. This was an inspirational encounter I never saw coming. Since my wood-shop was closed for the winter I was excited to get some sawdust on my shoes.

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Tadao came to Pittsburgh in 1976. His path to the medium of wood to fashion his designs began 4 years earlier in his native Japan. He had studied at the International Design Institute in Kyoto. As a young man, he felt the career path as an industrial designer was uninspiring. Then he saw a wooden bench in a storeroom window that “made his heart pop out.” He found out it was created by Shigeru Ueki a respected abstract sculptor who worked with wood. Tadao contacted him & Shigeru befriended him.

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Collaboration can be a powerful motivator. Shigeru, had been a founder of the respected Modern Art Discussion Group with other Japanese artists. He gave inspiration to a young Tadao to learn the craft of sculpting wood & exposed him to other artistic perspectives. Today Tadao is still influenced by sculpture but also is aware of the long perspective of nature & the wood he works with. The life span of a tree is extended in the art he creates. For over 40 years, his hands have molded a 2nd life into the wood he uses. One of the joys of his work is that every week he learns something new.

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His design process for custom work begins with understanding the place it will occupy & then making multiple hand sketches of his concepts & ideas. Then CAD drawings are presented to the client giving a perspective that is easier to visualize. With approval & consensus of the final design, Tadao then creates another hand drawing he will use as a guide while crafting the piece.

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He describes some of his work as Visually Quiet. A blend of sketch artist, craftsman & sculptor, his minds eye is focused on the functional & the aesthetic environment his work will occupy. The soft conflict of his description resonates in his work. Looking at examples of his finished pieces on his website it is easy to see the blend of purpose with beauty.

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Of particular interest to me was the shop environment filled with sawdust creating an orange earth tone hue. I wanted to capture the interaction of the tools, wood, hands & the designer. These images show a glimpse of his personal culmination of inspiration & craft.

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Tadao takes his design & creates a second life-cycle of the tree the wood came from. In sculpting his forms he infuses his ideas onto the grain of the lumber with his touch, & experience. His hands respect the longevity of the medium they work with.

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Often imperfections become an accent adding character to the narrative.

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The work-space of a craftsman can tell you a lot about the artisan. A woodworking shop is a constant shifting balance of space for working & keeping tools close. Raw wood was leaning against the walls. Shelves were piled with hardwoods. Work-in-progress was sitting beside hefty machinery. I was enveloped by the ordered chaos & a diversity of tools. The dominant feature in the shop however was Tadao’s resonating smile.

Wood Shop vs Photoshop

If I had not had a career in Video/TV Production I would like to have been a carpenter. Retirement offers wood shop time, learning new skills & exploring a different type of creativity. I use re-purposed wood & enjoy the imperfections while incorporating flaws into the design. None of these pieces came from a pattern. I began with an idea & made it up as I went along.

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The top of this table is made from 100+ year-old beams from the original cottage on our property. This was my 1st project. The rustic style farm table fit well with my nascent abilities. I have interest & respect for history that dovetails nicely with photography & woodworking. I’m also motivated to learn new techniques in each skill.

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Function & form are an important part of pre-pro in woodworking & pre-visualization of photography. This simple form provides 3 separate functions; a holder for the garden hose, an attachment for the clothesline & a perch to hang a flower basket.

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Strictly function on this project. The original ramp was rotting. Old sections of dock worked perfectly as planks. I purchased wood for joists & used plenty of stone as foundation. Often while wandering with my camera I will shoot a sign purely as a landmark or reference. Pure function with no creativity serves a purpose.

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Strictly form here. I had these 7X7 beams for a long time trying to figure out what to do with them. An earlier bench was a failure but a learning process. When I realized 3 would make a perfect homage to a tripod I knew I was onto something. This is still a work in progress. In photography something may catch my eye but I’m not sure how best to capture it. I examine angles, light, foreground, background & as many perspectives as possible. Inspiration sometimes needs time to germinate.

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I can’t provide a 1 to 1 correlation, but the work/thought-flow of both photography & woodworking feed each other. I believe perspective & detailed observation as well as compromise have something to do with it. Along the way you can be surprised. After building this bench/shoe rack I found something good for my bad knees. Getting up from a bench 20 inches off the ground is much easier than the normal chair height of 17 inches.

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An advantage to DIY building is you can customize to fit your need. I usually start my day with coffee reading the news on my kindle. I needed a small low table that would fit between the 2 chairs.  A somewhat larger/higher cousin is in the works. My photography subjects satisfy my interests & woodworking to meet my needs.

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This was my most ambitious project to date & also the heaviest. We wanted an island in the kitchen. Drawers were not a project I felt I was ready for since they have little room for error.   My wife suggested getting a used cabinet w/drawers at Construction Junction then cover the other 3 sides. Brilliant! The 3 sides are tongue & grove from the original cottage. The oak top & trim is from my grandparents dinning room table.

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I liked the idea of a parquet end table but wasn’t sure how to begin. There was a lot of making it up as you go along on this project. It came together nicely as I had hoped. And, I still have 10 fingers! Wood isn’t perfect & neither am I.  Between Wood-shop & Photoshop I am exploring new paths for taking ideas from my head & making them real. A lot of creativity just comes from doing it. Connecting mind, eye & fingers.