Visit Daniel Marcou’s very nice blog www.woodenspooncarving.com where he has graciously posted an interview with me about spoon carving. While there, check out Daniel’s writing about his own spoon making, other interviews, and links to other spoonmakers. Thanks for your efforts Daniel!
My father Richard Souligny, now 75, is a retired working-class goldsmith. He was born in 1943 and raised in small-town Minnesota. In the late 1970’s, after the navy, college, and teaching internationally he began to call Tucson, Arizona his home. In the mid 1980’s he settled into the house he lives in now, where he converted the car-port into his studio.
Over his career, he has designed and fabricated likely in the thousands of individual pieces of jewelry. You can see pictures of the inside of his studio and some of his work in this post. His work is wholly unique. He never clamored to join the design cannon, or enter contests, but rather he practiced the craft earnestly, and blazed his own design trails. No dimension of the ring itself, as you can see in these few examples, is off-limits as a design space or repository for sparkling colorful gemstones.
Recently, while my father and his friend stepped out of the house for coffee, in broad daylight, his studio was burglarized. In a matter of a few minutes, the thieves emptied my father’s safe of a lifetime of his personal jewelry creations, artifacts, supplies, and his nest egg. What took minutes to steal took a lifetime to create and collect and is quite simply irreplaceable.
I admire my father’s designs, and more than that, I admire that he is a champion of the full process of goldsmithing, from wax to casting, metallurgy to stone setting, drawing to macro film photography. All of this, very humbly, just off the kitchen of the house, three steps from the coffee maker. He took on complex projects year after year, raising the bar for himself, and burned the late-night oil to complete them. He also made time to share his process and knowledge with others and made his services accessible to friends and family members without regard to their ability to pay him. He is still, to me, a mystical creator from hobbit land, and his studio is a lair of creation, stories,artifacts, and special tools where he plies his fiery craft. This is probably one of the reasons I have always dreamed of finishing my own wood shop to create in and share with others, as I observed my father doing over the years. “The Studio” is a place you want to be.
For people who create three-dimensional arts, it is the orchestration of our hands, minds, our senses and our tools that help manifest our creations. Some create for themselves with readily available materials. Others work in rare medium, and unless wealthy themselves, have the added and unique relationship with the commissioner, who brings the precious raw material, the gems, the blank wall, the acre of land to the skilled crafts person or artist, and the two enable the project, hopefully to a copacetic conclusion.
Artists often create and produce the things they know they can sell, to make a living, and in that, they are honing their skills. But other personal projects lay dormant within them, waiting for the time and resources to emerge. For a goldsmith, these things might rest in the safe. Saved for another day, for a special person, for posterity, for the dream deferred.
As I sat at Sterling College yesterday, sharpening woodcarving knives for the spoon making class, I listened to an old man and a young man sitting next to me as they talked with each other. The old man was giving an account of the time he loaded a large piece of American Hop-hornbeam into his furnace, and nearly burned down the house due to his ignorance of its extremely high BTU value. It made me think of my father’s aging kiln, and how he monitored it carefully as he burned out a wax, for fear of burning down the house, and how difficult it was to stay awake all the hours of the process.
I’ve seen a lot of different derelict and abandoned work spaces in New England, corners of barns where work took place essential to the lives of people. In some the tools hang on the nail in a cobweb, in the very place where someone last placed it 100 years earlier.
When we visited Scapoli, Italy recently, we went in the shop of maybe the very last Italian bagpipe maker, which lies in the recesses of an abandoned castle. Another magical place that time is forgetting. And I wonder, historically, if time is perpetually forgetting craft, art, design, then remembering it again in its twilight, the twinkle in the eyes of young spoon makers, poets, blacksmiths, basket weavers, soap makers, gold smiths. The old timers sitting by young and enthusiastic individuals who are asking question after question, seeking the insight of a lifetime of practice from the expert.
For the working class goldsmith, the ring made for the patron becomes the property, and heirloom, of the patron’s family. The bread and butter derived from the work of the goldsmith was eaten long ago. The goldsmith’s personal gain was in experience, solving a new problem, expressing a new idea, facing and overcoming a new challenge, and the secret stories of near disaster. And perhaps there is the glory, in the revealing of the finished piece, the pride. The goldsmith can also squirrel away the gold dust and the trades, the amalgamation of which can become the rings for his daughter and the two sons, and the grandchildren, who are the keepers of the story of the goldsmith, more so than the goldsmith’s patrons.
So here you can see what someone received, and the place where it was created, and, back at the top, the young man whose decades of experiences culminated into these creations.
Value is a matter of perception, in the context of one’s reality. The reality of the goldsmith is in contrast to the reality of the thieves who robbed him, although they are copacetic at that moment. Truly, since all of our lives are so ephemeral that any importance we attach to our own, other than the importance of caring for one another, is really egotism by definition. In this context, life itself, our ability to live, to breathe again and again, to sleep and wake up another day, is simply more important than the things in the safe. Even these beautiful irreplaceable things.
This is simply because living for another day is not living today.
These recently finished spoons will be available on spoonderlust on Etsy in the next few days. The wood was harvested on our land last spring, processed into billets, and stored to retain moisture. I am working on finishing 11 more spoons from this batch of wood.
People of all ages and from all walks of life and from all parts of the planet benefit from the complex living breathing organism that is a forest. Some may never have the distinct benefit and privilege of setting foot in one, and others may never stay in the forest for long enough to consider it an experience. Still others live on the edge of, inside, and with the forest. Those who have spent time in the forest might agree that, if nothing else, it is a remarkable place, a place that draws us in. Forests are complex places, and no less complex than everything else outside their edges. But somehow, unlike everything else, they are a place of their own. You can tell when you’ve entered, and when you’ve left, when you are close to one, and when you have been away from one for too long.
Reverence for trees might sound odd coming from a person who cuts trees down for the purposes of trail building and firewood, craft and more garden space. All that I do could be a mistake; I am at best fallible. But I do take from the forest, slowly, “by hand”, without a tractor or horses. And in 15 years getting to know a small part of the forest, I’ve seen and been a part of the changes there. I’ve never felt greedy or wasteful. I believe that what I have taken is from an abundance, and what is left behind is a reflection of the changing, vivid, diverse, and ever-evolving or devolving person that I am. It is a relationship, impacting both parties. Gratitude ebbs and flows depending on whether I am dragging logs uphill or downhill. But I’m not fickle; my passion for the forest overrides any temporary difficulty I may be having. I sometimes feel if I stay too long, I might not be able to come out.
The students I had the distinct privilege of working with last week at Sterling College in Craftsbury, VT were graciously friendly. I feign teaching, as what I do is really share something that is such a joy to me it is difficult to contain myself. I have to really slow down in describing and demonstrating the steps in making a spoon, yet all the while I do not want to bore the students or belabor the points. I don’t think I’m making this up: Spoon making has a disproportionately large number of “ah-ha” moments. On a small-scale, we realize what we are capable of. Wheels start spinning. The disconnection and displacement from all that was for thousands of years narrows quickly. The hands, making things, using tools, together, talking. I’m a sap, and it is beautiful. So as I always say, thank you for sharing your time with me, and tending my fire. Your enthusiasm is a joy to witness.
Rarely for me in this life are the elements of a particular day so joyfully copacetic and grounding, that I lay down at the end, exhausted, with renewed hope for our species. I do recognize that this simply might mean I need to work on my perspective a little, which is undoubtedly true, however this day was definitely one of those days.
Early this year, Rick Thomas from Sterling College reached out to explore having me visit as a guest instructor and share spoonmaking skills with the students in his Working Horses, Working Landscapes course. This course, focused primarily on draft animals as valued, respected, and revered participants in today’s agriculture, is one part of Sterling’s School of the New American Farmstead program.
Well if you know me, you wouldn’t have to twist my arm to get me to drive out to Craftsbury, VT, blasting The Duhks along the way through a sparkling August day to carve spoons together with a group of spry young people who signed up for such a program. Not to mention the delicious lunch, much of which came right from the Sterling farm. Oh, and there was the modest timber-framed green-woodworking building perched atop a hill amongst a few outbuildings, the lower half of which infilled with cordwood masonry, sporting wide views of the working farm, barns, and hills beyond seemingly intentionally spread out before it. Oh, also, there was the great and cheerful company of Rick Thomas, who in the span of the afternoon espoused so much knowledge to me as we walked the land that I had to pull over on the way home to take notes from my overflowing brain before the important stuff, like preparing the land for fruit trees, or clearing the ground beneath a favored variety of tree particularly loaded with seed to receive and start new trees, was lost to me on my drive home.
It was outside of the green woodworking building, in the shade of a Cherry tree, that we spend the warm afternoon learning to handle the bent knife and transform green wood into kitchen spoons.
I have observed that learning spoon carving, no matter if or how you receive instruction, begins awkwardly as you learn to hold the carving knife. Some learn well by reading a technical description of how to carve, others learn by looking at pictures or observing a demonstration, and some by doing. I do my best to instill a respect for the very sharp blade, and spend some of the first hour trying to reel in some wild whittling and dangerous knife wielding. But most of what happens is discovery through trial and error, a little frustration, with a little guidance. I’ll deliver small presentations of some other ideas about what is going on throughout the process. For the beginner, starting to carve out the bowl of the spoon is slow going. The tendency is to use a lot of force and a severe angle, trying to take out a lot of material at once. But eventually you create enough of an even, shallow concave across the whole bowl that the curved blade begins to more agreeably slice the curved surface. And there is the sound of a group of people carving. If I stand among the students in a workshop like this and quietly listen, the sounds reveal where they are in the process. After about the first hour of carving, many in this class found what I kind of consider a magical place where the spoon and knife and hands are coming into a harmony of motions. What is interesting to me is that along the way you might come up to any student as they carve, and each of them will be at a really different place with carving out the bowl, but, by the end of the class, as they worked out ways to hold the tool and spoon, and to carve, they are all yielding similar results.
This craft does lend itself, as Rick Thomas said, to quiet contemplation, and is a physical manifestation on a hand-held scale of technical problem solving. The concept of design in working with fresh green wood forces you to consider what is already there that you can see, as well as what is hidden inside; the potential. You can impose your creativity on the wood only to the extent that the grain will yield to the blade and the coordination of your hands, much like all of the living systems in which we interact. But by taking small, thoughtful cuts, be they with a carving knife or a furrow, and developing a keen awareness of what is beyond what you can see, you can be a part of revealing what is already there.
Thank you to all of the students pictured here, and to Rick Thomas, for inviting me to share this day! It was all I imagined, and even more was revealed as we worked with our hands together under the Cherry tree.