A place to land

The photography is furniture is difficult. I should have an all-white background, the piece should be raised up, and the lighting should control glare; I am very sorry to not have these things, because the piece deserves it.

You can’t always garden.  Sometimes you need to go inside and take your muddy Bogs off.  So I won’t have to hop around on one foot while I do that, I crafted a bench for our entry foyer: inspired by the glorious furnishings of George Nakashima, composed mostly of wood species that naturally occur on my property, and embellished with motifs of the Native American tribes of  my region.   I designed and built this piece of furniture before our home was built, using the dimensions on the construction drawings to size it.  Then I turned it over to my father, a talented woodcarver, to create the design on the benchtop.

If you click on a photo it should enlarge; then place your mouse over an area and click again to view detail.

My father is 80, and his ‘hand’ is not what it once was.  The soft wood of the surface and its long, brittle fibers flummoxed him;  he puzzled over the carving for almost two years before completing it.  He will say it is not his best work, and I agree.  Yet the imprecision of his lines and the scars made by his fits and false starts show Wabi Sabi – the ‘maker’s hand;’ though I could have corrected some of those things in the finishing process I chose not to.  He carves now as he does, and this is the only piece of art and craft he and I have ever collaborated upon, and likely ever will.  The marks of trouble and the bruises the wood sustained in the time he had the bench are a part of the story this piece of furniture tells.

I have built and written about other items here, always with the disclaimer that it is neither the most complicated nor beautiful object I have created. I don’t make that disclaimer here. While deceptively simple, this IS the most beautiful object I have ever created. Please do not perceive ego in that, for I say it with the humility that comes from surprise and delight at having released the beauty that lived within these materials long before they came to my hand, and at having at last the opportunity to create beauty in partnership with my father.

The seat is a slab of Western Red Cedar, salvaged from a partially buried stump by a friend and mentor; the leg pieces are FSC-certified vertical grain Douglas Fir; the stretcher is a section of storm-fallen Pacific Willow, with cambium and a small branch intact.  The only ‘exotic’ on the piece is a small butterfly key of Black Walnut that holds a crack in the willow together.  Where the natural edge of the cedar was punky from contact with the moist earth, I blackened it with my wife’s brulee‘ torch, polished it, and blackened and polished it once more to halt the rot.  This is a fun thing to do, but only when your wife isn’t home, because making fire in the garage is possibly against the rules.  The legs and stretcher have five coats of poly finish, and the top has fifteen coats of hand rubbed clear finish, and now I have shoulders like cannonballs, even more than before.

My father carved the hummingbird motif and created the inlay with hand-shaped discs of abalone shell.  It is modeled after a figure from a Coast Salish legend, a favorite bedtime story of my daughter.  My family loves these cute and pugnacious little birds.

Hummingbird and the Great Fire

Lighting struck the Great Island, and the forest caught fire.  As the flames grew, the animals of the forest were frightened.  Their home would be destroyed, they could all be killed.  Red Squirrel said, We must flee!  Deer and Rabbit began to run.  Soon panic controlled the creatures of the woods.  All of the animals ran before the flames.

Wait! A small voice was heard over the din of fearful beasts.  This forest is our home! We must save it!  It was Hummingbird.  But what can we do? cried Fox.  The fire is too great, and we will all be killed!  Hummingbird flew to the ocean and filled his beak with seawater.  Returning to the fire, he released the water on the flames.  Drip, drip, drip, the water hissed as it struck and yet the fire still raged.  Back and forth flew Hummingbird until his tiny wings ached with fatigue.   The great bears, Black and Grizzly, took notice and shouted: Hummingbird is the least among us.  How can he alone save us?  We must help him!  And so the bears called to Wolf and to Cougar, to Lynx and Bobcat.  Help Hummingbird! 

The fiercest and most powerful animals of the forest turned alongside Hummingbird to help.  Each of the beasts of the woods gave their strength: Beaver cut trees to slow the fire, Fox and Wolf dug a break.  Moose and Elk pushed and dragged trees and brush.  Above them all, the birds of the air carried water from the sea to the flames.  The fire slowed, then stopped.  Drip by drip, the flames were extinguished.  And that is how Hummingbird, the most courageous of all the animals of the wood, saved the forest of the Great Island.                                                      

                                                                         As re-told by Calvin Caley

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15 Responses to A place to land

  1. Deirdre says:

    I covet it.

  2. Gorgeous, I love it big big!

  3. Chad B says:

    Calvin, it’s a beautiful piece of furniture made more so by the imperfections and the collaboration between a father and son. I’m sure that will be a family treasure for generations.

    I enjoyed the hummingbird fable too.

    • calvincaley says:

      Thank you very much. I have made other pieces before and since, but this one almost expressed itself to me as I made it; I feel like I can take little credit for it, but must give it to the materials and my teachers at SlabArt.

      Growing up with my father’s carvings and his many books of Native art and culture, I have always loved stories like this. When I came across this particular story, I was intrigued that there was a lesson: most Northwest Coast mythology seems only to explain how something came to be. The hummingbird is a powerful spirit animal to the First Nations of Vancouver Island, and I didn’t understand why until I moved to the forest and watched these lovely and graceful little creatures buzzing and diving upon eagles and hawks to protect their nests. Makes me feel all the better that they largely ignore me. I wouldn’t want them mad at me!

  4. Corene says:

    We need to take some better photos – these don’t do the piece justice! Great post.

  5. Becky says:

    Beautiful piece and a beautiful story! Your words as well as the fable.

  6. rainyleaf says:

    Calvin, this is amazing! You’ve taken the raw materials that nature has provided and made them into something more. A beautiful piece of art! Quite remarkable, thanks for sharing!

    • calvincaley says:

      Thank you so much. It is extremely humbling to receive a compliment like yours. I have gotten to a point in the Mitigation activity that will likely bring about more built-projects, more built-environments…I’ll be showing how I (and we) are learning to live on the land, not just learning how to car for it. I am glad you like the bench!

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