This conversation begins in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, in 1929. We are in my father’s sophomore year high school wood shop class. When the students enter the class, the teacher smiles and explains: “We don’t really have any wood for our projects. Just like in your homes, anything that costs money is in short supply. That might be seen by some as a disadvantage, but not in our town.” The teacher dramatically points to piles of wood scraps in the corners of the classroom. “Today, we will make trays from the discarded wood from richer days. We will learn a French word, ‘parquet,’ that refers to surfaces, usually floors, made from pieces of wood laid in a decorative pattern.”
I still have the tray, and it inspired me to ask some Southern Cayuga teachers and students about their work with wood. I brought my father’s tray along. I began my interviews with Tim Amory, the high school art teacher. He looked at the tray: “I love the contrast of the geometric shapes that incorporate the borders and the organic forms that add interest to the design.” Tim laughed when I told him my father’s story about shop class in 1929. I ended the story the way my father always did: “Remember, Elaine, when life gives you wood chips, make parquet.”
Tim and I agreed that wood has a lot to teach us. Carl Scheffler joined our conversation. Carl teaches science and coordinates the Master Minds program at the school. “Wood is the most versatile of building materials," he said. "It is easy to bend, and humans have created boats that take them anywhere they want to go. Imagine civilization without canoes, ships or other water vessels. Wood is also easy to work with, whether you are a carpenter or an artist. I love its flexibility and beauty. My lesson from wood is that flexibility is where all great invention begins.”
Tim continued: “Wood is such a versatile medium. It is used for so many functional objects, as well as just for art’s sake. In its natural state, wood is sculpturally interesting. One of my favorite British artists, Andy Goldsworthy, is a master in wood installations. My favorite pieces are done in a natural environment. He simply rearranges what nature has provided. Glad we have photos, but also value the impermanence of the art — nature returns to nature.”
Tim introduced me to Steven Sherman, a Southern Cayuga High School sophomore.
Steven had studied a book about Andy Goldsworthy’s art installations and creations using wood. He especially loved an installation using bright yellow leaves at the base of a tree. Goldsworthy had rearranged the fall tree leaves to edge a small pond near the tree. The organic shape of the water, outlined in bright yellow, captured the natural light and shadows of the wood.
Steven created a cabin using wood sticks, stone and paint that is now on display at the Schweinfurth Art Center in Auburn. He has thought about wood: “You know, some things just aren’t made to last. You can preserve wood and it will last a long time, but sometimes you want to work with the natural product. I love the range of color in wood and the smells. I hope to be an architect one day and I will rely on the light shades of oak, the warmth of cherry and the smell of cedar.”
We looked at a photo of Steven’s cabin that was now at the Schweinfurth Art Center. “I chose wood sticks because of their color and shape. They are so easy to manipulate into any size I need. When I envisioned my cabin, I wanted to create something cozy and totally at home in an outdoor setting. I wanted a structure that you could really live in — especially in the cold of winter. When I become an architect, I will always design for my client and the environment of the building. I will also know that my future clients will depend on me to use my unique skills and imagination in any design. Even when you are limited to simple sticks, paper, stones and paint, you can create something born in your imagination.”
As I left the school, I thought of all the lessons taught by working with wood. Wood teaches us to value flexibility, variations in color, natural beauty and utility of form. It asks us to ruminate on the value of impermanence. For me, the first lesson of wood came from my father. It is a lesson that I have used throughout my life: “When life gives you wood chips, make parquet.”