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Celebrating The Spirit Of The Wood

I am delighted to introduce you today to a wonderful #craftsman called Pete Thompson. Here he writes about his work and love for #trees. In this article he talks about embracing the ancient #Japanese principles of #wabisabi, a tradition of aesthetics that can be described as beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete". He uses #wood grown locally, so each piece has a special connection with the #landscape that he knows and loves and is imbued with what winemakers call #terrroir’ - which he likes to think of as ‘a #senseofplace'. Enjoy.

"My name is Pete Thompson and I’m a writer, environmentalist – and woodturner. Spirit of the Wood is the name that I give to particular turned wood pieces that I create, which are a blend of craft, creativity and art.

A yew bowl with cracks, knots and irregular edge – the epitome of the principles of wabi-sabi.

I chose that name because I believe that each piece of wood I use still retains the spirit of the tree from which it came and that’s what I try to bring out. By spirit, I mean a unique combination of its history as shown in the growth patterns, how it encapsulates the particular characteristics of the species itself, but also an indefinable and special quality that will be very different even in sections taken from the same log.

Because of this, each finished piece has its own unique, intrinsic beauty that is the result of an inseparable partnership between maker and material. The form of the finished article is dictated as much by the wood itself as by my hand. This is the antithesis – and deliberately so - of modern, mechanically mass-produced objects where each one is predictable and uniform because the materials must conform to a rigid design and production process. Instead, it embraces the ancient Japanese principles of wabi-sabi, a tradition of aesthetics that can be described as beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete".

Every article I create is the result of an idiosyncratic approach and the individuality that comes from a combination of the maker’s #craft and natural materials which carry their own distinctive character. What some might call imperfections are celebrated rather than disguised or obliterated. So no piece can ever be exactly repeated because no two pieces of wood are ever the same – and neither is the maker’s mindset, interpretation, or even the selection of the individual tools used for each stage.

The Cracked Chalice by Pete Thompson
The Cracked Chalice

Chalice by Pete Thompson
The Cracked Chalice, showing how the wood has grown year-on-year out from its heart.

The wood that I use is mostly #British native, or naturalised, hardwood that has grown locally, so each piece has a special connection with the landscape that I know and love and is imbued with what winemakers call ‘terrroir’ - which I like to think of as ‘a sense of place'. Like most woodturners, I am a wood hoarder and prefer to work with pieces that I have been given, salvaged or collected myself and which might otherwise be scrapped, chipped or burned. Tree surgeons are good friends in this respect and I have been given some fine pieces, often cut from trees that have died or been trimmed to assist their future wellbeing. My favourites are the hard-to-find and harder to work yew and elm, but I also enjoy oak, ash, beech and sycamore, whilst even the common or garden laburnum is prized for its remarkable grain and colour patterns.

Yew wood on lathe
A beautiful piece of yew mounted on the lathe. I can already see the finished bowl emerging (see the picture at the bottom of this blog

The creative process begins the moment I see a piece of wood.

Long before I begin a project or pick up a tool, I study the whole log or piece of wood – sometimes for weeks or even months – to see what form is suggested. A piece of the appropriate length is then cut out and the growth patterns and grain structure again examined closely before mounting it on the lathe.

Sometimes a piece is created in one long, exciting session as the wood eagerly reveals its secrets; with others it may take days of contemplation, reflection and observation. What results will not only expose the beautiful grain patterns on the outside, but also delve deep into the life of the tree as written in the years, decades or even centuries of growth rings, knots from side-branch connections, and any checks, faults or damage that can be seen from the very heart of the wood to its outer bark. A #dendrologist might use these to read the history of events that a tree has lived through; my job is to allow that story to be read by anyone who looks at the piece, using whatever skill I have to show this to the best effect whilst creating an article that may be useful, simply beautiful or, perhaps, both. This reflects the advice of Arts and Craft Movement founder, #WilliamMorris, who said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

Almost invariably, the forms of the pieces change from what I originally had in mind during the process of their creation – often several times, as the wood itself guides the way the tools interact. What I seek to achieve is harmony between the hand of the #craftsman and the hand of nature. The object of the exercise is to bring out something that is already there – latent but just discernible. These are pieces that are deceptively simple in form but which take time and patience to create in a process that can be meditative or stimulating, but always deeply satisfying. Gradually, there emerges a unique, intrinsic beauty that is a pleasure to look at and to handle.

Whoever tries to imagine perfection simply reveals his own emptiness.” George Orwell.

Yew goblet Pete Thompson
Dark Yew Goblet

Encompassing the principles of wab-sabi, perfection is not what I strive for because perfection, quite simply, does not exist. Sometimes the wood will crack – or it may have faults to begin with. This is welcomed and will give a unique character to the finished piece. Or evidence of tool marks may be deliberately left to show the hand of the maker. If I make a mistake, the shape may be modified in order to eradicate it. But, equally, I may let it remain as a lesson that life is full of imperfections that we must either compensate for or learn to live with and accept as beautiful. Nor do I want a shiny gloss finish to the pieces, suffocating the wood with layer upon layer of synthetic varnish. Instead I prefer a couple of light applications of natural wax such as carnauba and beeswax. This allows the wood to breathe and continue to develop; in effect, to continue to have a life of its own and exude its unique spirit.

That life, I would like to believe, enhances ours. And that spirit combines harmoniously with our own."

The patterns of its life that are part of the spirit of the wood in this yew bowl by Pete Thompson
The patterns of its life that are part of the spirit of the wood in this yew bowl

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