Something from Nothing

It’s not a bad idea to occasionally remove yourself from familiar surroundings, routines, tools and supplies. Dropping into unknown territory removes expectation from the equation. Anything can happen, and when it does, it’s bound to be new and different.

A recent artist residency at AARK in Finland’s western archipelago allowed me the freedom to make something from nothing. There were no tools at hand and none of the materials I’ve grown accustomed to for making artworks. The islands were swept clean of loose stone by the last ice age, leaving a landscape of bedrock, worn smooth. Enough soil caught in low pockets to start the growth of the forest that now thrives there. It was in that birch and evergreen forest that I found my moss muse.

As trees grow, their lower branches droop and touch the ground where moss climbs aboard and creeps up into the understory, smothering leaves and needles along the way. The branches die, but not before acting as scaffolding for the light-seeking mosses. The frilly growth is tough and tenacious, clamping hard onto every surface, right down to the finest twigs. In contrast to the close darkness of the deep forest, the skeletal, moss crusted branches are luminous, nearly phosphorescent. For a few hours each day I roamed the woods clipping out short pieces of the straightest and most luxuriantly barnacled twigs I could find. They became the weft of my weaving. A small roll of hardware store wire provided the warp.

Along with two hanging pieces, I fabricated two freestanding works by twisting wire to fasten criss-crossed sticks into pagoda shapes that became elevated on tendril legs of selvage threads.

I left Vermont for Scandinavia with a homework assignment which was to come up with a concept for creating a “stumpery” for a client in Southern New Hampshire. The commission that awaits my return home is to construct the bones of a garden space using the bare root balls of a dozen tree stumps. On the forest floor of Korpo Island there is a thick mat of moss that thrives on decaying tree litter. As a way of simulating that rotting substructure for the upcoming installation I made two 3-D sketches from twigs and clay. One suggests a way to fashion a platform for groundcovers to grow by laying a log raft horizontally on the ground, and the other demonstrates how logs could be assembled in a vertical configuration.

The outlets for self-expression are bountiful in today’s culture. As the number of options increase, choosing one becomes more difficult. Possibilities must be subtracted to clear a way for creativity to move forward. A mode of expression will manifest itself where curiosity and desire intersect. The vehicle for exploration is the investigation of form that begins with a picture in the mind, or, with the mindless articulation of a material in the hands. It doesn’t take much to get started, in fact, as Mies said, “Less is more.”

My thanks to Renja and Benkku for the warm welcome extended to Elin and me during our stay at AARK. Renja Leino’s enthusiasm for the arts and nature is infectious. Present, and past, students at the Turku Art Academy are very fortunate to have her guidance and support. Her years there, and as the founder and head of AARK, have given countless artists a freedom to explore their curiosities and desires.