From the office in the oak grove

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Two full moons ago, I shared a glimpse at my outdoor office. Yesterday, I asked the boss if I might share few details about the location and the unique job I enjoyed under the shade of red and white oak trees. And he said yes.

The adventure started with a phone call and brisk interview. It was a working interview. The interviewer wore a leather flat cap and showed me wooden shields and signs.

“Can you paint?” he said.

“Yes, I can,” I said. “I brought my own brushes. Should I have brought my own paint?”

He didn’t answer. He was sorting through a stack of shields piled on a wooden table. He explained that some shields required touch up work due to weathering and use while other shields need to be painted — originals, as he put it.

“If I like your work, I can keep you busy all summer,” he said as he produced cans of paint and assigned a place to work. “If I don’t like your work…” Well, suffice it to say he related that my working interview would be concluded and I should not return.

“I’ll be back in a few hours,” he said and assigned two projects for me to complete. Then he got in his truck and drove down a service road to do something somewhere else on the property.

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It took a few moments for me to gauge what to start with. I picked up each shield and sign and weighed where to start. After I opened a couple of paint cans, I searched for a water bucket or anything to keep the brushes clean and for mixing colors. I salvaged a water bottle for a trash bin and began to paint. Long story short, he liked the work I did and told me I should show up the next day. That routine continued for most of the summer.

One, of many, comments he shared with me continues to intrigue me. It involved the idea of hand-painted art versus computer-generated, printed signs.

“There is juju with these things,” he said inspecting one of the shields I painted. “People connect with this stuff, because it was created with human hands. Not some computer.”

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I listened to him. I examined the source material that he shared with me. He sketched bestiary on a wood panel and I watched. He asked for my brush and corrected a shadow and I learned.

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As I drew the typography of a sign for the ring, it became clear to me what he had been telling me and showing me this summer. The clean, manufactured sterility of our culture separates the element of human touch. When I painted the “y” from the word “only” it was similar but not an exact facsimile of the “y” in “beyond” on the line below. Yes. Precision could have improved the exactness of the two letters. My lettering and painting captures my technique as well as foibles. 

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During this summer, I read several books by Ryōkan and Bashō. The historical footnotes and commentary on the calligraphy of the poets were as exciting as the literary work itself. The fact that scholars continue to examine the brushstrokes hundreds of years after the poets passed from this earth testify to the essence of human connectivity. The falter of a stroke — a brush loaded with ink that lacks the energy to complete a long stroke remains a signature of the poet. Was it intentional? Or accidental?

As I examined a finished sign with him one afternoon, I said, “It’s not perfect.”

“Only God is perfect,” he said. “These are magic. When people see these signs, they will know that this is real. This is the real thing. Not a duplicate. This is OS. Original standard. Good stuff. See you tomorrow.”

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