With the scenes from Eastern and Western literature burned into the side boards, I added three shades of of wood stain. Three tones if you will: gray, green, and dark brown. And a little bit of white oil paint for the moon. Maybe the addition of white paint was too much — a flourish, embellishment. No take backs. What is done is done. Only two more steps remain: wood finish and installation.
I am a little embarrassed by how long it took to build and decorate this no-plan, salvaged-wood bookshelf. And yet, the process was enjoyable, painful, and therapeutic.
In the back of my mind I wanted the artwork on the bookshelf to be imperceptible. To be part of the wood. To appear as if it were coming out from the wood. Something that a casually observer might miss. But an astute observer would cast a second and a third glance and then walk up close to inspect the nearly hidden image.
Instead of painting the scenes on to the bookshelf, I chose woodburning. The results surprised me. And my kidlingers. The long process of transforming the graphite sketches into dramatic burnt dark figures amazed them. And the craft and process of making the art renewed my imagination.
Too often I spend my day in front of a screen reading, researching and replying to emails. It’s knowledge work. It’s spreadsheets, production reports, and project management. These are all important elements in the workflow of art direction and graphic design. But they can become a psychic vampire as one coworker likes to say. And this summer therapy project was part of the remedy.
What is a challenge if it is too easily accomplished? Why not decorate the salvaged-wood, no-plan bookshelf?
Who suggested the idea is forgotten. Whether it was one of the kidlingers, or my wife, or myself is not important. But through the summer week nights and weekends a conversation took place as to decorating the bookshelf.
Since the bookshelf was intended to house schoolbooks, I decided to draw a scene inspired from Eastern literature and a scene inspired from Western literature.
Earlier in the year I had been reading Tu Fu, the autobiography of a Chinese poet, translated by Florence Ayscough. The author records Tu Fu’s reflection of his early years,
“Aged nine, I wrote large characters There were enough to fill a hard-bottomed bag.”
Tu Fu, from “Years of Strength Travel”
I intended on drawing a scene from that book. But decided upon Li Po instead. One poem captured my imagination.
I raise my cup to invite bright moon, . . .
I sing and the moon dances, I dance, and my shadow tumbles Sober, we share the joy we knew…”
from Li Po’s “Drinking Alone under the Moon”
I found a couple paintings of Li Po on the internet. That became the drawing for the Eastern side of the bookshelf.
For the Western side of the bookshelf, I selected the story of Daphne and the laurel tree. Years ago I acquired Myths and Enchantment Tales by Margaret Evens Price. During the first month of the safer-at-home orders from the state I rediscovered the book. The story of Cupid and Apollo caught my eye because of a detail I had overlooked. Peneus, the river god and father of Daphne, turned his daughter in to a tree in the forest to protect her from a love-struck Apollo. Price’s lovely illustration was the source of the inspiration. And gave me an excuse to play the woodgrain of the side boards into the illustration.
Jigsaw puzzles appeal to many people because the scrambled mess has a decisive solution. Usually, because the path to success is printed on the outside of the puzzle’s cardboard box. Build the edges first and then fill in the center. The strategy is fairly simple. The execution presents the delightful journey.
Building a bookshelf without plans is like dumping several jigsaw puzzles on to a table top, throwing away their cardboard boxes, and trying to create one solution from the many parts.
After selecting boards for the shelves, sides, supports, and legs, I started cutting the pieces to fit.
One of the therapeutic aspects of working with your hands is the tactile creation of the project. So much of what I do for a living is done by proxy. I design images for print and web. But I never touch the art. A pointer displayed on a screen by way of a handheld device that tracks two-dimensional motion allows me to design a variety of material. But it also presents a barrier. Glass, metal, and plastic separates me from the art I created. Should the art maker and the art object be divided in such a manner?
The physicality of this salvaged-wood, no-plan bookshelf presented joy. The smell of the sawdust. The feel of the drill boring into hardwood. The motion of sanding off the rough edges.
Sure, there were some mistakes. A board was too warped to use. Another board split when screwed in place. Four legs that do not match. But that is part of the riddle. Part of the delight.
When the assembled jigsaw pieces from several puzzles were set on the grass one weekend, it resembled a bookshelf.
It was as much a challenge as it was therapy. Discarded pallet wood salvaged from a curb. The pallets rested there for weeks. One of the kidlingers helped me load it in to the automobile and take it back to the apartment’s garage. The pallets were broken down into boards. Nails were removed. And boards stacked in order of length and thickness. As well as amount of damage. Some boards were broken. Others split when nails were removed. Some boards had mold while others had oil residue.
We formed plans. The kidlingers and I could build boxes. Handy, useful boxes. Boxes with handles. Boxes for storage. A doll house? What about a bookshelf? A bookshelf for schoolbooks.
And I needed something to do amid the quarantine. Something away from computer screens, teleconference video meetings, and email notifications. Americans adapted to local and state restrictions in order to mitigate the spread of the pandemic back in the Spring. Some worked from home. Set up remote offices at the kitchen table, basement desk, or spare room. For me, a window table I built in the bedroom became the office work space. Working and sleeping in the same room became claustrophobic. When the warm days of summer arrived I eagerly looked forward to the time of day when I turned off the computer, changed clothes, and went to the garage to work on a wood project.
I settled on building a few small boxes for starters. Something to get the hands and mind prepared for something bigger—a new bookshelf built from salvaged wood.