John (Jack) Elliott
works statement: My sculptural endeavors, which I call “Arborworks”, explore and express relations between trees, people, and our shared biophysical environment. I use the project as a guide for research, a stimulant for discourse, a form of outreach, and a source of aesthetic value. The pieces often refer to an environmental issue, such as climate change, invasive species, or the depreciation of nature, but their primary purpose is to first move the viewer emotionally though their power of form and surface. The rational content follows.
My sculptures are derived from unwanted tree parts that have been naturally harvested or removed because of displacement or disease. Using these waste products, I work to have the tree reconsidered. I do not force the material away from what it is. I work with the material, to allow its hidden assets to be revealed through a set of minimalist interventions; of cuts and poses, a kind of “art tartare”. I have been doing this in a variety of scales from handheld objects to crane-lifted pieces. Every project is different but they are all characterized by the juxtapositions of the geometric and the organic; the intentional and the spontaneous; the light and the dark.
technical statement: I execute all of the work necessary for the sculptures, including ideation, preparation, creation, and installation, with assistance from interns. The work is not interactive in a designed sense but most pieces encourage touch and movement around. The pieces may have a “front” and a “back” but can be viewed from all angles and from a variety of distances, depending on scale.
The sculpting process begins when the wood pieces are delivered to the studio in a raw state. They are cleaned and debarked, mostly by hand, so as to spend time with the them and learn about their possibilities, while conducting research on the particular tree species and its relation to place and culture. Formal preconceptions are resisted. Instead, a more improvisational method is used, working with the parameters that the pieces provide.
The piece is sculpted with simple interventions, often cut with a chainsaw, cleaned up with a router and finished with a series of power sanders. These surfaces are typically sealed with a clear museum wax, for an indoor installation or a clear, water-based nano-silica sealant for outside. The remaining natural surfaces are scorched black with propane torches to sanitize the wood, to heighten the tonal contrast with the cut surfaces and to de-familiarize the work so it is viewed as a sculpture first, tree second.
A recent development combines my knowledge of machining and computing to extend this idea of de-familiarization. I have been making digital scans of some small wood pieces and 3D printing them in molten polycarbonate. This further removes the “woodness” while preserving the form while allowing various artifacts of the media transfer to appear. I intend to use the 3D database to allow printing at other scales and in other fire-related media such as glass and bronze.
This new development began as a lucky break, in both terms of the word. Typically, I use all of the wood of the original pieces as the offcuts from the sculpting process often make smaller works. Pieces with less character are cut into 16” lengths and are split for my fireplace. However, on occasion, the wood splits into interesting forms, exposing hidden features of visual interest. The idea of taking something so commonplace as firewood and having it be re-considered as meaningful form through a variety of thermal processes at a variety of scales is my new creative direction.
cultural statement: I have been working with wood since my first days of shop in junior high school in Alberta. My graduate thesis project was a wood and stainless steel chair. Over the next few years, I continued to create studio furniture for my own use and learn new technologies such as parametric modeling for furniture production. However, once I moved to the Northeastern US, my interest in sustainability combined with knowledge of the local forests and furniture traditions of the nearby Adirondacks, changed the direction of my work. I began to use use raw wood to create my furniture components, rather than finished dimensional pieces. This is not simply a matter of cost. I found that working with the trees’ “flaws” was much more interesting than treating the wood as an isotropic, uniform material. I found the greatest character in the parts of the tree that were unwanted by industry: the crotches, the branches, and the roots.
This approach to design is characterized as “rustic”, where the imperfections of the material are deliberately sought, rather than removed or avoided. Bark is left on or irregular pieces of wood are used to provide a visual reference to the forest from whence the materials came. In rustic design, irregularities are celebrated, not left. In today’s increasingly urban world, there is a growing interest in artifacts that directly reference nature in some way, connecting to our innate biophyllic predilections for living things.
As I became more involved with larger tree parts, tree roots in particular, I discovered that my work was becoming less functional, and more sculptural. I was finding less inspiration from Adirondack furniture and more from Chinese tree root carving, a two thousand year old tradition. Here, roots of trees were carved because of their variety and complexity of form. Most of these characteristics are hidden beneath the ground, but when exposed, they reveal a hidden world of organic growth and decay, often objects of great beauty themselves. Out of respect, Chinese root woodwork is guided by the natural form of the material itself, becoming a work of revelation rather than imposition. Most of the natural form remains. Human interventions are small and work with the material. Every piece is different, but each works to expresses a harmony and unity between the intervention and the form. This has become my approach to sculpture as well, where minimalism meets the tree.