Dorsey James, Sculptor





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detail Dorsey James, Sculptor

Louder Than Words

For Dorsey James woodcarving is a visual language, his true means of self-expression.

A reflection on the aestetic and practical aspect of his work.

Carving provides me with the silent communion with self that is necessary for me to function and grow. It is not a form of instant gratifications: Like most artistic pursuits it takes time, patience and dedication. At the same time, however, it stimulates and relaxes the mind.

Woodcarving is very much a fine art to me. It is the means of self-expression, a language that enables me to say what needs to be said. The words and sentences are visual and take the form of projection, recession, size, form, space, mass, volume, textures, line, penetration and degree of abstraction - not to mention the type of wood used and the subject matter.

Seeing woodcarving as a fine art demands that I approach each piece from an emotional standpoint. In other words, a greater emphasis is placed on how I feel about the piece being carved than the initial visualised image, which is subject to much change from conception to completion.

This might seem limiting but in fact is creatively quite liberating. It enables me to respond to every unexpected occurrence in the material as it is being carved. How well the occurrence reflects the initial impetus to accomplish the piece will determine whether it will be retained, altered or eliminated. I can re-articulate the form, as I carve, to accommodorate very positive occurrences in the wood such as an unexpected colour or grain pattern change, or something very negative such as rot, a check or a foreigh object. The image is manoeuvered mentally to include or exclude these surprise characteristics.

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I know that to many this approach will seem difficult if not impossible to master - and at first it is. But with time and practice it becomes second nature and brings out the creative best in you.

A good exercise to develop this technique is simply to begin carving a piece with absolutely no idea of what you are going to create. Draw nothing on the wood. Cut in lines, spaces and shapes that you feel suit your true mood and self. Despite the initial insecurity that you will unquestionably feel, the sculpture will ultimately define and refine itself.

Each of my wood sculptures begins with a myth or legend. I usually identify with a particular character or situation within the story which prompts me to express my perception. This generates a notion of an abstract shape that not only seeks to avoid obvious shortcomings in the material, but also creates a sense of movement, flow and/or continuity around and through the piece consistent with my own emotional imagery. The arrangement of the 'visual word' components - such as form, size, line and texture - that will ultimately tell the story, is at this point ambiguous at best.

Actual carving starts with the touch of the chainsaw on the material to establish the preliminary form, volume and direction. I use a 12A Makita electrical saw with a 12 in, 305mm bar. I have removed the bar guard so that I can carve with the tip. It spins at 1600 revolution per minute (RPM), so I wear protective clothing as well as eye, head and ear protection. The advantage is that I can use the saw pretty well to draw in three dimensions.

detail Rough form is achieved quickly and effortlessly. This is important to me because I find that wood sculpture is downright ugly ninety percent of the time you're working on it. Day in and day out, despite your efforts, the piece seems to manifest precious little of the beauty of which you know it's capable. Only in the very last stages does the work show indications that it's really happening, that everything is going to be fine. The increased speed of rendition helps to get me through the 'stock removal doldrums'.

The next level deals with coarse detailing, for which I use a Craftsman, 28.000 RPM, 1/4in drive portable die grinder. This tool is most useful for creating secondary detail, surface contouring and sculpting. The portability and speed of the die grinder makes for quick and easy work on the rough hewn surfacing left by the chainsaw. It also gives enough control to see what is happening with the material by way of grain pattern and colour changes. This is where much of the subtle beauty of wood is uncovered, discovered and recovered. For me this phase is not only interesting but also tremendous fun.

Next comes the fine detailing. This is done partly with the Dremel Moto-flex grinder and partly with the Dremel Series 396. These tools bridge the transition from the 1/4in drive cutters to the 1/8in drive (and less) and the fine detailing capabilities they provide. For superfine detailing, my dentist provides me with as many 1/16in drive cutters and stones as I need, (this also ensures that I'll come in for my check-up).

I regard technology not as a threat but as an extension
of my own will to reflect, accomplish and create'

Both Dremel grinders are used to create the variety of texture on the sculptures by changing the cutter type, size, angle, speed and contours, along with the size, proximity and degree of penetration of the cuts. The quantity and degree of refinement of texture should reflect the overall character of the sculpture. I find it useful to carve sample textures on a scrap of the same wood before applying it on the piece.

Once all the carving is finsihed, the most tiresome and tedious phase begins, sanding. I use drum sanders and sleeves on both Dremel grinders as well as on the Craftsman die grinders for coarse sanding. My wife, however, presented me with a Craftsman electric finger file for my last birthday, so recently I've been using it for coarse sanding more than the grinders. It handles most of the very organic contouring with great ease.

detail Inevitably, though, the power tools must fall by the wayside to be replaced by sandpaper and elbow grease. Though I see no way to get around this, there are some helpful tips. Hand-made contour rasps and rifflers are ideal for levelling out those inaccessible contours. The Sandvik hand wedges and sanding belts are a godsend for crisping up edges and rim-like effects.

Another item I've found helpful is the wool-bodied, rubber-pimpled sanding glove. It can be used during most of the hand sanding except in extremely tight situations where it tends to get in the way. However, the pound of skin it saves makes it well worth the investment. The piece is taken through sandpaper grades 50 to 600 (wet/dry)

A protective finish is then applied. I use Benjamin Moor's satin urethane cut with lacquer thinner. This immediately brings out the beautiful colour and grain of the wood, and the effect is often quite stunning. Initial applications is with a fine brush. Excess is wiped off and the process is continued with a soft cloth; material from tee-shirts or from baby sheets works well. The piece may require anything from three to five light coats of this finish. Extra fine, 600 grit sanding is performed between coats. The final surface protects the piece but gives the appearance of having only been waxed.

This type of protective finish is necessary for my sculptures as they are often on public display. Frequent touching can have very negative effects on unprotected wood sculpture. The piece can, of course, just be waxed but the effect would be purely cosmetic, ie. a waxy feel and smell, rather than protective.

My sculptures sell well. I believe this is because no two pieces are alike even though I regularly repeat certain subjects. Clients often express appreciation for that fourth dimension, the story behind the piece. The story or character is usually of such a universal nature that it touches the life of the client - past, present, or possibly, maybe hoped for, the future. They also enjoy telling the story to friends and visitors, and pointing out hidden imagery in the sculpture.

detail There are those who feel that woodcarving is threatened by the onset of technology and so cling to the tired and true ways of old. That's OK because woodcarving should be what we need it to be. It must take us to that place of solitude where self-reflection can happen and self-satisfaction can blossom.

I choose to see woodcarving as a fine art and, as such, reflective of my self and my life experience. Also, being very much a product of the twentieth century, I need to see a reasonable degree of accomplishment for my time and efforts. The power tools help me to reflect while I accomplish. And having regularly used high-speed die ginders as an aircraft mechanic in the airforce, the power tools are indeed a true reflection of my life experiences.

I therefore regard technolgy not as a threat but as an extension of my own will to reflect, accomplish and create. It's not the tool that is important but how it is used. St.Francis of Assisi put it best when he wrote:'he who works with his hands is a labourer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.'

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  All text and images on this site are © 2007, Dorsey James
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January 29, 2007