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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin


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The Last Surviving Artists


Click on any picture to see a larger version.

Art died. I'm not sure exactly when the death spiral began, but I have an opinion on who accelerated, if not precipitated, the demise. Like the Starship Enterprise entering warp speed, when Jackson Pollock foisted his paint spattered drop cloths on an unsuspecting (dim-witted, gullible, lemming-like) public, the concept of "art" began its last gasping painful writhing death throes. As a writer of the time said, "This is not art - it is a joke in bad taste."

An article last year extolled "The Painters To Watch" in 2013. I question "what" we are to watch. The work featured from one such "painter to watch" was a white rectangle with a red strip down the right hand side and across the bottom, a yellow squiggly line across the top and down the left side, and a single blue curved line, like a parenthesis, offset to the left of the middle. There was nothing else. I could have "painted" that in something short of 60 seconds, but would never have the audacity or disrespect of my fellow humans to call that "art."

St. Francis Assisi said that a person who works with his hands is a laborer, one that works with his hands and his mind is a craftsman, and one that works with his hands, and mind, and heart is an artist. Were Assisi alive today, he would have to amend his saying to include working with a publicist, a manager, and a liberal dose of contempt, audacity, and a con man's effrontery that would rival P. T. Barnum (of "a sucker is born every minute" fame).

Of course it wasn't just bad Rorschach-test-like paint splatters that ruined art; the media, money, and a seemingly irrepressible desire for sensationalism also ruined art. The inclusion of feces and urine in "art" is but one example.

Woodworkers, however, have not ventured into this realm… at least so far. Woodworkers still strive for beauty, which for many is the essence of art. If you want to strive for ugliness, there are likely many inspirational examples at your local museum.

Every day, I see astounding pieces of furniture, awe-inspiring carvings, and breathtaking turnings that are produced by woodworkers skilled with their hands, keen of mind, and expressing their heart's love and beauty.

Figure 10 - I have done a lot of painting in this old tee shirt.
Bidding starts at $1 million. Frame extra. Jackson would be
so proud... 

Find me one article in one magazine that tells how to make a sloppy joint, or apply a finish in a haphazard way, or to finish a piece of furniture with paint spatters and I will admit to a creeping demise of the woodworker's art, but you can't. We woodworkers are always striving for excellence. Even the most novice among us strives for perfection. Witness the number of instructive articles that have appeared recently describing just the design process. From the golden ratio to building a scale model, woodworkers labor for pleasing forms, obsess over complimentary woods, seek pleasing grain patterns, and strive for balance, harmony, and scale, and then laboriously apply silky finishes that compel us to touch. We design for form and function, not sensationalism and controversy.

At a recent show, a featured dining table had a trough plowed into the top (think wide dado) that was filled with odd bits of detritus: rocks, screws, nails, bits of barbed wire and other paraphernalia. The incongruous trash was encased in epoxy. Purpose unknown, but I did get a little cold chill and an unpleasant feeling that somehow a bit of garbage "art" was creeping into woodworking. Please, please, resist this temptation. Woodworkers may just be the last surviving true artists. Let's all agree to "just say no" to bits of barbed wire, feces and urine, and especially paint splatters in our projects.

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