I paid particular attention to the bentcorner boxes in each gallery as they are my first and always love, and one of the interesting things I noted was some of the “fairly good” pieces were made by the same people who made the shoddy pieces. The carving on a good piece looked like it had been done by someone with an understanding of formline, understanding of the wood, adeptness with a knife, and a standard of good work. On the other hand, the bad stuff made by the same person looked as if it was done by an amateur carver, a beginner. The cuts weren’t sharp and clean, often with knife nicks and slips, the bottoms of V-cuts had fuzz in them, there were even little curls of shaving that hadn’t been cut off and cleaned up. The top edges inside had dings and pencil markings which could easily have been sanded off. And no care was taken to really “use” the design; it was just parked on there and left.
When I mention this to anyone (never the gallery because they generally won't let me back in if I point out stuff like that) I’m usually told “Oh, he must have been in a hurry or having an off day.” Hmmmm. I refuse to swallow that as an acceptable response or excuse for shoddy work. And I fail to understand why anyone would bother making or buying this caliber of work.
It also struck me while I was looking at the sloppy carving on what otherwise would have been a very decent little box, that the gallery owner as well as his clientele must never have noticed this shoddy work. At least that’s what I’m trying to think. It would certainly change my opinion about the gallery if I knew they knowingly accepted work not even in shouting distance of having some standard of good workmanship.
In one gallery, the Inuit Gallery in Vancouver BC, (this gallery is very wise to have comfortable seating throughout, where people can sit and really savor the beauty around them), I had the chance to sit, admiring, and studying a stunning box drum done by Reg Davidson.
Of course it’s a show stopper when you first see it, just from sheer size: 60x35x18.5 inches… As tall as I am and only slightly wider. Then I came around and saw the design on the front and I felt an immediate bubble of joy welling up in me. I paced myself though. I took the time to look at the beautiful, huge piece of cedar he chose for the drum, walked around it and inspected the immaculate construction, stuck my head inside and made a low hum to get a sense of the tone of the drum, then I sat down and let myself enjoy his design and paint job.
The design is a very simple, abstract Chilkat design, painted in an acid yellow that let the wood grain come through. At first the yellow was a little jarring, but the opaque green he chose to use with it was a perfect counterbalance and after a moment the yellow lost its initial impact. I realized the yellow is the exact color of wolf moss dye for a Chilkat Robe would be which helped me appreciate the colors even more.
Then I started analyzing his design and seeing all the little, subtle touches that make this piece really great. In a Chilkat, each element that isn’t black is typically outlined in black. But Reg did this wonderful thing along the open edge of the drum; he let the elements that were green or yellow be the final edge of the element, giving a sense the element flowed past the edge and continued on. He didn’t “close” the design with a black border along that open edge. It’s left to the observer to imagine the rest of the design.
My original bubble of joy had grown to a ripple throughout my body and my mind was alight. I started looking at the smaller, “less important” aspects of the design…the ovoids and circles inside elements and saw that he’d really thought about this. It’s common to see the same circle or ovoid repeated throughout a Chilkat design. It’s common to see this uniformity which can imply continuity, but doesn’t always really add anything to the design. But Reg changed it up and used different sizes, shapes and tensions which gave each of the circles and ovoids a unique dynamic within the whole.
Finally, after studying the design, I let the entire design into my eyes and let them run the flow of formline, feel the tensions, and see the composition of elements come as a whole. I loved the way some of the elements were stacked and some cascaded down the design giving the piece a wonderful vitality as well an interesting sense of balance. And now, that ripple in me became a wild shiver of joy and awe; I knew I was looking not only at a very well made object, but a true masterpiece. It is a piece of artwork without complication or complexity, without carving or inlays to embellish; it is without a single thing to distract the viewer from the simple perfection of masterpiece.
I was glad we finished our day at that particular gallery. I got to come home and dream of Reg's wonderful drum. I got to come home thinking about artists who really THINK about the piece they’re creating and manifest it with a sense of integrity to the material, the form and the tradition, and to themselves.
The title, "The Well-Made Object" originates from a quote by Bill Reid: "Joy is the well-made object."