Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Rob Milam's Marquetry

Rob Milam is showing three pieces in Still Point Art Gallery's current show: American Portraits. The pieces are quite remarkable. Once you realize how they were made, they seem even more remarkable. The medium is wood veneers, and I asked Milam to write a short piece describing his technique or art form, which is called marquetry.


Milam: My work boils down to two major elements. The first is photography. I take pictures of a lot of faces and when I capture something really expressive and natural, I mark it down as a success. My favorite images are those in which the subject appears to have been caught by surprise or to not really care that there’s a camera being pointed at them. Capturing people in their natural elements...doing what they do every day - laughing, talking, playing, singing, babbling...is what makes a good subject in my book.

My photographs undergo significant photoshop manipulation in order to make them useful for the finished product. When I have the image looking right, I will do what in essence is a value study, which I use to create a line drawing with the lines representing separation of values. There will be anywhere from 4 to 16 values in my finished pieces, usually landing somewhere in the range of 7 to 10.

The second major element of my work is marquetry. This is the craft of cutting and piecing together contrasting pieces of wood veneer to create an image. I draw from my inventory of some 120 varieties of veneer to select a few that will contrast and complement each other effectively. Veneer selection is really the most fun and challenging part of the process. I have a limited palette to work with and consequently the finished product often tells more about what the wood has to say than what I have to say. I frequently end up with things I did not plan for and it always turns out to be a pleasant surprise. Veneers are available in varieties ranging from very dark brown to creamy white, but not every interval within that range is available. I have found that I have to forget about colors and select based on relative light values. To complicate matters, many wood varieties feature inconsistent “figure” which comes as a result of inconsistent growth patterns of trees. The various figures can cause the finished wood to look ripply, or wavy, or quilted, or mottled, or pocked with tiny rings as in “bird’s eye” maple. The availability or wacky figure is vast and infinite, especially when you get into “burl”, which is when a tree grows around a fungal infection. Anyway these various figures, when finished can reflect light in inconsistent and unexpected ways making it rather difficult to determine how dark or light a piece is.

After I select my veneers, I assemble them all in a packet, stapling them together so that they will not shift. Then using the line drawing that I created from the photograph as a template, I will cut through the entire packet with a scroll saw producing interlocking shapes in multiples; each cut results in a stack of pieces, one for each variety of veneer. As I cut each piece I place it in an organizer, a system of boxes, each with an ID number relating to a corresponding number on a master plan. To date my most extensive portrait has nearly 700 pieces, many of which are the size of a pin-head.

After I have all the pieces cut, I assemble the image. I select the proper variety of veneer from each stack and piece them all together like a puzzle. They don’t exactly lock together the way a jigsaw puzzle would, so as I build the image I bind adjacent pieces together with masking tape. After I have the image assembled, I glue the whole thing face down to a substrate, usually a piece of particle board. When the glue dries, I strip the tape off, then sand everything flush and smooth. Then I shellac and varnish the piece.

Marquetry is a craft as old as history itself. Ancient Egyptians did it, and the art form seemed to reach its pinnacle in renaissance Europe. The typical context for marquetry is in surface decoration of furniture. Although it’s not unheard of, the human face is not a frequently explored subject matter. I found a photo of a portrait of Pierre Rosenau created in marquetry by Vassilieffe (1930). It was quite photorealistic, and my response was to gawk in wonder, “How does anyone do that with wood?” That was probably the primary motivator that led me to explore this medium with portraiture.


Cold Man (16 x 17.2) wood veneers, $3500 [click here to view larger version of image]
Mary, wood veneers, NFS [click here to view larger version of image]

Return to Still Point Art Gallery
Christine Brooks Cote, Still Point Art Gallery, June 9, 2010

Monday, June 07, 2010

Call for Entries: True Artist

Submissions are now being accepted for Still Point Art Gallery's next online exhibition - True Artist. The deadline for entries is July 26, 2010.


For the artist...the "true artist," art is a way to be with one's self...a way to find and explore the pieces of one's self and the essence of one's self. Art allows one to question the unquestionable, speak the unspeakable, and attain the unattainable. For the "true artist," life draws meaning from art, and art draws meaning from life.

This exhibition invites submissions from "true artists." Artists are encouraged to submit works that are enmeshed with their lives...works that hold the artist's joys and sorrows, stories and secrets, reflections, musings, and passions.

If you are an artist, please consider submitting an entry. Of those submissions that are chosen, a small number of Artists of Distinction will be selected and invited to show more of their art as Gallery Artists during 2011.

Again, the deadline for entries is July 26, 2010.

The online exhibition opens August 11 and continues through October 12, 2010.

Return to Still Point Art Gallery

Christine Brooks Cote
Still Point Art Gallery
June 7, 2010