An interview with Tom Givens by M by pengtt

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									An interview with Tom Givens by Mary Michaud 3-6-07 Where were you born? Lexington KY 12/1/62 My father was studying at Lexington Theological Society in Kentucky. I was their first born. We moved to Danville Virginia where my brother was born. We stayed there a couple years then we moved to Narrows, Virginia on the New River. Tiny little town, quaint. My brother Dave was born there. Did you spend a lot of time out in nature as a child? Oh yes. All the time. Back then kids could run off and we did - with little or no supervision. Which was fun you know. We destroyed the big maple tree in our front yard of the parsonage there, and built tree houses. Abusive to the tree I know now as an adult and tree lover. We would whack limbs off and nail what we whacked off onto the tree. Did you make other things form wood as a child? Splitting firewood I would see things come out of the shapes. When I was 12 or 13 I built a small ship just from the firewood. It looked like a hull so I stopped splitting and started carving. So it seems a bent that I have. I remember our father did our mailbox of weathered wood we found in the woods. It must have been white oak, or one of the decay resistant woods around, ‘cause it was old and really weathered. It came up from the ground and branched off so the mailbox set on this thing with a weathered branch coming up behind it. It was the neatest looking thing. It was just really cool. My mother is an artistic … person and my father grew up on a farm and knows how to build things. In that one project I see both my parents – the design and the build. That one project kind of illustrates how I took from both my parents to get the skills I have. We built my father’s house, you know I learned a little of construction. I helped my father build Volkswagen kit cars. I think I’m the only one who really enjoyed wood at my house. I’d be playing with roots – trees would get uprooted and I’d always be trying to cut stuff out of them. My brother Jim called it artsy fartsy. What kind of things did you make from the roots? Stands, a stool with three roots. I made dumbbells out of firewood as a kid. They looked like Fred Flintstones’. My friends would get a kick out of it – just come over to see my dumbbells. But they really worked, you know. They were just huge. They would have been red oak. Yah, so cutting firewood has always been a distraction for me. Even now I’ve got some wood on my front porch. I busted this cherry crotch open and it’s angular. These crazy grains go together at two points. So I’m definitely not burning those. I’m going to do something with them. I’ve got tons of really great wood, I don’t need to be saving any more. I see the potential in all kinds of crap. Sometimes I have to realize it’s just firewood. I did build nicely stacked pieces of … rotting wood with worms in it. I did stack it up to get woodpeckers to come to the backyard. I told you earlier it was cairns but now they don’t seem that aesthetically pleasing, in fact they look like piles of rotting wood. But it did bring the woodpeckers in. They’ve come every time I’ve made a new stack. We’re clearing out our backyard and I’m filling it up with lots of neat wood salvages. Do you have training in art? I did get a BA in graphic design and visual communications from Lynchburg College in 1986.

And what types of mediums did you work with? It was a broad general art program. You got to choose a little bit of what you had to do and what you got to do. I liked the dark room. I took two photography courses and really enjoyed playing in the darkroom. I enjoy the 3D stuff more. I enjoyed the printmaking. I never did take the ceramics. I did do one thing on a wheel. I took an exposure of my face sideways on the enlarger and cut that out in cardboard. I threw that on the wheel and made face. It was my profile on both sides. It was pretty cool I could have gone wild in that class. It was a cool pot. It actually survived firing. My dad had a shamrock growing in it for years. I’m building a lathe, right now, a big flat turntable lathe to put heavy stuff on and turn big stuff that you can’t fasten to the standard lathes. I’m going to do move turning of big things soon. Soon as I get this whale past me that’s one of the things I’ll be doing for fun. I bought a lathe 4 or 5 years ago. I turned a bunch of tall milk stools from cherry big thick cherry. I’ve turned a few bowls. In February when it was too cold to work on the whale I made a coat rack eight foot long with 13 Quaker pegs I turned out of camphor. So I turned all these little pegs. And it’s cool to look down the line. They’re all different. I have this book of how to build Shaker furniture so I just held the diagram up of their pins and picked one I liked and turned13 of them. And it’s cool that they’re different. So you come in the door and look down the line and they’re random. Like little white mushrooms coming out of the side. Lathes are cool because you can put a chunk of wood on and come to the end product pretty quickly. I mean, faster than lots of others. It’s a purely extractive process –schhhrt- take stuff away. And you sand it pretty easy –bbzzzzz- it’s sanded. And finish it – just rub oil on. And the spinning does all the work, saves elbow grease. It’s a cool concept. I want to do more of it. What would you do on the large lathe? Table bases. I’ve got some monstrous root systems I’ve dug out. Black cherry. And giant bowls would be cool too. Clamp a chunk of wood on the lathe and pretty fast you’ve got what you want. I’ve seen … bowl work where places in the bowl are missing where the wood’s rotted out or gone, a knot…so I have a built pile of wood by my lathe. A lot of black walnut. Do you have training in sculpture? No. Do you have training in structural building? I’ve read a little about engineering and know the basic concepts of tension and compression. Trial and error has gotten me through some projects. We built my father’s house when I was in high school. So I’ve got some of the basics of construction. When I first got to Charlottesville I worked at Gropen signs … and I wanted to go into woodworking, I felt bent towards that. I got a job at The Way We Were cabinet shop making $6.50 and hour building replica red oak furniture. Then I went to Cavanaugh Cabinets and then to Gaston and Wyatt where I learned higher end woodworking. I think I just wanted to learn good techniques in woodworking. I’d like to learn ship building now. Which I think I am learning it. I have a friend Michael who’s a boat builder. And I’ve picked up a lot of really helpful information from him. That the whale tail I’m building is boat building. I didn’t even realize it but it’s the same techniques. And it’s a fine application of the skills. How do you go from seeing an image to creating it in three dimensions? Lots of sketches. I scribble. Lots and lots of different cross-hatching … putting lots and lots of little lines. And then I showed you the small plasticine model of the tail. How did you get from the small-scale model to the 26-foot tail? That’s an excellent question. I don’t know. I know now how I could do it more efficiently. I guess I just projected it in the air. I mean I just had it in my mind what I wanted and just started putting pieces in together to get that. And that haphazard way does work but it’s proved to be a frustrating method. I do look forward to trying that same project over again in a new method. To go use the boat builder’s method - to use a half model since if you’re doing something symmetrical you only have to design one half. And get that design details worked out at this scale in a soft wood and measure that and multiply the measurements to build a form and get whatever size you want. I’m going to do the same project again with more efficiency. I’m looking forward to getting a chance to do that.

Did you measure the plasticine model and use those proportions? No just in my head. I used the force. Can you see how your cabinet experience helped you with the whale tail? The cabinet making not so much because it’s largely square and flat, and there’s nothing square or flat in the whale tail. But all the experience comes together…. I mean you might not even realize it. What about the furniture – does that seem more directly applicable? No but I try to make it utilitarian. You know, putting a door on it so it could be a garden shed. That’s what I had in mind. Then I thought outhouse would be even better. So that would be furniture making getting in the way. I like things to be both. I would like to make giant sculptural benches. Things that are cool - people like to see them and sit on them. I built this really cool bench to go around trees … at the Montessori school. It’s a great bench. Six boards make the seats and six boards make the legs. Each of the seat pieces are the same and each of the leg pieces are the same. They interconnect together – Interlocking dovetails, and two tennons pin the whole thing together from the leg. I used mahogany – all scrap, shorts from the mill shop I was working in. I really get a kick out of using trash – or stuff that’s not much good for anything else. How did the kids respond to the bench? They were excited about it. That excites me. Can you tell me about pieces you’ve made from trash? That tortoise is from one black walnut stump. It was in a cow field next to the creek. They probably would have hauled it off into a rubbish pile and burned it. The whale tail is built from stuff that would all be ground in a chipper and shot into the dustbin. The anchor, it was all shorts of mahogany that would have been firewood or gone into the dumpster. …It’s a bunch of little pieces parkayed together… with… marine epoxy. With a huge amount of glue you can do anything. My wife tells me I have an adhesive fetish. I mean I appreciate it. It allows you to take little pieces of scraps and put it together into something big. Is there a reason you like to use scrap? Because it’s free. And the mahogany came up from Central or South America. It’s beautiful. I saved mostly pieces that had really cool grain in them. Good figure. Because I get a kick out of just curly wood – waves, knots. I hate to see stuff wasted. So I can put something together from almost anything. Come up with something good – from waste to wonder. Well it’s something I think about. It’s something I’m concerned about – the damage we’re doing to the world we’re living in. And I like the reuse concept. I suppose I’m proud of the fact that I can do this stuff without pulling in new material. I like that. When I’ve worked in these shops, when I’ve worked on construction sites, it’s a little bit of an inhibitor to the production of getting stuff done if you’re concerned with the really cool trash that’s getting thrown out. So I save a lot of stuff…one of those pack rat people. And I’m not all that proud of my backyard right now. Last year I took 30 cherry trees out of a horse paddock. I tied them off at the top, dug them up and cut the roots. Largely because it’s a way to ease a big tree down and largely because I wanted the roots. And I hauled them home. I see the potential for a realistically sized [tortoise] from them. When you saw the walnut stump did you think tortoise? Yeah, I knew I could get a tortoise from that. And I decided that I would. How did you come to the idea for the anchor? My family and I went to the Baltimore Harbor. We toured the USS Constellation. I was checking out this really cool mahogany on it. I really liked the way the railings were pieced together. And there were these giant wooden ship anchors used as benches. I was looking for something to build for the Lynchburg College centennial celebration. I had been invited by them to submit something.

I was trying to find out what to build for that hundred years and I thought the anchor was a suitable concept. I won an honorable mention for that. It looked great in the gallery. My neighbor took a tree down across the street – a big red oak. I have enough to build another anchor solid – it’ll be four big pieces. It was well received and it was cool. Tell me the story of the Whale Tail. Well Nicholas and I purchased the Greenpeace 2006 Calendar for Lizzy for Christmas largely because of that photograph. I just was obsessed by it. I started thinking about them, sketching them and seeing whale tails everywhere. In old maps they’re drawn down in the corner to signify water. I saw them everywhere. And I did Google “whale tail, sperm whale tail” … and got lots and lots of photographs. And then I just started modeling it in clay and thinking about it on weekends, and playing around with it. And by May I had three boards stuck together. A big cherry tree, a big curved limb, I split right in half and folded open and it made a big wishbone. And then I drove a cedar post with a two-inch dowel on the end of it and drilled it through those. Then I just kind of looked at it and felt it out from there. It’s not the most efficient way but it might not have turned out to be so cool. I mean doing it this way may have been the only way I could have done it. It grew to this size through happenstance and just through me adding to it. I didn’t set out to have it at this scale. I think life size or smaller is where I was headed. I certainly didn’t intend for it to be so grand of scale that just kind of happened, to add to it to get it right. So maybe that technique – from the hip – isn’t all bad. It has some merit to it.

What has it been like to construct the Whale Tail in public view? Well it’s been fun. It’s a little bit of pressure I put myself under. It’s been nice to have people stop by and tell me how much they like it. That’s been cool. It’s gratifying. Positive feedback. Can you tell us some stories? I’ve had three or four people from Monterey California stop by – two of them told me they feel at home now they see this thing in Charlottesville. My mother keeps saying we should have a signature book just to record the people who have stopped. People want to know what’s holding it up so I explain that to people three or four times a day, but I enjoy it. One gentleman told me I was a national treasure right here in Charlottesville. That sounded great - I liked that. A young lady stopped by yesterday. She works at a gallery in NY. Artist people stop by regularly. One guy ... he doesn’t read and he does folk art. I’ve had several people, really country people, stop by and tell me they do folk art. It’s interesting. I had a gentleman from Seattle stop by and he was really thrilled with it. He told me I was the boss. And he said he has a friend who’s on an art commission in Seattle. That was encouraging. How do your ideas come to you? My brain just is churning out ideas constantly. I have to push them aside. I am perpetually rejecting ideas. And sometimes they just come and I yield to them. I just think in a funny way, sometimes they come from the material. {Firewood … or taking down trees I’ll ask can I dig it up. All this stuff goes in the chipper. The material sometimes says wait I’m a stool, save me. So I occasionally do.} I’m idea over laden. Tell us about the material in the Whale Tail. It’s all Spanish cedar and mahogany. It comes off the rip saw at [the mill shop] so they’re long randomly gauged rips. They’re going to the chipper so I go in and take substantive pieces... What is your philosophy of life? Be nice. Say please and thank you. Use your turn signal. And don’t use any more material than is necessary. I feel guilty about the imprint we Americans make, probably all humans, but we’re just better at it. We have more resource and more money to abuse. I just hate to see stuff go far away to the dump unnecessarily. Be nice and don’t waste. And have fun.

What do you think art does? Art soothes. It’s nice to have visuals that are appealing. It’s just good to have aesthetics. The more aesthetically pleasing the world is the better you’ll feel. I think that’s hugely important to human happiness. Is just seeing pretty things, being in pretty places while eating good food and listening to good music with good friends. It sounds hedonistic, and perhaps it is.

When you’re doing the Whale Tail what experiences do you have? In trying to get it finished it’s tedious and frustrating getting over the last hump of getting the skin on this beast but I’m almost there. I’ve got two friends coming to fill in all the little holes. So I’ve pulled in some help and I’ll have this finished within 2 weeks. I’ve told people that for three or four months but now I really mean it. So there’s a little bit of the stress of pulling it together and getting it up to what I want it to be. But at the end of every day I pick up my tools, I strap them onto my truck and I stand back and look at it and I’m pretty psyched. It’s kick ass. It’s cool. I’m very happy with it. {And I’m hoping that we can have it so the city can purchase it and leave it right there. That really great thing right there in my neighborhood I did. So I’m proud of it. I’m really excited about it.} Why do you do art? Because I can. Because it’s fun, you know? And there’s not quite enough stress in my life with me earning a solid income. So we shake things up a little bit, me stop working for six months. Let’s see what happens then. So it’s a risk and an imposition to stop your day job and just build a giant public sculpture. It’s not the most reasonable way to approach your finances. If everybody were responsible…this would never get done. Lots of people tell me they like it and I get a kick out of that. Having people say that that’s really great. My buddy Michael at my last mill shop I worked in said he and the rest of the guys there can all build doors, and windows and boxes and trim but they can’t build tortoises, anchors, and whales so I should be doing that and not building doors and windows and I bought the advice. It seems like it might be wasteful for me not to do this if I can do it.


								
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