Shortly after Hurricane Sally wreaked havoc on Mobile’s Place Bienville in September 2020, an idea emerged: to use fallen wood to create artwork. The notion of healing was simple. It turned out that the wood itself was as complex as its history.
Experienced woodturner Fred Retting has contributed a remarkable piece to a Mobile Arts Council exhibition of works made from fallen oak trees in Bienville Square. It comes with a note saying, “This is the hardest wood I have ever worked with.
“This is going to sound a bit far-fetched, it’s just my way of thinking, but I suspect that under the strain of wind and rain, stress and strain, trees put a lot of energy into trying to stand,” Rettig said. “The wood was cracked right through. inside.
“It was the consensus of a lot of artists, that wood was really problematic,” she said. It contained hidden cracks. He broke tools with his hardness and at least one trailer with his weight. It was slow to dry and stabilize.
“There were a lot of obstacles, with the wood itself being particularly difficult,” Gafford said. “We appreciate the artists who have succeeded in making works of it, because if it hadn’t been for the Bois de Bienville, no one would have made anything of it. … No one would have used it if it didn’t have that sentimental value behind it.
Anyone interested in seeing the results still has a few days to do so. The Fallen Bienville Oak exhibit was on view this month at the Mobile Arts Council Gallery in the Mobile Saenger Theater’s 1927 Room Street. It will be visible until March 31.
Artists who collected stubs of branches and slabs of trunks in January 2021, under the supervision of urban forester Peter Toler, had just over a year to process the raw material. Results take a wide range of forms. Some functional crafted items: a Tensaw charcuterie board from Delta Scott Woodworks, an electric guitar from Chris Fayland, and “Sally,” a sleek and inviting chair, from Ben Reynolds and Azalea Home Custom Furniture.
Other artists have used wood as a canvas for a variety of techniques, from sculpture (“Flowers” by Gary Mason to mixed media (“Steampunk Ship” by Samantha Savage) to a variation of Kintsugi, the Japanese technique of repairing broken pottery to turn flaws into feature films (“Kintsugi Sisters” by Amanda Youngblood). and in acrylics by Abe Partridge and Kathleen Kirk Stoves. The latter, titled “Hurricane Party,” bears Walter’s adage, “When all else fails, throw a party.”
“I was impressed with the variety of works people created and the different techniques used,” Gafford said. “I wasn’t expecting a fully finished guitar in this wood. Especially getting all the feedback about it being so terrible to work with.
She was also shocked, she said, that some of the artists donated the proceeds of any sales of their works to the Mobile Arts Council. “We didn’t expect anyone to do that,” she said. (Some of the works are not for sale. Others are, with prices ranging from under $200 to over $2,000.)
As for Retting, he can look at his vase with relief. He said he put in around 50 hours of work on the project, a vase with an elaborate top inspired by the fountain in Bienville Square.
“It was intense trying to finish this piece,” he said. “There was only one part that I didn’t have to fix during the process.”
For the vase, he started with a piece of wood that weighed 40 pounds. Trim it into shape. Roughing him down in shape took him down to 26. Digging him down took him down to five and a half pounds. This required drastic measures, as he knew he had to extract as much of the still-green interior wood as possible so that the rest could dry out and stabilize. “So he wouldn’t crack in half while he was sitting on the support,” he said.
It has a photo of an intermediate stage where the project was held together by something you wouldn’t normally find in a wood shop.
“After I cut the track, I knew if I didn’t do something to hold it together, I was going to be in trouble,” he said. “So I went to buy some radiator hose clamps, and there are six sets of hose clamps on this part holding it together.”
Like other artists, he had to find a way to use the cracks he couldn’t get rid of. He fills them with turquoise “representing the water flowing from the fountain”.
“At the end, I had fun,” he said. He was still polishing the part the day he delivered it. “I finished an hour before the deadline,” he said.
“If these trees could talk, these trees were planted in 1890, from what I’ve read,” he said.
“If” they could talk? Thanks to Rettig and the other participating artists, this is now the case.