If you are creative, do you see every blank surface as a canvas, on which to make your mark? Does a plain piece of paper call to you, for the scratching of your pen or the wash of color from your brush? If you see a piece of fabric, do your fingers itch to embellish it, to add color and designs? If you have string, do you need to weave it or braid it or knit it?
I love when makers make with the materials at hand, simply because they are compelled to create, to make their mark. Men who spent time in the woods picked up knives and pieces of wood and whittled, pulling expressive shapes out of nothingness. Sailors passed the time at sea scratching intricate designs into whalebone, turning the blank surface into memories of a voyage and things of beauty.
Blank canvases are everywhere, to those who seek them.
It comes as no surprise that at least a few people who live in the Adirondacks have been unable to resist the impulse to decorate the blank surface of the huge tree fungi, Ganoderma applanatum, that grow on dead and dying trees in the forests. I’ve written about fungus art before but recently added a new example to my tiny collection.
I got my pretty fungus at, yes, a garage sale. The people who sold it to me told me it was done by a man named Herb Newlove, who was an art teacher and assistant principal at a local school. With that information, when I looked at the piece, I could just make out his tiny, faint signature and the date 1981.
Mr. Newlove has since died but he lives on in this little treasure. This seems to me to be one of the best things about making, the tangible work that outlasts the maker and allows the maker to achieve a sort of immortality. When I think of Mr. Newlove or Harriett, for that matter, I realize that I feel I know them, that they are real to me because I know their work.
This piece works so well for what it is. This is a woodland scene, with two deer taking a close look at the viewer. We wouldn’t expect to see Disney characters or Pop Art in this medium!
The design is very faint and subtle, giving the impression that the deer are peering at us through a misty morning. The artist would’ve used pointed tools to scratch and stipple his design into the soft surface of the fungus, a surface that has hardened over time to preserve the work done.
The very light touch used by the artist and the difficulty of making out the design invite us to look harder and longer, and the time spent is rewarded.
The compulsion that those who came before us felt—the cave dwellers in Altimira and Lascaux, Harriett, Mr. Newlove—is no different than what you and I feel, and it seems to be part of what makes us human. We use the materials at hand to make a mark, we make our mark, a mark no one else could ever make, and a part of us never dies.