(Woody) Michael Todd Harrison is a great artist who lives in Seattle, Washington. He switched from painting to wood works several years ago and the results http://michaeltoddharrison.com/ clearly speak for themselves. What inspires him? Here’s our cool chat…
“… I believe that art that’s too intellectual fails to fulfill its primary purpose, which is to communicate ...”
MICHAEL: Woody, First of all, I'm so glad that I stumbled upon your site. Your work is absolutely incredible. I feel like I've found a great friend. I love wood, but you take wood - often clearly scrap wood - and literally make masterworks with it. How and when did your relationship with wood begin?
WOODY: Thank you for reaching out to me and I am honored that my work speaks to you! That it makes you feel like you've found an old friend is the highest compliment. It is the inherent unique history and character of each scrap that I am drawn to. They were all once but a seed that grew into a tree that ultimately became part of a home, bar, church. It is a bit Buddhist I suppose. I believe everything is alive and has a spirit.
My relationship with wood began as a child, but I did not fully see this until recently. I've been primarily a painter my whole life. It was three years ago that the edges of the canvas became perceived barriers or limitations. Quite honestly, I lacked the technical skill to execute many ideas as well. I was frustrated and felt creatively stuck.
One day as I was driving I passed a driveway that had several buckets of wood scraps with a “Free” sign. I barely noticed it, but several blocks later and almost without conscious thought, I went back and picked them all up. I've not looked back since. The scraps tell me what to do with them and I often have no preconceived notion of what I will make. It's an exceptionally organic process.
Coming back to the question, it is through this process, experience and growth that I've awakened to my childhood connection with wood. My grandfather, whose name was Woody, had an immaculate shop in the basement of their house. He loved making birdhouses and I would stand in the doorway and watch. Everything had its place and no one was allowed in, but he would let me come in. I remember making a little wren house with him. It's crazy that it took 40+ years to connect the dots, but I am very grateful to have had the chance to do so in this lifetime!
MICHAEL: Your range is pretty broad. You've made primitive looking masks (I own lots of African masks) and architectural wood towers along with standing structures and robot-like sculptures. However, wood doesn't bend. Does that ever get frustrating?
WOODY: Not at all. I think that's what led me to carving, however - the desire to see curves.
MICHAEL: Haha. You're obviously an artist, but I'm wondering... Are you also a carpenter at this point? What's the difference?
WOODY: Well, I do have a little carpentry experience. I've done some framing, decks, and a fence. I've made a couple of tables and benches. Carpentry generally entails precise measurements and I tend to lose interest if there is too much of that! However, projects like the reclaimed wood wall and bar I did for Youngstown Flats required an exact fit. I am confident in my ability to learn on the fly. If a project requires something I don't know, I just learn it.
MICHAEL: Do we really throw away that much wood? Is there an environmental message here at all?
WOODY: Although it is not the primary reason I work with reclaimed wood, the answer is yes. Go to the transfer station on any given day and you will see piles and piles of wood/lumber. Perfectly new material that was left over from a job, tons of old wood from house demos and such. It makes NO SENSE to grow a tree only to put it in a landfill mixed with everything else.
MICHAEL: You know, some people might look at your work and consider it craft rather than art. What do you think about this? What's the difference for you between craft and art?
WOODY: For me, craft and art exist on an equal platform. One is not inferior to the other in my opinion. Craft implies function. So is craft art? It might be. Does it elicit emotion? It might also be art!
Art must cause an emotional response with those interacting with it, otherwise it's probably not successful. I've made pieces that fall flat here. It's just bad art. Now, I've made a couple of benches, tables and garden planter boxes. These I consider more craft because of their functionality, but I am an artist so there will always be that hand in the work.
MICHAEL: While you're actually involved in the process of making art, what's going through your mind? Is the process more intellectual, emotional or spiritual? Where do you work? Do you have a studio or garage or dare I ask, woodshed?
WOODY: It’s equal parts of all of those things. Making art is my meditation, so I just try to be present and listen to the materials.
Once the piece starts to reveal itself, there is more of an intellectual, problem solving aspect introduced to the process. I am definitely drawn to the emotional and spiritual facets and I believe that art that’s too intellectual fails to fulfill its primary purpose, which is to communicate. I work out of a rented garage space only a few blocks from home. At night, I'm usually working on some small carving at home.
MICHAEL: Art that is too intellectual fails to fulfill its primary purpose. Nicely said. However, doesn't this notion challenge a lot of art history PhD thesis papers? Doesn't your work have a message so profound that even you don't realize it? (LOL)
WOODY: Yes, it’s looked down upon in art circles and seen as lacking discipline or whatever. I am an idealist and a little bit of a rebel. I don't care to be pigeonholed or play the current, popular games. This doesn't necessarily help my career!
In the end, my work is honest and truthful. If I get to a point when making a new piece where this is lost or becomes convoluted, I will abandon it and often reuse the pieces in something else. Consequently, the work has an integrity and accessibility that resonates with people. I strive to leave the work open to personal interaction.
Although the work may appear folksy or even naive at first, the message is suffused with layers of meaning and reference. My message IS profound, and when the work is successful it is clear: ASHES TO ASHES, DUST TO DUST. Slow down, listen, be humble and empathetic. There is beauty in everything and the most seemingly insignificant thing might just contain the gentle voice of an old friend.
MICHAEL: Apart from lots of rain, Seattle seems like a hip and culturally-strong, art city. What’s it like for artists?
WOODY: Seattle is a great place for artists. The galleries are very supportive of local artists. But, beyond galleries, there are great organizations like Artist Trust and Shunpike that provide a multitude of learning and showing opportunities. There is an actual sense of community here.
MICHAEL: Are you a full time artist? Artists have a tough time even when the economy is doing great and I know many artists are struggling now. How's it going for you?
WOODY: It's very difficult being a full time artist. Fortunately, I can get by on very little. And, I have belief in myself and my work. The idealist in me keeps pushing me along.
MICHAEL: Finally Woody, Given all of the struggles artists go through and so few people who actually buy original art, why do this? What's the point of art anyway?
WOODY: The only way I know to answer this is that I have no choice. It is what I was put on this earth to do. It is how I communicate - words often fall short and are misinterpreted. I would rather not eat than go back to an office job. The light in my soul would flicker out.
MICHAEL: I understand. Thanks Woody. We had a cool chat.
WOODY: Thank you so much. I am honored.
Check out Woody and his work at http://michaeltoddharrison.com/.