Sculptor David Fels revels in the language of spirals

by Julie Houle Cezer

Glebe-based artist David Fels has once again taken up the challenge of creating a sculpture from the wood of the 200-to-300-year-old Brighton Beach oak tree, felled some two years ago in Old Ottawa South. As readers may remember, the first wood sculpture that he carved out of this venerable tree, “Sailing Through Time,” resides near the front entrance of the River Building on the Carleton University campus. It was installed in June, 2012 as part of a dual commemoration celebrating the 25th anniversary of the well-known Rick Hansen “man in motion” tour, and the lesser-known 1987 decision by Carleton University to provide disabled students with resident attendant services. This game-changing decision by Carleton kick-started the application of independent living practices in higher education.

David Fels’s sculpture “Sailing Through Time” resides in the foyer of the River Building on the campus of Carleton University. Photo: Soo Hum.

David Fels’s sculpture “Sailing Through Time” resides in the foyer of the River Building on the campus of Carleton University. Photo: Soo Hum.

This year, Fels took delivery of a 1,814-kilo length of trunk and branches of the oak tree that had been kept in storage by the City of Ottawa since 2011. He is currently spending part of every day shaping a sculpture that will eventually be exhibited at a three-day International Accessibility Summit in July, 2014. He works in a roped-off corner of a concrete bay located behind the Architecture Building at Carleton University. Other than the occasional expression of interest from passersby or the media, Fels’ daily activity attracts attention primarily from a peanut-seeking chipmunk and a male barn swallow otherwise preoccupied with his nesting young.

As with “Sailing Through Time,” the active interest of Larry McCloskey, director of the Paul Menton Centre for Students with Disabilities, has generated both the impetus and the organizational support for the project. However, the creative process and the daily challenge of carving a sculpture out of the last remaining piece of the great local oak falls solely on the shoulders of David Fels. Asked whether it creates any additional pressure to know that this is the last surviving remnant of the tree, he smiles wryly and replies, “Well, I sure wouldn’t want to screw it up.” He is quick to add that he is confident that his creative process and his long-honed skills as a sculptor will produce a result that both respects and reflects the ongoing and evolving conversation that goes on in creating a sculpture. And he is crystal clear that what he is up to is creating a sculpture rather than sculpting a tree.

“Sculpture is a mind-body commitment.” Photo: Soo Hum.

“Sculpture is a mind-body commitment.” Photo: Soo Hum.

Moving around the ever-changing tree trunk, Fels’s wiry body conveys a sense of ease as he wields a powerful but light chainsaw to “cut down to” the sculpture. Fels has taken some 10 to 15 years to develop his craft. While tackling sculptures both small and large, he has had ample time to gain mastery over his tools, so that he can feel the quality of the way the wood cuts away. This allows him to “listen” to whether the wood is resisting, disintegrating or curling away and to determine whether the conceptual arc he is following is true to the flow of the tree’s growth. This skill of kinesthetically listening to the history of the tree through his hands is key to the creative process that birthed “Sailing Through Time” and is allowing the current sculpture to take life.

David Fels starts each sculpture with a concept that he expresses in drawings. At this and subsequent stages, he may have to integrate understanding of mathematical and physical properties such as those associated with the Mobius strip. As a practical matter, he will need to find and work with the functional axis of a spiralling shape carved as a continuous flow from one piece of wood. Furthermore, a heavy, long and voluminous piece such as this must be worked in the horizontal plane with the knowledge that it will be installed and must balance in an upright position. Conceptual and practical challenges abound.

In a second stage, Fels may sit for hours, perhaps days, with his material to see or sense what drawings he should make directly on the wood itself to indicate where and how to cut. He must then pay attention to the grain; the strength of the wood; and what is dry and old versus what is recent growth and still moving. The latter may split as moisture and temperature engender changes in the wood – the tree may be dead but the wood is still in motion.

The physical work engages the whole body. Photo: Soo Hum.

The physical work engages the whole body. Photo: Soo Hum.

Whether he takes up a chainsaw, a chisel or knife, years of refining his skills allow Fels to tune in to the spiral flow of the tree’s “through line of growth” and to recognize and respond quickly to any historical surprises that may lurk in the wood (knots, turns in the line of growth, old nails or screws). Any problems that compromise what he perceives to be the flow of the sculpture will send him back to the drawing board. He experiences this process as a dialogue with the material of the tree; the sculptural concept, the tree’s history (as seen in growth patterns) and Fels’s practice of listening and responding through his hands all figure as a part of the evolving conversation. In the process, both the shape of the piece and the sculptor himself are changed.

Sculpture requires 360° awareness. Photo: Soo Hum.

Sculpture requires 360° awareness. Photo: Soo Hum.

According to Fels, in “Sailing Through Time,” the original concept emerged from life experience, teaching his four children that while you cannot always control what happens in life, you can use what befalls you to best advantage. Kinesthetically however, he relates to the sculpture as a feeling that starts “in your calves,” then [you] twist your body and feel that motion moving up through your body and then raise your hands in celebration. It’s a monument to discovering the spirit of all living things.”

Perhaps it is not coincidental that much of his sculpture as well as his drawing and painting manifests the spiral. After all, this elegantly designed form is found at all levels of life, from the structure of the DNA double helix to the complex functioning of muscle fibres in higher mammals. It defines the most efficient movement of growth and motion, and is particularly evident in sport and dance when you see rotation and changes in level. As a former aerial skier, David Fels would have refined his kinesthetic experience more than most people. His artistic practice has only provided another level of acuity and expression, and his predilection for recognizing spirals in everyday movement continues unabated. So it should

Using suggested guidelines, his cuts begin to reveal the curves and  arcs of the tree’s growth. Photo: Soo Hum.

Using suggested guidelines, his cuts begin to reveal the curves and arcs of the tree’s growth. Photo: Soo Hum.

come as no surprise if spirals tumble out of David Fels’s expressions, that are “based on structural logics that barely contain my emotions and push my imagination.”

The creative process for David Fels’s current sculpture is well underway. Inspired by, and emerging from, the concept of inclusivity as a principle of accessibility, the first sculptural iterations are based on his work with the main trunk of the ancestral tree and various sizes and shapes of branches. As days pass, curves echoing the lines of natural growth seem to unfold. Other than knowing that this creation will flow as one continuous statement from a single piece of wood and that it will extend its reach into the space above, one can only imagine where the storyline of the tree will guide the conversation, and what form it will take. The creative processis by definition open-ended.

Like artist David Fels, we are witnesses to a gap between being and becoming, an incompleteness that haunts and invites the creative mind and the artistic sensibility to navigate this chasm in a way that is productive.

Artist David Fels. Photo: Soo Hum.

Artist David Fels. Photo: Soo Hum.

As long-time photographer and writer David Ulrich has observed in The Widening Stream: The Seven Stages of Creativity, rather than reacting to awareness of the chasm fleeing or hiding in our favourite delusion or addiction, we can savour holding “contradictory impulses in ourselves simultaneously. Creative individuals seek to find a balance between playfulness and discipline, initiative and receptivity, confidence and questioning, deep concentration and spontaneity.”

We do not have to be professional artists to embrace this attitude. To do so may unleash our own creative yearnings and develop a capacity to integrate contradiction. It may even cultivate a better understanding and respect for artists who must, in daily practice, integrate such dynamic balance into the creative process in order to nurture and sustain an artistic practice.

To learn more about David Fels’s art, go to www.davidfelsartist.com.

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