Whose woods these are: A review of SHAPE’s wood-centric exhibit

SHIPPENSBURG – SHAPE Gallery’s (19 E. King St.) current exhibit “A Chip Off the Old Block” features three artists who are pushing the limits of what can be accomplished with wood.

On one end of the spectrum, Ron Wadel has contributed a large number of highly-stylized pieces that demonstrate incredible technical precision. On the other end, Jim Mackey and Barbara Randall explore intense emotional states through their wooden pieces.

The difference between the two dynamics is the difference between Notre Dame and Stonehenge. They’re both in the same category of architecture (physical structures of a religious nature) but expressed with wildly different executions that require two radically different styles of review.

But by placing these pieces next to each other, Gallery Director Tonya Sheaffer has made it possible for other connections to be made between these disparate pieces beyond their common construction material.

For example, Wadel has contributed a full-sized cradle that actually rocks and a collection of urns that are so beautiful you will (almost) wish you could get in them now. Literally taking viewers from the cradle to the grave. In the next room, however, stands Mackey’s chainsaw-carved statue reminding you that your burial might actually have been a planting.  

If these pieces had been made a thousand years ago, and they had been collected and put into a museum of natural history instead of an art gallery, we would still ask the same questions: how were they made and why?

Part One: With the Grain (Ron Wadel)

“I like to find out what’s in that piece of wood,” says Ron Wadel. “That’s the fun part.”

“You just don’t know until you get the tool into it what’s in there,” he adds, discussing woodturning and hand-carving the way that sculptors talk about marble: remove the excess to reveal the essence.

“It all lends character. Just find the character in there.”

The exhibit includes a large number of pieces by Wadel including bowls, urns and the cradle. His contributions also include meticulously hand-tooled pieces of bark and hyper-detailed sea shells that have to be seen in person to be fully appreciated.

In one corner stands a set of tools that he has created. When he hands them to you, your arm will brace in anticipation of the weight, but they are so light they almost float. They are made entirely out of wood.

In a social media post, SHAPE describes Wadel as a “master woodworker,” and the pieces in the exhibit back that claim, but he prefers the more humble-sounding “basement woodturner.”

“A Chip Off the Old Block” marks his first time displaying his work in an art gallery, but one of his hats was previously featured in the April 2020 issue of “American Woodturner,” a trade magazine published by the American Association of Woodturners.

He also won best in show at the Shippensburg Fair with a pair of his wearable wooden hats, one large, one small, but both from a single piece of walnut.

“The little one actually lived inside of that big one,” he explains. “I cored [the big hat] out and made the little hat. If you look at the grain, you can see it’s the same block of wood.”

Wadel has no formal woodworking training beyond “trial and error.” At some point in his 30s, he began going to the high school to use their equipment one night each week. During these sessions he built more practical items like bedroom sets and cabinets for guns and curios.

“I used to be a mason, a bricklayer, in business for myself,” says Wadel, “and I don’t know, I just liked working with wood. You can do anything with it. Let your mind go wild.”

When asked how many hats he has made so far, he points to the one he’s wearing, made of red oak burl with a beautiful grain resembling cork: “This is number 179 – made it Wednesday of this week.”

He calls 179 a “work hat” because the realistic undulations in the bill create a flowing, well-worn effect. The contours flow so naturally that it’s easy to forget that it is wood.

The secret is to pay attention to the grain, and start with a fresh piece of wood. Once he starts the process, he has approximately 10 hours to finish before the wood loses its flexibility.

“It’s green, so when it’s on the lathe, you’ve got to get it done because it will dry out. All the thicker it is,” he says indicating the almost-paper-thin edge of the hat, “you can’t recover that.” To demonstrate the thinness, a hat is being used in the gallery as a lampshade (he also made the lamp that is illuminating the room).

Part Two: Against the Grain (Jim Mackey and Barbara Randall)

If you removed Jim Mackey’s contributions from the gallery space, and instead assembled them in a clearing along the Appalachian Trail, hikers would certainly be intrigued by these pseudo-pagan shrines and their quasi-mystical messages imploring them to seek the light and “pray to a god, any god will do.”

The hikers would be curious, yes, but if they’ve seen “The Blair Witch Project” or season one of “True Detective,” they won’t stick around to meet the devotees of this woodland cult.

The statues themselves range between about three to five feet tall. At the top of each cylindrical center, Mackey has – using a chainsaw – carved a face, which is often adorned with a corona of branches. There are traces of Picasso’s problematic primitivism in the open-mouthed carvings, but Mackey isn’t borrowing from another culture’s mythology: he’s assembling a new one.

About the text: Carved into the chest of each is a cryptic snippet of text that is often revealed to be a popular quote or lyric presented in an unfamiliar way: the kind of quotes that can become carved into our beings when we encounter them at just the right moment.

One is a quote attributed to Australian activist and evangelist Christine Caine that could pass through your Facebook feed as a pleasant pick-me-up, but in Mackey’s hands, the same words become a mystical riddle regarding the mystery of the resurrection. What does it mean to be spiritually dead and buried to the world and then try to reawaken to it?

Another is a line from a Leonard Cohen song about how being broken is the first step towards finding the light.

Another imbues a line from a Robert Frost poem with a Dantean air of finding oneself lost in the woods. It’s a remarkable revelation to realize that Frost and Dante were wandering around in – and writing about – the same woods, but it’s an even bigger revelation to realize that you’re in them, too.

Another bears the declaration: “God is in the wind.” It’s not clear exactly what Mackey is referencing here, but the first thing that came to my mind was the verse in 1 Kings that specifically states that the Lord was not in the wind, but rather he was in the small voice that followed. Mackey’s piece feels more like an addendum than a rejection: Of course God was in the wind. He was also in the small voice. And everything else. But It’s also possible that the quote is referring to something entirely. The specifics aren’t as important as the concept: an experience that is felt but not seen.

About the faces: The faces are almost always frozen in an anguished horror. These are the facial expressions of someone who has had either a harrowing experience or an ecstatic one – or both; the kind of vision that, like Ezekiel on the banks of the Kebar, can never be fully communicated to someone who hasn’t experienced it.  

Whatever it was that Mackey saw or experienced, I suspect that these pieces are shrines to the things that saved him when things turned dark – artistic works by others that got him through and brought him back.

Perhaps, these carvings are markers commemorating places where he wrestled with God.

And maybe now they can serve as ritualistic stations or guideposts for other pilgrims lost in the woods, wandering in darkness.

Perhaps they are a commentary on how these cultural touchstones have become a sort of neo-pagan religion in their own right (rite?). We already chant the lyrics and quotes like mantras and even tattoo them onto our bodies. Why not complete the gesture with actual shrines in our homes?

Maybe the statues are simply an experiment to see what would happen if we took the disposable feel-good quotes that pour through our social media feeds seriously.

These are the kinds of thoughts that Mackey’s work can bring about. Whether he intended for us to have these thoughts or not, we can’t be sure, but does it matter?

We can’t share his visions. We can only witness their effect on him.

If Wadel represents physical reality and Mackey grasps at the cosmic, then Barbara Randall’s piece titled “You and I Both Know that the House is Haunted” provides an inward, emotional and personal dimension to the exhibit.

The piece is instantly recognizable as a Randall piece – painted wood with mixed media elements – but it isn’t as emotionally heavy as the pieces in her 2019 solo show “Everyone Gets a Chance to be Brave.” The oozing black sludge has been replaced natural elements like dried flowers, mushrooms and assorted jars, possibly ingredients called for in a witch’s physick book. The thousand staring, judging eyeballs have been replaced with a tongue that passes through the subject’s head from ear-to-ear.

The effect of the piece is the same as that classic moment in a horror movie: the character looks in a mirror and sees only herself, turns to examine a sound, and when she looks back the monster is suddenly behind her, only visible in the reflection.

The expression and the title suggest that the subject is not happy to have been proven right, but they’re glad that you can finally see it, too.

Learn more about this exhibit and how you can see it on our Events page.

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