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Shaker Seeds

Artist's Statement

At a reception for the official unveiling and dedication of René Molineaux's Shaker Seeds in March 2008, he made the following remarks about his work. Rene' was interviewed in August 2011 for an article in The Evangelist.

 A History

The Last PieceWhen the Standish Library was being planned back in 1998 or earlier, there was a committee assembled to choose artwork for the building. Gary Thompson who is the director of the library, approached me back then to submit a few ideas to the committee for some art that I could create for the building. Shaker Seeds is one of the ideas I came up with. I guess the committee liked it, so Gary told me to go ahead and build it.

At that point I was able to apply for grant money from State and local arts-funding organizations. I was awarded a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts and I used the money to buy some tools and materials.

I thought that the piece would take a while (perhaps a year) to build. That was part of the concept: Shaker Seeds would be built from scratch in its permanent location and the parts would take some time to accumulate just like a good collection in a library. Between the date I started building and the day I completed it however, eight years elapsed. I worked on it at a steady pace but only at lunch times or during other small bits of time I might find when the room was not in use. There were some long gaps where no work was done, but these were times when I needed to find more materials or more ideas, etc. People who passed through the room where it was being built would notice changes while the work progressed.

The finished dimensions of Shaker Seeds are: 7 feet tall by 18 feet wide by about 6 inches deep.

The title Shaker Seeds was chosen for several reasons:
- The piece incorporates a lot of cedar shakes.
- The Shakers are notable for many reasons including the finely crafted, simple yet functional and beautiful wooden objects they create.
- My piece is none of the above yet it could be considered a precursor or could include the rudiments (a seed) of such functional beauty.
- I've embedded in Shaker Seeds, some symbolic elements that refer to some shaker-sympathetic concepts that run parallel to spirituality, referring to work, education and the market.

Don’t get stuck on the name though. Sure there are some Shaker-friendly elements but that’s just a starting point if you need one. Remember, I could have frustrated you by naming it Untitled or number 12 or similar. I thought about naming it Highway 61 Revisited but that name had already been taken. The name of a thing may cause you to focus too much in one area.

Materials, Techniques and Other Choices

Shaker Seeds is an installation piece. It’s an accumulation of mostly rough-cut wood. It’s mounted against one wall of the room it’s in but Shaker Seeds itself is not a wall. There’s a lot of cedar in Shaker Seeds but the scent of cedar I hoped it would have is not very noticeable. That’s because the library’s wonderfully efficient air circulation system eliminates most smells.

Shaker Seeds will offer a different experience for the observer at a distance than it will up close. If you stand at the opposite end of the relatively large room it’s in, you’ll see over-all patterns in the piece. Some of the patterns are visible because of the different kinds of wood I employed in a layering kind of technique. As you approach the piece, you start noticing individual areas or passages that have their own special significance.

If you stand to one side of it and see Shaker Seeds from an angle, the perspective causes a dramatic change in appearance. Curves, bulges and other anomalies are compressed. Parallel features close in on each other in the distance, for example. If you walk past it while looking at it, you’ll notice a dynamic change in perspective.  If you stand only a few feet in front of it, your peripheral vision will not be wide enough to encompass all of it. So in that way the piece will surround you.

The different kinds of wood were gathered from different places. Sometimes it’s weathered wood that has been outdoors for a long time. You’ll notice some sections of old tongue-in-groove flooring, for example, and pieces of a white picket fence from my yard. Most of the white cedar was purchased when “Builders Square” went out of business a few years ago.

The topmost layer of Shaker Seeds includes most of the few vertical elements in the entire piece. One of the reasons I decided to use vertical elements at the top is to help make a more even visual transition from the piece to the wall behind it and not have it be a very sharp cutoff.

One could certainly parallel Shaker Seeds and the accumulation method with which I created it with the passage of time. It may also be important to note that the wood fragments it’s made from, were carefully selected to be inserted in the place they occupy now. There was a conscious sorting and selecting process.

I like the location Shaker Seeds has been given in the Library. The lighting on the piece is angled perfectly to pick out the grain in the wood and the color cannot be faded by sunlight. Perhaps this allows observers to see a metaphor in the wood grain. Are they brushstrokes? Perhaps it can be said that I’ve been painting with an axe!

Ideas and Influences, etc.

In my early twenties I read a book by Robert Farrar Capon. It was called An Offering of Uncles. Reading it, for me was an epiphany. Afterward my thinking and understanding of certain things was changed dramatically. If I read it today, who knows? I might think it pretty lame. But Capon spoke about the difference between Serious and Solemn, divine silliness and how we are all priests in our capacity to make offerings. He also mentioned a distinction the Greek language makes between two kinds of time:

…for abstract time…the Greeks had chronos: (chronology, chronicle). But for human time…[they had] a word which…has not come into English at all: Kairos [which is closer in meaning to] “high time”, “opportunity”. Kairos…does not answer the minor question: “What time is it”? It [asks]: “What is it time for?”
                         An Offering of Uncles - Robert Farrar Capon, Sheed and Ward, New York: 1967 

So I included the element of time. God knows I used a lot of that! You can think of the piece as an accumulation; something that has built up over time.

For a better understanding of Shaker Seeds and, I think, most other products of a creative process, don’t ignore the astonishing power of assimilation both in nature and in thought. At the reception given when Shaker Seeds was completed, I showed one of my favorite photographs. An image from the lens of William Albert Allard, it’s a farm boy holding thick slices of coarse bread slathered abundantly with honey or jam. I once saw this image coupled with the following quote from Marguerite Yourcenar: 

…an operation which is performed two or three times a day, and the purpose of which is to sustain life, surely merits all our care. To eat a fruit is to welcome into oneself a fair living object, which is alien to us but is nourished and protected like us by the earth; it is to consume a sacrifice wherein we sustain ourselves at the expense of things. I have never bitten into a chunk of army bread without marveling that this coarse and heavy concoction can transform itself into blood and warmth, - and perhaps into courage. Alas, why does my mind, even in its best days, never possess but a particle of the assimilative powers of the body?   
                     Memoirs of Hadrian - Marguerite Yourcenar, Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 1963 

For me there’s a great tension between the enthralling nature of that question and not really wanting to know the answer. Perhaps biochemistry can explain the quote from Yourcenar but I simply want to remain awed by the poetry of certain things like the incredible power of assimilation in the living world. If you get just one thing from what I’m telling you, I hope it will be that you won’t forget poetry as a good reason why some things are highly valued.

Now for poetry of a different sort: I am very impressed by work that’s accomplished through a process of dedication, hard work, sweat, sacrifice, hours of training, perseverance and superhuman effort where the end result is not warfare or something competitive. Rather the superhuman physical effort is expended to create a thing of sublime, extraordinary, free-flowing and unfettered beauty, no matter how fleeting. Of course none of the above terms apply to my work but I’m awed by such things.

Examples of such grace that impresses me in this way, include pairs skaters at world class ice-skating events and the shows put on by “Cirque du Soleil”. 

Sometimes a great vocalist can impress even more dramatically. At the reception we listened very briefly to Emma Kirkby singing a Mozart selection and wondered how this could be a human voice after hearing normal conversation?  There’s nothing ordinary about the human voice but it gets used for a lot of very ordinary things (even goofy lectures like this) - BUT when infused with great talent and training, and with extreme hard work, the result can be something of such sublime lightness and purity. We imagined that perhaps earlier in the day, the singer may have admonished her kids to do their homework then phoned in a pizza delivery order, using the same voice.

Music is one of those things that both baffle and enthrall. How does something auditory, a sound, have the power to elicit such strong emotional attraction or repulsion?  Music and visual art are strongly allied but even though there are many who say they don’t care about or understand visual art, there are few who are not strongly attracted to SOME kind of music or at least strongly repulsed by some OTHER kind of music. 

There are many artists whose work I admire that may have influenced me. At places like Amazon-dot-com you see: “Customers who bought this item also bought…”. The following comments are more like: If anything in my work has sparked your interest, take a look at the work of these artists from whom I’ve learned. Their ideas speak much more eloquently through their visual work than I possibly can by just talking. At the reception I showed several images from each artist’s past work. It’s easy to find such images on the World Wide Web and I encourage you to do so.

Find images of Andy Goldsworthy’s work. His influence on my work may seem obvious though I had not yet heard of him nor seen his work when I planned and began building Shaker Seeds. Goldsworthy makes beautiful constructions from natural materials, often stacking smaller pieces. Much of his work is ephemeral and embodies concepts of the cycles and changes in nature.

The 3D grid pieces by Sol LeWitt were a puzzle to me when I first encountered them when I was in college. I felt cheated and thought I disliked his work but I stood and stared at it because I probably had an assignment to write about it. When I finished staring I turned away and began to walk past. That’s when it hit me. I saw the piece changing as I moved. I later realized a 3D grid often implies motion or requires motion for its full effect.
I later employed this concept in a twelve foot horizontal poster called Sunworshipers I created around the summer of 1983 that was displayed on the outside of nine city buses in Albany, New York. The poster was not a grid but its perspective would change as the bus carrying the sign came down the street and passed. While you were watching the bus approach, the image would be compressed at first then stretch as the bus got nearer and compress again as the bus passed and moved on down the street. Shaker Seeds also offers that changing perspective as you walk past it.

Shaker Seeds is obviously oriented horizontally. Stripes make their appearance again. That’s a design element I find creeping into my work quite often but stripes can be layers when they are horizontal and that may signify a hierarchy of some sort. Total horizontality is minimized if you think about the upward energy inherent as layers build and accumulate. While that’s happening, the added weight from the upward progress creates a downward (vertical) energy of compression. Horizontal with vertical forms a grid. The grid influence may come from the layout of Manhattan’s Streets and Avenues which is where I went to art school.

The sculpture of Eva Hesse has had a big impact on my own creativity I think. Find images of her work. She wanted us to believe “the object is what it is.” It stands alone, un-influenced. She created with a spirit of invention as if no one had ever made drawings or sculpture before but how can new things not be evocative of other things? The Swiss artist, Paul Klee, who influenced many others, said, “Art does not reproduce the visible, it renders visible.”

I like using unconventional tools for making images. Henri Matisse in his 80s used scissors to draw! Assistants would paint sheets of paper then he would cut out shapes of swimmers and dancers etc. I’m sure you’ve seen some of these. Look for them on the web.

Look also at the assemblages of Richard Tuttle. He shows us that ordinary materials can be used to create extraordinary work. He suggested that the use of “poor materials” may signal a wealth in underlying content. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of junk created with junky raw materials out there masquerading as art, but it allows for those circumstances where things are much more than what they seem.

When I heard Tuttle talking about that, it resonated in a powerful way because I remembered hearing similar statements in CHURCH! You probably know that Christians and followers of many other faiths hold this truth in common: things are so often not what they seem. A child born in an impoverished situation and later executed as a common criminal is actually king of the entire universe! Simple bread and wine is really body and blood. In the Old testament God was in the “still small voice”. Now, I’m not so arrogant as to believe that my work can be linked to the huge truths of faith and philosophy but may I boldly suggest that my work can be a launch pad from which one might explore deeper insights into a lot of things about living in the world as a human being.

There are many more artists whose work I admire but lastly I must acknowledge a huge debt to the cave dwellers who experimented so boldly millions of years ago. They not only discovered vertical locomotion but also the burnt stick! I admire the cave dweller who first noticed that a charcoal stick could make a mark on a cave wall or floor and took it from there. In so much creative work the most difficult thing to do is to get started, to put that mark-maker onto some surface and push it to draw, write, compose...