I am one of those who doesn't like to show work in progress, but inspired (and urged on) by soror Nishi
& Scott Rolfe
's efforts at documenting their work, I am taking the plunge and making this post about my second Talking Stick
, which I am still working.
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This piece was requested by a poet and was to be:"... more painted than elemental. So maybe a pure black stick with white and red adornments? Anything magical to help writers. Asian characters for scribes. Egyptian characters for scribes. The crow is very special to me. So are black cats (like panthers). And water. Clouds... something to draw water from the sky or from my eye."
My usual technique is to start with wood marked and etched by time and life (bark beetles, ants, insects, frost cracking, fungus etching) and work with dark outlinings inside light colors to bring out the marks. This stick would be a challenge; completely opposite my usual way of work. I also didn't want it to look like a "Neo-pagan Renfaire magickal staff."
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I went out to the forest several times, hunting for nice pieces, and was lucky enough to come upon a red oak which had taken a direct lightning strike (oak is "the Druid's wood" and particularly venerated for its lightning-attracting properties, equating with inspiration). I gathered several pieces and brought them home to work.
Unfortunately, the very thing that makes the wood interesting sometimes makes it unusable - I worked with two pieces for awhile but ran into deep structural problems (wood rot, fungus invasion) that made the pieces useless for this purpose, so I began again with another piece.
The surface of this piece was very rough - most of the markings that might have been there were fried off in the lightning strike, as was most of the epidermis & periderm, although luckily the core wood was undamaged - the lightning appears to have conducted along the water-filled outer layers. The little forest workers (insects) didn't go for this wood because all nourishment had been cooked out of it, so sanding down with several grades of garnet paper to remove roughage left me with a nice, sturdy but plain piece of wood.
I decided to work with two inspirations to reproduce the "scribed" look I like - the first was a childhood art
where you'd lay a lot of color down on a sheet and cover it with black, then scribe through the black to make the undercoloring show. The second is my passion for palimpsests
- I have many photos of very old public park picnic tables
, scribed by generations & overwritten for 40-60 years. My exposure to the graffiti walls
of Los Angeles & NY also show this passage-of-time-and-people, as do old parchment & vellum manuscripts
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The wood was sanded down with #80 and then +120 grit paper to roughen the cells for absorption of the ink [Winsor & Newton Drawing Inks] then a light bleach solution was used to soften the cell walls & also to sterilize the wood. I began by layering inks in areas on the stick, color-coding certain aspects from the astrological chart in support of creative/verbal aspects. This wood is so dry that it sucks the ink deep into the pores without clogging them, so the grain of the wood shows through the color. India ink was then applied over the entire surface in several coatings. Many sandings with 240-400 grit paper & reapplication of the India ink later, I had the surface I wanted.
The first main scribings were done in Futhark
- here you see the Ogham for FILI (poet/druid class) along with runes RADU and ENCLOSURE. I wanted the staff to appear very old - passed down from hand-to-hand, painted & repainted/varnished many times and didn't want the sharp edges a metal tool would make, so I made my own scribing tool out of a branch of red oak from the same tree the staff came from and started scribing/engraving [oak is HARD! I have a huge "cleric's bump" on my right middle finger now from working the scribing tool].
Here, careful sanding with #400 paper starts to reveal the underlying ink stains. Sanding, scribing; sanding, scribing... a month's worth of this, applying verses from (in no particular order):
Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Dòmhnall Iain Maclomhair,
Aonghas MacNeacail, Taliesin, Goethe, Ono No Komachi, Ezra Pound, Izumi Shikibu, Virgil, Horace, Jorge Luis Borges, Heraclitus, Ovid, Homer, Anne Sexton, Umberto Saba, Giacomo Leopardi, Charles Pierre Baudelaire, Torquato Tasso, Allan Ginsberg, Dante Alighieri, Isabelle di Morra, Neil Cassidy, Arthur Rimbaud, Gaspara Stampa,
Charlotte, Emily & Anne Brontë, Pablo Neruda, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Cicero, François-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, Sylvia Plath, e.e. cummings,
Patti Smith, Apollinaire, Sappho, Catullus, Lao Tzu, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, Mawlawi Rumi, Margaret Atwood, Anne Killigrew, Dylan Thomas, Anais Nin, Marge Piercy, Christina Rossetti, Katherine Mansfield, Mary Elizabeth Coleridge and about a dozen more I forgot to write down.
Languages: Italian, Greek, Latin, French, Scots Gaelic, Hebrew, Arabic, Late Old English, Basque
Character sets used: koine Greek, modern Greek, Second Dynasty hieroglyphics, Sumerian cuneiform, Nordic Elder Futhark, Hebrew, Arabic abjad
, alchemy, astrology, katakana & kanji, cursive and block script.
... and this is what the staff started to look like, imitating the "life-traces" of the woods I usually work with. The staff is dense with scribings - there's not room for much else. The inscriptions collide, cover & entwine in layers, the undercoloring showing through the inscriptions.
The drawing inks that I use become "dry" or dull-looking/lighter due to the wood absorbing the ink and not having the surface tension to retain the shellac-base on the surface, so the next step is an underfinish to pull the colors back up. For these pieces I use a spar urethane for its "breathability" and flexibility to weather conditions and also because it gives a strong UV/light protection for the inks.
You can see how the finish softens the scribings and makes them liminal so that they do not grab at the mind's focus but suggest, dream-like. The semi-gloss of these coats deepens the shading along the inside edges of the scribings and disperses the light falling on the staff to the inner layers, which reflect the various colors throughout the layer. In-between every third layer is a thin glaze of blue or blue-green which wraps the stick in a cloudy, watery haze that seems to float above the staff, depending on the angle that light strikes. The undercoats have also brought out the rough grain (a consequence of the passage of lightning).
So far, 14 layers of spar urethane and I am confident that UV damage/lightening/color-shifting will be kept to a minimum, although I have worked on the assumption that some would occur, adding to the "aged" look of the staff. The undercoating causes the inscriptions to fade in and out of visibility while the colorings shade and tint the surface of the staff when the viewing angle is changed. From about 2 feet away, the staff looks almost completely black and a bit gnarled; like poetry, you must get close to this stick and examine it in many incremental changes of angle to cause the inscriptions to appear like words floating up from the deep waters of the Unconscious; perfect for "poetic scrying."
Here's some angled shots of the underfinish in sunlight which show the color shifts:
The undercoating has finally hardened enough to begin the final topcoats, which will be a lightly-ambering shellac, providing a hard & durable surface which should age attractively. Now to work on the final finish...