The output of the Wicked Woodpile is entirely the work of one man. He is not an importer of or vendor for the output of others. Randy Barker describes the Wicked Woodpile in terms of his own peripheral visions — what he sees beyond what others might see. In this case, I suppose, it is what he sees beyond the dull gray bark, beyond the blunt chain-saw cutoffs, beyond the splintered, sometimes rotting spalt of treetrunks and stumps. He particularly likes the pieces that are rejected both by sawmills and firewood dealers, the stuff that won’t yield a straight board and won’t readily split into neatly-stackable firewood.
What I see are the results. I too can appreciate the potential in a piece of wood and can sometimes anticipate what will emerge. I lack the skill, experience, and time, as well as the shop and the artistry, to tease from a massive log the delicate bowl that lurks inside.
Randy must cringe to think that loggers often leave these ugliest, gnarliest logs to rot on the forest floor. It must make him shudder all the more to realize that some people do, indeed, burn them in wood stoves after first struggling to reduce them to stove size.
I’ve long known that burls are turned into bowls and other stunning pieces of art. Randy works with burls, of course, but also knows how to “read” an ordinary log to release its best slab of tiger stripes, birds-eye, blackened spalt, color play, iridescence, sheen, and other drama. Knots, bark, and cracks do not daunt him; he works them right into the finished product.
As he turns each piece on the lathe or shapes it by hand, he must enjoy the thrill of fulfillment — seeing the beauty emerge that he knew was there upon first touching the log. There must be discoveries, too, as the the mineralist discovers unsuspected gemstones from time to time. And, certainly, there are disappointments. A piece with a lot of hours in it must occasionally fly apart on the lathe or break under the pressure of the chisel. Randy doesn’t talk much about the emotional side of his art.
Then the piece that has been nurtured from the surrounding tissue of the tree emerges as a fully-shaped object. Often, it is a bowl. It could become the seat of a stool or the plank for the top of a bench. It may become a platter for serving food. It may end up as an ornament on a Christmas tree, a pair of earrings, a lettered sign, or a carved figure. Once it has emerged, there is both work and reward in the sanding, polishing, and finishing of it.
When I gaze at the surface of a polished bowl that he has made, at its shape, colors, and finish, I can’t help making the comparison to the performance of a finished work of music. That’s not to say I hear an orchestra when I look at the contours of the bowl or that a musician could play a tune from the marks and striations on the surface. It means that, just as sounds can be organized and presented in such a way as to please the soul, so too can rays of light be orchestrated into a presentation of stunning beauty. As I can never tire of listening to a favorite piece of music I also can never tire of admiring a splendidly crafted piece of wood.
Randy Barker, in that sense, is to raw wood as a composer is to the sounds that come together in a performance of classical music. For the artist who creates either, the satisfaction in the result must be nearly the same.
-David A. Woodbury, an admirer, November 2018-