I was recently asked to write a chapter in the Art book, “De la poule à l‘œuf – de la plume aux polymers” about how I sometimes use reclaimed wood in my artwork. Here is the English version of my contribution.
I’ve always had a fascination with wood—its patterned, wavy grain silently waiting to be exposed under sandpaper hands and a colorful splash of stain… This hidden beauty ignites an inspirational flame in me, like a gemologist chipping away at the outer shell, revealing a hidden treasure within. But, before I get too far ahead on this enchantment of mine, some of the backstory is necessary, especially because I never actually sought out to incorporate reclaimed wood—wasted biomass—into my art. It was just something that slowly evolved, over the course of many decades, like a shard of broken glass turning smooth while sitting in sea sand.
Thinking back, it feels like a faded memory from another lifetime. After a year-long trip collecting artistic inspiration though Europe, I returned to the USA and moved from my hometown of New York to the Colorado Rockies. I rented a cabin in a rural alpine town, about an hour west of Denver. When I wasn’t busy painting, I spent my time writing songs and performing music throughout Colorado.
Rustic log furniture was all the rage at the time. Since my new home was quite bare, I started exploring different designs and prices in some furniture stores around Denver. Incidentally, around the same time, from my kitchen window view, I noticed piles of abandoned wood, and many downed trees on the land behind the cabin. When I asked him about it, the landlord was thrilled for me to put the discarded lumber to use. As it turns out, these piles were the remnants of my newly-built cabin, along with the trees that needed to be cleared for the foundation—he just hadn’t gotten around to cleaning it up yet.
So, instead of buying all new furniture, I began making my own from the reclaimed wood in the yard. After sorting through the piles, I arranged them into groups for each of the different pieces I envisioned, sketching out minimal designs on paper. My first creation was a basic coffee table. I then moved on to log chairs, collecting any tools along the way as I needed them. After many months of dedication, I had constructed all the furniture in the cabin, including the bed frame with headboard, a large book case, and even my desk. Seeing the rough piles of discarded wood gradually transform into trendy furniture reinforced my growing allure with wood, transforming into a glowing tinder in my creative mind…
Fast forward, a decade later, to my life as a full-time artist in Zurich, Switzerland. As fate would have it, the building my art studio was in was also shared with a company that often discarded wood pallets, and various pieces of scrap wood in neat piles, behind the building. Often, while throwing away my own rubbish, I’d pause, silently reflecting on the wasted wood that sat there, waiting to be picked up with the weekly trash collection. Sifting though some of the pieces, I frequently remembered back to my homemade furniture, years earlier in Colorado. With these thoughts, I started to dream up ways I might tap into this abundant wooden stockpile, rescuing it from a garbage incinerator. The creative tinder reignited, sparked by my growing interest in the artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and how he used to construct hand made stretchers for his canvases—something that, for me, definitively added dimension to his already impressive paintings.
I started to collect pallets, sorting out the ones made of hard wood, and painstakingly breaking them down into single wood boards. The physical process was one I had greatly underestimated. The plethora of rusted nails seemed to stick like glue into the worn and splintered wood, often proving to be stronger than me and my steel crowbar. One by one, each tug and pull on the nails released loud shrieks as I freed them from their wooden sheaths. Drenched in sweaty sawdust, and panting heavily from underneath my dust mask, I pushed on.
After many days of work, I finally turned about ten palettes into a ragged collection of single boards. I then started fastening these single boards together into larger 80 × 120 cm panels, and sanded them down into a smooth canvas-like surface. In additional to these panels, I was left with a pile of wooden cubes, strewn across the floor in a dusty pile. The wooden cubes were the square pieces of wood that separated the top and bottom sections of the pallets, so the fork lift could fit its forks into. For some reason, I was entranced by these cubes, continually staring at them while assembling the boards. I often thought about disposing them into the trash bins they once sat next to, but couldn’t bring myself to do so—there was just something about them that intrigued me.
After I had finally transformed the wooden boards into a few paintings, I kept revisiting these leftover wooden cubes. The thought of using them was now much more inspiring than the thought of wrestling with “new” pallets to make more boards. I had already dusted them off, and arranged them on my work bench, noticing the interesting patterns, somewhat obscured in the worn wood grain. Once I had them arranged on the table, they started to remind me of a mosaic. I ran with that idea, sanding them down, and painting them, and then constructing them into a three-dimensional painted sculpture. The title of this first piece came to me almost instantly, “Misplaced Pieces of my Soul”. It felt perfect, considering the long road and fragmented stories I experienced between Colorado and my dusty, studio floor in Zurich.
From there, I started collecting more abandoned wood whenever stumbling on an interesting piece. I’ve found new life in old wine crates, and small wooden treasures strewn among trash, considering its juxtaposition into my art whenever it seems to fit into my visual design puzzle.
Nowadays, I have boxes of various pieces of wood and scraps of canvas that I often sift through during my creative process. The pieces I create out of them have slowly evolved into many different types of colorful creations—sometimes sculpture-like pieces consisting only of wood, or worked together into a more traditional canvas. The thought of giving new life to the wood in turn sparks my creativity and has shaped my artistic method in ways I’ve never expected.
My chapter from the book, De la poule à l’oeuf, De la plume aux polymères, By Étienne Krähenbühl and Rudy Koopmans.