When you read about an artist as well known as David Groth, you find a lot of "artspeak." Being an art historian, I am, of course, familiar with artspeak and have a basic understanding of it, but it still puts me off. It put me off when I was in school, and I might have changed my major if it weren't for the art that helped me to see past the pretentious critiques to the truth about the work.
But not all people who write art reviews are trying to be pretentious. Truth to tell, it's not easy to write about art and the process of making it. So you get descriptions like this one from an essay by Kevin Wallace in Craft Arts International, who states that David's sculptures, "reflect both the organic and the abstract, evolving intuitively through the process of carving."
I've read through several articles that have been written about David and I guess I get what they're saying, but I want to try to tell you what is special about his work and explain what it's like to evolve intuitively through a process. I want to tell you what the artist is like, because he's a really interesting character. Here's a little story that's tangential to his work, but I think it's telling. As we were shaking hands and I was thanking him for his time, I looked down at the gravel driveway. I saw a smooth, brilliant orange stone and picked up.
"Is this an agate?" I asked.
"Yeah," he answered, with a grin. I saw another one and another. Some polished, some rough.
"My God, they're all over the place!" I exclaimed. He's collected hundreds of them over the years, and instead of putting them away in a precious box or bowl, he's scattered them around his driveway. If you're paying attention, you look down and see dozens of them at your feet. If you're not, you walk right over them, as I did when I first arrived. And to think of all those agate collectors laboriously poring over the sands of the beaches. All they have to do is visit David Groth.
So what does this casualness with rare beauty signify? It certainly doesn't represent the entirety of his personality, but it tells you a couple of important things. Here is someone who is diligent about seeking out the world's marvels, and is equally generous in sharing them. Someone who believes it's just as (or more) important to have treasures in your driveway as in a locked box. It was neat. It was neat to look down and find myself surrounded by lovely stones.
It's not coincidence that he has so many agates. He spends a lot of time on the beaches around here, and the agates are a fringe benefit. He's actually looking for large chunks of myrtlewood, washed up by storms. This is his chosen medium — reclaimed, to preserve the living trees; myrtle for its tensile strength, endurance and variety of texture and color. The hunting and gathering is very much a part of the process, and involves quite a bit of labor and even some adventure.
"The greatest risk," he explains, "is losing your truck when you hit a sinkhole and find the tires sunk up to the axles with the tide coming in and only a few minutes away from washing the vehicle down under the sand."
But so far he and his vehicles have always made it back with enough wood to keep him carving through the year. Back at home, the pieces of wood have to be cleaned up and carved down enough to make it possible to move them with a hand truck, and then the real work begins. With no set plan in mind, he begins carving away pieces of wood with chainsaws, letting the shape of the wood and the patterns of the grain influence his decisions.
There, that's the intuitive evolving bit. He doesn't work from a drawing or a maquette, he just starts. "It's a challenge," he says, "because of the complete and undivided focus and concentration required." The wood and the artist's own experience and perception influence the direction of the carving process, bringing their individual energies. David has to pay close attention to what's happening, and let himself allow it to happen.
It's a process that's possible because of the way he chooses to live, because of the agates on his driveway. His home, which he built himself, shows a creative process as well. Set in the redwoods in Westhaven, it's a modest house sitting comfortably in the middle of a thriving ecosystem. The emphasis is on the view, as a good portion of one side of the house is windows overlooking a pond system he also built. "I thrive in environments where I'm surrounded by nature and then that comes out in my artwork," he says.
And the finished product? Another art critic, Matthew Kangas, says that his work is "dynamic in the extreme, its visual activity is an interplay of surface and profile." That's a good one. Interplay of surface and profile? Do you know what the pieces look like now? But when you do see one, you'll agree that it is hard to describe. There are sweeping curves and jagged points. There are deep, shadowed recesses and protrusions that catch the light. And the surface, which he used to sand smooth, he now finishes with a chisel, giving it the texture of water on a windy day.
As always, I feel like I can't really do the artist justice in this short essay, especially while trying not to be too pretentious. You have to go and see the work and spend some time with it. Spend some time agate hunting as well. David Groth's latest sculptures will be on display at Piante Gallery, 620 Second St., through the month of February. Gallery hours are from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.