Thursday, November 18, 2010

My Love of Pu

Angel (1494) by Michelangelo  Basilica of Saint Dominic
There is a famous quote by Michelangelo regarding his sculpture, Angel. When asked how he was able to create this work, he said, "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free." The ability to see the potential in the uncarved block is one of the reasons that I've always loved sculpture.

I never used to sculpt when I was younger but in recent years I have developed quite an interest in it. The subtractive nature of sculpture has always appealed to my mind. There is something special about staring at a block and shaping it in order to bring about the hidden potential. Being a father has really brought this idea to a deeper level. There are times when I am with my daughter, that I look at her and wonder what she will grow up to be. I realize that everything I do and don't do with this little girl will ultimately help shape her into her future self. The thought absolutely terrifies me.

As horrifying as this thought is, it reminds of a piece of Taoist philosophy that I had completely forgotten about. The concept of Pu or the uncarved block. It is a reference to pure potential. There is no right or wrong, good or bad; there just is. It is the human mind before it has been tainted by the's most primordial state. Pu is my favorite part of sculpture. The very beginning, when there is no form, just the block waiting to be carved. I will stare at a block for days before I make a decision about what to carve. Once I do decide what to carve I begin to address the block like a philosophic problem. I examine the block's nature: What type of wood is it? What tools do I have or need? Which way does the grain of the wood flow?

Uncarved Mahogany Block
Now how unoriginal do I feel?
This week's project is far from fact it has barely begun. I have this old block of mahogany that I was given by my wife's uncle (put it this way, he was given the block by his teacher when he was a teenager and he found the block when it was salvaged from the bottom of the east river). I stared at this block for weeks and I finally was able to see a form. My original thought was to sculpt a Buddha sitting in lotus position. However after reading stories to my daughter, I decided to sculpt a father and child piece for my daughter. I could see myself sitting cross legged with my daughter in my lap while we read her bedtime stories.

This is where it gets strange. I searched the web to see how other have tackled this subject and low and behold do I find a sculpture that looks almost exactly to how I envisioned this.Well this makes the sculpture a little easier. I can use this as a primer for me to base my work. There are a few things I am going to change on my sculpture. For example, I won't have to worry about the weight issues that are inherent with stone like the primer does, so I can make the legs not look like the father has cankles. So I began carving. After two 30 minute sessions this is all that I was able to get:

I have to say that I Mahogany is a pain in the ass to work with. The wood is so hard that it dulls my tools and I have to re-sharpen them every 30 is a tedious and frustrating wood to work with but the end result is gorgeous. Below is a mahogany sculpture that I found:
The Space Between Us- John Evans

I will do another post next month updating you all on the progress of this project...providing I haven't stabbed my hands or cut off a finger. I'll be back next Thursday with another project. Until then, have a good week!


  1. Your discussion of pu makes me think of John Locke's notion of the tabula rasa--the blank slate. And where pu works as a metaphor and guide for your work with sculpture, the tabula rasa could be a good metaphor for work on paper. The mind is a blank slate and takes on its character as a result of experience and external influences, just as a work of art or writing is built up from emptiness.

    I'm probably reaching here, but there you go.

  2. Sorry i didn't reply earlier, you actually bring up a good point. In that regard, the blank slate could be considered a mirror of the artist's soul, kind of like Dorian Gray.