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Beachcombing for Brushmaking
A peek into my process of creating driftwood brushes
Does anyone remember that “Where’s George?” website that tracked the journey of a $1 bill? Sometimes when I’m beach combing, I think about what it took for a little pebble, a shell, a piece of wood, to end up in that exact spot—how the forces of nature worked in miraculous ways to break, shape, and send this unassuming thing to all corners of the world. And that I, a random participant in this universe, came to notice it and be drawn to it. I want to know about its “Where’s George?” journey.
To me, that’s the beauty of the forage.
This past winter, San Francisco had one of the stormiest seasons I’ve experienced since living here. Every successive rainstorm left leaves and twigs scattered on the sidewalks and massive trees fell all over the city. Over on the beach side, unbelievable amounts of debris washed ashore from the high surf; entire uprooted tree trunks and wooden utility poles became part of the landscape. After a hot tip from a stranger that wood was aplenty and that the city would bury it in sand at any moment, I went to check out the situation for myself. And I’d truly never seen anything like it.
Week after week, I found myself bringing home bags stuffed to the brim, washing and bleaching them all in my tub, and laying them out on my tiny laundry rack until my apartment had driftwood stuffed into the gaps between the shelves and the wall. I had dreams of creating brushes, sure, but I was drawn to any piece with unique details, many of which I knew would never survive the process. Many of them didn’t even survive being cleaned.
I’m not sure exactly when my backlog became nearly a 50/50 split between carved pieces and foraged pieces. In the beginning, I had such a rough go of it that I made a mental note to not waste any more time on driftwood. So many of them ended up moldy, couldn’t handle being drilled into, crumbled in my hands with the slightest carving pressure, and looked disastrous after applying certain finishes. The list goes on. The disappointment was plentiful. The swearing was proportional.
Despite my own warnings, I couldn’t stop trying. Creating these pieces certainly yields more frustration, but sometimes I find the process more meaningful than carving from store-bought lumber. In the same way that stone carving has been an exercise in “what you get is what you get,” the fact that a shape is already semi-dictated in driftwood is both freeing and challenging.
Through a ton of trial and even more error, I’ve been able to refine the process to mitigate some of the disappointments (though, what’s art without its share of disappointments?). I’ve learned to be a little more choosy, a little more gentle and patient with the process and myself. I have to be in tune with each individual piece, letting its nature-worn features guide my artistic decisions. (Carved brushes, in contrast, feel more like the inverse—where my artistic decisions lead). This can mean things like choosing: where the bristles can go, what details are kept or even highlighted, which pieces are scraped/shaped versus left organic, which cracks get filled (recently, with a kintsugi-inspired look!), what level of texture should remain, or what finishes can be applied. It’s never the same process, and no one set of rules applies.
But when it works, the results are often weird and wonderful.
Sometimes I worry that people see these pieces and dismiss them as boring or easy because they come from found materials. But as a parallel to this entire process: it only takes one person to see the beauty in something unassuming to give it new meaning. And even if my path never crosses theirs, we suddenly become connected in this “Where’s George?” journey.
A little postscript:
If you’re an avid driftwood fan like I am, here are a few other artists and wares I’ve admired. There’s no such thing as sponsored content here (it kind of pains me that I have to say this); these are simply things I’m excited to share:
These felted driftwood animal sculptures are such a cool stretch of the imagination: seeing a part of an animal in the wood and completing the image with such a gentle material as felt.
I love that these long branches in Electric Sun Creatives’ driftwood wall pieces become a horizon with the brass circle motif, and how the curtain of tubes mimics the arc of the wood.
Caitlin Roben’s scraped driftwood wall hangings really flip the idea that driftwood is this gritty, textured material by turning them into smooth, topographical, and feathery pieces.