What’s so important about TIMBER? (an art review)

What’s so important about TIMBER?

An Art Installation by Alexis Bulman @ this town is small’s market gallery

Reviewed by Cindy Lapeña

Like many communities in Canada, several homes on PEI still rely on wood for fuel during the winter. Besides being more economical than fossil fuels or electricity, wood burning stoves and fireplaces carry with them a certain charm and coziness you just can’t get from turning on a switch.

I never experienced using firewood and marvel at the stories Alexis Bulman shared about how her grandparents, then her parents, turned the collection of firewood for home heating into what could be called tradition. It speaks of how closely tied families still are to the land, to the trees, the wood that fuels the fires of homes.

In her installation TIMBER at the new Market Gallery at the Charlottetown Farmer’s Market, Ms. Bulman filled two spaces with two different kinds of timber. The first frame is comprised of evenly cut blocks of six-inch-length by four inches wide and approximately an inch thick. The blocks are arranged methodically like bricks laid in a neat self-contained pile within a frame that stands between the upper and lower dining areas at the Market. You can stare at this part of the two-part installation and notice the light wood colouring, occasional wood burns from a mitre saw, and occasional rough hewing of the rectangular ends. There is a certain blandness that makes you overlook this part of the installation, much like ordinary brick walls you might see everyday in a building frequently visited. You might see this solid section as a wall, or even the ends of wood planks piled up in a lumberyard.

The second part of the installation is a completely different presentation. Ms. Bulman used roughly cut chunks of wood—and I use the term literally, because the wood used is raw wood, cut from gathered firewood in various stages of aging and dryness. The pieces of wood were cut into roughly six-inch lengths to fit the depth of the frame, as with the first part. That would be where the similarity ends between the two frames. The pieces of wood in the second frame are cut from logs that have been chopped, mostly in quarters, but many times, into smaller than 45 degree sections. The raw wood is meticulously fitted within the frame, but reminds you of piles of firewood adorning backyards and side yards throughout the island, especially during winter. The marks of a mitre saw decorate the occasional piece as well, revealing which pieces were harder to cut. Triangular streams of light seep through gaps between the pieces, highlighting the individuality of each wedge. If you are like me and sit long enough in front of the piece, you might eventually see the arced patterns formed by contiguous pieces of wood, and even shapes and figures. In many ways, it reminds me of those mosaic-like outlines that we had to fill with colours depending on which ones were dotted, until a picture revealed itself. It is a veritable mosaic of wedges with various textures and shades—individual pieces as unique as each tree they were taken from.

More than just being a contrast between two types of timber for firewood, I see a dichotomy of lifestyles: traditional vs. modern, old vs. new, rural vs. urban. In the wedges, I see people taking the time to collect the wood and chop it into manageable pieces. I see families sharing this chore and turning it into a tradition and a craft, seen in the meticulous attention given to the chopping and stacking of firewood. I see the celebration the completion of the task by families enjoying the warmth generated by the painstakingly-cut wedges, sitting close together in front of the wood stove or fireplace. In the blocks, I see machines and engines and sawmills churning out utilitarian pieces with the same purpose. It speaks to the dichotomy of PEI as well, which is both traditional and modern, old and new, rural and urban. Unlike the framed installations, the island dichotomies are not as pronounced or contained as Ms. Bulman’s Timber.

More than anything else, the knowledge that the installation will revert to its intended role as firewood makes me reflect on the functionality of art and nature as well as of its impermanence. It is something the Japanese have known and reflected in their culture for centuries—in their traditional architecture, paper art, flower arrangements, and especially their haiku. Ms. Bulman’s Timber is a celebration of that impermanence, calling to us to notice a living entity that we have depended on for so long, and that will continue to be a part of Island lives for a long time to come.

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