Gold Leaf, Grief, and the Creative Process

There is a tree section in my studio that has been leaning against a post for several years. I removed the bark and sanded the wood, but have not been able to transform it into a sculpture. At the bottom of the trunk is a large inset oval. It is the sign of an old wound indicating that the tree suffered an accident. Or it could have been the site of the removal of a large limb. I will never know, since I can’t go back in time to when this tree was alive growing by the side of the road or on the edge of the woods.

Perhaps this tree’s wound is similar to my own. There are times when grief covers me like a sealskin and I don’t know how to remove it. I may think I know the cause, but more often, I have only assigned a reason. There are so many experiences that layer themselves in memory, and then a new experience, like a magnet, attracts indiscriminately so many others. Who can know where one begins and another ends? These are the times I find it hard to motivate myself to go into my studio.

In the studio there are no distractions, no comfortable chair or sofa, no bookshelves, just work tables with all sorts of projects in various stages, materials, and tools. But if I get myself down there and tentatively start working, not knowing where I am going or what I am doing, the grief and the inertia disappear. Where did it go? Did something take its place? We can be so affected by our emotions, and yet they are so changeable — not solid objects.

For some time I have wanted to gold leaf that wounded area on the tree trunk. “Why?” I would ask myself and didn’t have a good answer. Then last week, I decided I would just do it. I bought some wood filler to fill the small insect holes, sanded it down, and painted the surface a light yellow so any imperfections in the gold leafing would not be dark, but yellow. Then I sealed the surface with varnish, and after it had set, applied the gold.

Gold leaf is mysterious. The foil is only .12 microns thick. (One sheet of printer paper equals 1000 microns.) After applying the sizing, the glue, and letting it dry enough to become a tacky surface, I carefully float the leaf over it. The size and leaf unite and become a strong, solid surface. Afterwards, a light burnishing with a cotton ball, and the gold leaf is there for the foreseeable future. It’s the same technique a steeplejack uses to gold leaf a dome on a church or palace.

The joy I feel when working on a sculpture transcends all other emotions. Concentration floods my mind, and there is no room for anything else except for the step-by-step activity of the process of creating. I am baffled that I resist doing this work that I love--this work that transforms old wounds into art.