He set off for John’s office at 7:30 in the morning, the sunlight still pink from the horizon and now touching the high glass windows just so. Naturally, the chandeliers were lit to make up for this. But Dylan was surprised to find that John only had a few white lamps on, giving his office a faint glow that almost made it feel cool, casual and breezy. Just by tweaking some lights, John had made the subjects on which they shone entirely different.
When John entered in a simple brown cardigan, all he said was, “Good morning,” and, “Get started.”
“You’re just gonna’ watch me?”
“For now. I’ll be speaking up, though, mind you.”
John leaned against the front of his desk and crossed his arms, his face vibrant with polite expectancy. After a minute of trying to remember how he usually began the sculpting process, Dylan unloaded his materials from a rolling cart onto the white pedestal John had set up for him in the center of the room. He sat down in his chair, unrolled his sketch, and picked up a sharp blade with which to begin.
At that moment, it was just a stump. A plain wooden stump. And yet, within this simple hunk of wood, he knew, was a man in mêlée with a serpent. He could see it clearly in his mind’s eye, and would approach this stump the same way he would a stone sculpture, hacking away at what didn’t belong, until what was left did. That’s what Michelangelo had done with his David, and it obviously worked for him.
Seated squarely before the block, knife in hand, Dylan rolled his shoulders back, licked his lips with a hungry sweep, and dug in. He tore through the areas near the top that covered the lean center he would need, but was more cautious with the lower regions, remembering the extremities that would reach to the edges. With these limits in mind, he could whittle away at the piece, until it was conical, and then define the two distinct figures from there.
He didn’t know how much time was passing, and this was good. He could just concentrate on the physical being before him, as if only he and it were extant. Then, suddenly, John’s voice came out of the silence, as the cone took form.
“This is very slow, Dylan. At this pace, you will be self-conscious and put yourself in danger of making preventable mistakes.”
Dylan traded his blade for a larger one and started hacking away harder. Large chips of wood and clouds of sawdust scattered with every strike.
“Don’t go against the grain.”
Oh, yeah. This wasn’t a problem with stone. He would have to be cognizant of this.
“You’re going too fast. Don’t be careless.”
He settled on the pace he had taken with the smaller knife, realizing this was more efficient.
“Not too fast—”
“I’m trying,” Dylan said through his teeth.
“Not hard enough. Do you want this to be successful, or not?”
Dylan snorted. He adjusted his pace once more.
“That’s too slow.”
Dylan slumped his head.
After some time, he perfected his pacing and the shapes began to appear. Already, there were a defined base and two heads on top. A winding figure had been molded around the central figure, and the man had legs. This was still very rough, but Dylan was loving it. Working with wood, he recognized, took much less time than stone sculptures did, and there was the joy of sanding that he knew could cover a great deal of the work. For now, he just had to make shapes without detail, a process simplified by his medium.
“Let the sander take care of it,” John would say, every time Dylan put too much focus on smaller details, like the smoothness of the snake’s head or the man’s flat back.
Dylan didn’t like being watched by critical eyes, John’s or anybody else’s, for that matter; twice he had to shake himself from the thought that he understood Al’s nervousness whenever John would walk by and see him working. Dylan had no interest in identifying with this behavior. To deal with John’s presence, he often—throughout the process—simply pretended he wasn’t there.
This was difficult, though; John would occasionally tap his foot, as if to music Dylan couldn’t hear. However, Dylan knew that John’s intention was to monitor and control his pacing. And somehow this started to make a great deal of difference; for he was surprised to see the form that had developed.
Dylan leaned back for a moment to appreciate his progress (he’d found it important to regularly step back from his artistry and admire the product, pretending to be the impartial eye of the public, so often astonished and pleased—somehow this gave him the inspiration to continue); and it was a strange feeling, as if he had no idea who had sculpted this work. He could have almost asked John to tell him about the artist. Really, he had no idea—what with his narrow focus of the last hour on limited areas, like the space between the snake and its surface, and the transition from the man’s neck to his chest—that the piece he was creating was turning into such a beauty.
“Is there a question?” John asked with a twinge of impatience, snapping Dylan from his self-satisfaction.
“I’m just . . . wondering what to do next.”
“Work on the base. I’m not entirely sure what’s supposed to be happening there.”
“It’s supposed to be rocky,” Dylan said with subtle indignation.
John’s eyes started to twirl in a tight circle, as if something powerful was happening behind them. Then, a broad smile streaked his face.
“Rocky—rockiness—rough stone . . . depicted in wood . . . That’s fascinating. I love it.”
He hurried to one of his bookshelves and pulled out Vivid America, a large, laminated coffee table book, and brought it to Dylan.
He held it out to Dylan and pried it open, as if treasure were inside.
Dylan stared at the page that John had opened at random. It was a Colorado mountaintop, dirtied with snow and brown twigs.
“Here is your guide.”
John looked over the spine to see what picture Dylan saw. He nodded. “Your piece needs to mimic nature. Here it is. It works, does it not?”
“Yeah, I can use that. These peaks are perfect.”
“Just decrease the angle of ascent,” John said. He pulled a stool over from the wall and placed the book atop it, leaving the two-page photograph in Dylan’s line of sight.
The effect was as impressive as it was unprecedented. Dylan usually relied on his mind’s eye to capture images—this gave him room to manipulate the image as he went along, a privilege he didn’t care to be bereaved of—but having a guide helped him to create what was not just an image of, but may very well have been a mountain peak. He knew just where to dig deeper, where to leave points like sharp stabs out of the surface, and where to disrupt the wood’s flow by slicing against the grain. He found it uncanny that he could take an element with which he was unfamiliar and effortlessly make it familiar. This, he thought, is art.
Ignoring John’s tapping foot and the anxiousness it was starting to give him, Dylan developed his own rhythm, and soon was caught up in the elation of his work’s successful development. With a few deliberate swipes of his hefty blade, he was creating beautiful calluses in the wood. His body rocked back and forth with the motion of his arms, a ferocious dance emerging between Dylan and the piece.