February 13, 2015

Hearts of my heart

I am not an artist.

I remind myself of this about this time of year when my heart overrides my talent. I love my wife, Cecile, dearly. But on Valentine’s Day I try to say that in something besides words.

Despite the lexicon of romance authors, you can’t “make love.” You live love, you give love and you bask in love. And you make the objects and activities that demonstrate that you do.

I am not an artist. But I am a maker.

When Cecile and I were young marrieds on a tight budget, I felt bad that I couldn’t give her the diamonds and exotic trips I saw in the TV ads. But one January day I noticed a large tree limb that had fallen near our duplex.

On a whim, I took a handsaw to the limb and cut off a hunk. I looked at it for several days trying to decide if I could make it into something close to a Valentine.

Remember, I am not an artist. In elementary school, my specialty was gooey clay. After pounding, twisting and poking it as long as the teacher would let me, it still looked like a lumpy blob. But when I took it home to Mom, she would give me a big hug for making her another ashtray. Ashtrays were the dominant d├ęcor of living rooms back in the unhealthy days. And any lump with a dimple qualified.

The piece of tree limb had no more chance of becoming art than did my lump of clay. But I was as determined as ever to try, first with a whittling knife (my God, oak is hard!) and eventually with a saw and a drill-mounted sander. The result was almost the shape of a heart, so I used my knife to write “To my Love” on it. Maybe “scrawl” is more accurate. My knife-writing is worse than my third-grade pencilmanship.

But Cecile loved it as much as I loved giving it to her. She kept it on her desk for years.

Periodically through the years, that same urge to give Cecile something from my hands welled up. I never had a plan when it happened, but I was inspired by stumbling upon a tool or something to shape. The basic design decision was already made for me – a heart. I am, after all, not an artist.

My craziest idea came from a softball-sized chunk of pink granite that I found in Oklahoma. How hard could it be to sculpt it? All those Greeks did it without power tools.

I now have a deep and abiding respect for sculptors. After dulling every chisel I could find, I attacked it with a carbide blade on my Skill saw. The stone heart started to take shape about the same time the electrical heart of my saw chewed itself to pieces on granite dust.

But with a variety of grinders, it also became recognizable. And again Cecile gave it a place of honor.

Through the years, I’ve made several wooden hearts, mounted a heart-shape stone and polished more pieces of tree limb into gifts.

I’m not an artist, but making a heart lifts my own heart. As I writer, I live with the tyranny of words. All day and much of the night, my ears, mind and fingertips are flooded with words.

But in the shop, it’s just me and a heart that is trying to get out of a piece of wood or other material. I don’t play the radio. I usually wear earplugs. And I don’t talk, even to myself.

Working on some new way to make that heart lets me think about the woman who owns my own heart. I grind, carve and mold in silent contemplation of the blessing I have.

This year I suddenly had the urge to try metal work. I put a small chocolate candy into a tin can half full of wet plaster of Paris. After I finally dug the chocolate out, I melted lead fishing weights in another can and poured the silvery liquid into the mold. Ta-da, a heart! Not much more elegant than that original tree limb, but a heart for Cecile never the less.

I only burned my hand three or four times. Then splashed myself with stain as I prepared a wooden mount for my fishing-weight-cum-Valentine. And when it was done, I noticed the mount was as pocked and unsophisticated as the lead heart.

Oh well. I am not an artist.

But I make. And I love. Happy Valentine's Day.