In the old chairs and cabinets people no longer had a use for, David Rolo finds art. And in the process he gives trees back the life they once knew.
Throughout his career as a skilled wood craftsman and as an artisan who sculpts and colors recycled wood, David Rolo has traced his deep connection to trees to the days of his youth.
Wandering through the northern Minnesota winter woods my brother was in awe of how some of Earth’s most majestic creations sojourn from their roots to lumber mills to factories and into living rooms with the silent hope of one day returning home.
“If you strip away the varnish and other harsh chemicals from old furniture you will find that the tree comes back to life,” David says. “A process of cellular regeneration occurs. The wood begins to curl, wants to become a circle again – back to its original creation state. I’m constantly humbled when I release wood that has been held in captive form as a dining chair or an oak table for many, many years.”
Discovering the “rebirth” of trees took on a new twist for David two years ago. One day while cutting and sanding old pine bed posts and maple bureaus he was taken by the diverse patterns of grain on each stripped piece. The flow of the grains seemed to be more than a record of the tree’s journey. Rolo was curious to learn more. And that inspired him to take a paintbrush, a tube of tempera paint and apply it to the wood.
“It certainly was not intentional, this seeing the tree as a canvas.” Rolo says. “I was drawn into it. I found my brush following the natural texture, gradient, lines and curves of the wood. And when I stood back from the canvas I felt like I was seeing the tree’s own unique story, if you will. Landscapes of forests, rock and water and figures of Native people began to come forth in each piece.”
It has been a number of years since I visited my older brother in northern California. For the past thirty years he has lived in small towns like the one he lives in today, Willows (population 6,000), located 85 miles north of Sacramento. Though David grew up in Wisconsin and Minnesota and is an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa of Wisconsin (he prefers the traditional name Anishinaabe, pronounced “anish-in-ah-bay”) his tribal culture and traditions have remained foundational to his worldview throughout the years he has lived on the West Coast.
“I used to teach Native American Studies at Chico State, which is about 35 miles from Willows,” he says. “From the first semester I decided that I was not just going to lecture on historical facts of how the U.S. government mistreated Native people.”
“I was going to engage students on the legitimacy of a Native point of view that, among other things, greatly values and honors its relationship with the natural world. I wanted them to understand there are other world views just as credible, if not more, than a Western perspective. I know, as a Native American, that when it comes to my craft and art I am not dealing with inanimate objects to be abused and discarded. Trees are much as alive as any breathing entity on this planet. And that has to be respected throughout the entire process of creating my work.”
When I arrived in Willows in December word had already spread across town that my brother was working with old furniture. People were dropping off their used cupboards, chairs and tables.
I was amazed at the diverse, eclectic body of art my brother had created from the old wood. From painted recycled plywood to three dimensional pine sculptures called Forest People, to chimes called Wind Dancers, which are strips of wood held together by pieces of copper. (My brother particularly likes to work with copper because it is indigenous to Anishinaabe country.) It was clear to me that my brother was doing more than creating a form and style of art that I have never seen. He was making a statement about the environment.
“It’s a well documented fact that we live in a culture that is obsessed with filling landfills with broken, old furniture and tossing them into incinerators,” David said. “Can you imagine the impact of those chemicals used to treat and preserve the wood have on the environment, on our health?”
On a Sunday afternoon in February my brother turned his front yard into an art gallery. “Obviously, the outdoors is their most natural setting,” he said as he hung his painted tree canvases and wood sculptures along the fence and invited some neighbors to come and see what he had been up to for the past few years.
In addition to showing how he applies a light coat of paint and linseed oil (for protection) to the wood, the tour included a demonstration of how he soaks wood in a barrel of water, peels away layers then saws and sands each piece before applying the paint brush.
“What surprises a person more than anything is how trees come back to life, curling as they do, once you free them from the prison of furniture and wall paneling,” David said.
“And when I talk about how alive the Earth truly is and how our society doesn’t value nature’s resources it gets them thinking about how pitiful our efforts are when it comes to recycling. More than plastics, cans and bottles, we need to do more to restore the Earth’s resources. And for me that begins with recycling used, worn furniture.”
Mark Anthony Rolo is an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and author of the memoir “My Mother Is Now Earth.”