Trip of a Lifetime / by Hayden Michelle

Stephen White's light sculpture... one of many masterpieces!

The first week of September, I had the privilege of flying to Eugene, OR, to work with an amazing artist.  His name is Stephen White, and he has been making light sculptures for 50 years.  I can’t quite recall how I came across his work, although believe it may have been through Helen Hiebert’s wonderful Sunday Paper blog, where she shares different artists working in paper (awesome blog, full of inspiration and information of all things paper). 

 I remember being bowled over by the initial images of Stephen’s work, and started finding everything I could on his work and journey.  I wrote to him and shared my reaction to his work, and inquired as to whether he offered any workshops.  He communicated back and said that although he did not offer any workshops, he would be willing to work individually with me, and said he did not know the odds of me wanting to fly across the country to do so.  I immediately responded that the odds were actually quite high, and that I would be thrilled to be able to work one-on-one to learn from him. I shared my ponderings about the possibility of being able to combine encaustic with light sculpture, and Stephen said that he was open to this exploration, and curious as to what shared learning might occur.  Gulp.  I felt I needed to pinch my arm, as it was such a shot in the dark to reach out and have it be warmly received.

 View from the plane during sunrise... fortunate to have a window!

View from the plane during sunrise... fortunate to have a window!

We corresponded for most of this last year, and settled on September for my visit.  After flying in and visiting some beloved and gracious long-time friends (who treated me like a queen!), I was able to begin my work with Stephen.  We laid out goals for the week, and I met with his 2 apprentices, who had worked with him a combined total of 10 years, and did beautiful work.   I was able to listen to their individual ways of working, and to watch the different methods they used.  They all treated me so kindly, and shared freely and openly... great moral support.

 Stephen's teaching hands...

Stephen's teaching hands...

 Stephen supporting my first frame and helping me glue it, section by section (and making it appear very easy!)

Stephen supporting my first frame and helping me glue it, section by section (and making it appear very easy!)

 It was fascinating to watch Stephen work, and for him to put into words what his body and mind had been creating for 50 years.  I had such deep appreciation for the difficulty of what he made after getting my hands on the materials.  The first day, I just experimented with applying encaustic layered photography onto small frames which he had already built.  This was tricky enough, and made me realize this was not going to be easy (and maybe not possible to combine these techniques).  It helped me clarify quickly that much experimenting could be done at home, and that my main focus needed to be on building the frames and applying the paper, as well as learning some basics of wiring and building the electrical part of the lamp.

Experimenting with applying encaustic photography over a frame Stephen had built...

Experimenting with more encaustic photography... leading me to realize I just needed to play more at home, and learn how to build and layer with paper, first!

This is where the “fun” began.  Stephen left me alone to begin working with the reed, and forming it into shape.  I quickly learned that reed is quite difficult to work with…. and my hands fumbled with the unruly reed that seemed to have a life of its own, unfurling into every conceivable direction but the one I was trying to shape it into.  I have small hands, and although strong, are not nearly as trained as Stephen’s, so I had to use knees, elbows, ribs to hold the formed reed in place, and was secretly hoping none of them was watching me out of the corner of their eyes.  I am quite sure that they were just being respectful not to laugh as I intermittently mumbled something under my breath, snapped the reeds several times when I found their breaking point, realized that bending reed was very painful for my thumb joints, and generally just felt overwhelmed.  I admitted to Stephen that the first hour of wrestling the reed into a very basic form reminded me of those coiled spring snakes that leap out of the can when you open the lid (remember those?  My brothers always got me with those darn things!).

 I doubted whether I would make any shape at all, and was relieved when Stephen quietly came over and started showing me how to use clothespins and clamps in many directions to hold each reed down where it needed to be.  We then began gluing each individual reed into place, and creating the composition was slow and steady.  I made groupings of 4 concentric circles emanating out from a center, representing my 2 sons, husband, and me being interconnected, but growing out into our own lives as we continue to evolve.  Somehow, having some meaning to the forms inspired me and calmed me, and we eventually had a completed frame.  I felt like I had just run a marathon (which I have never done… only a half, and that was intense enough!).  When I talked to my son that evening, he asked how many lamps I had made so far, and was incredulous that I had only built the frame for one small one… small, but mighty victory!

Final glueing...

The next day, I began papering the lamp, which is a very detailed and meticulous process, and results in a beautiful paper surface that looks like handmade paper, diffusing light in the most glorious of ways.   I learned that each surface between every reed is covered in 4 layers of fine tissue paper (and this is just the first layer!), and that this detailed work is not for the faint of heart.  It gave new appreciation for the beautiful sculptures Stephen has made, and for the enormity of the task at hand, given the large size of most of his work.  

 Stephen demonstrating how to glue initial layers of tissue down...

Stephen demonstrating how to glue initial layers of tissue down...

 And so the papering begins...

And so the papering begins...

 Balancing the meditative quality of papering with the truth that the goal is to transmit light in the end (and not lose sight of how many layers were laid down, and will now need to be ripped out and redone for being too thick!  All part of the learning, eh?)

Balancing the meditative quality of papering with the truth that the goal is to transmit light in the end (and not lose sight of how many layers were laid down, and will now need to be ripped out and redone for being too thick!  All part of the learning, eh?)

Stephen had just completed a 12 foot sculpture whose inspiration was a cloud formation, and it was shipped to Hawaii for a home installation.  “Stunning” does not begin to do it justice… It took over 600 hours of labor, and 7 months to complete.    I can only imagine the fortunate family that gets to gaze up at this remarkable work of art day after day…

"Aolani", (12 ft.), "Aolani" means cloud formation....

I spent the next few days moving on to a larger frame, with more unfurling, spirals, and open space.  I felt a bit more calm in this construction, and again, was grateful for Stephen’s presence, experience, expertise, and guidance.  We had many a laugh over my struggles to build something that was reminiscent of my drawing, rather than a sound physical structure.  It became a joke that I clearly had never taken physics, and was a lot of work for my brain and body to wrap around these concepts.  So amazing how our brains have a tendency to gravitate to particular ways of thinking.  This form went into the category of origami, knitting, and other brain-fry executed art forms (which I do not do!).  But it gave me hope that I can learn, and that it is good to make my brain work hard.

 Example of the overwhelm of clothespins as I awaited the gluing of each section ("Uh, which one are we on, Stephen?")

Example of the overwhelm of clothespins as I awaited the gluing of each section ("Uh, which one are we on, Stephen?")

These shadows made me as happy as the form was taking shape... confirmation that it was becoming real.

Almost-complete new frame (!)

Alternate view... open hole large enough to fit smaller sculpture inside in order to ship back to KY...

Other wonderful experiences happened throughout the week, such as meeting one of my favorite artists who uses much natural material and encaustic in her sculptures and work-- Shannon Weber.  I was so surprised and thrilled to get to meet her, not knowing that she only lived about 25 minutes from Stephen.  We had a lovely afternoon of connecting and sharing inspiration and discussing technique, and my spirits were lifted further.  That afternoon was a great highlight, and I will appreciate the continued friendship with Shannon.  It was interesting to see the threads of energy that were similar in each of our works-- although each expressed differently, all are fueled by a deep connection with nature.

One of Stephen's sculptures in a gallery in Eugene...

Shannon Weber's sculptures 

Me, work in progress :)

 

Every morning we walked through Stephen’s neighborhood, built into the side of a hill that used to be a fruit orchard.  I was floored each day as I discovered yet another type of fruit tree, and could not stop talking about how much I wished I could gather up some of that ripened fruit and take it home to preserve.  It was like being in some kind of magical land, full of many types of apples, pears, plums, and grapes.  The abundance of life seen through this fruit, the amazing birds that perched in the trees, and the views that surrounded us served as continual inspiration and grounding in this magnificent experience.

 Discovery by the compost pile in Stephen's back yard...

Discovery by the compost pile in Stephen's back yard...

 Stephen was so generous in opening his home to me, which was a gallery of beautiful art made by him and many artists he knows, and it was so comforting to be in this space, to eat such healthy and delicious food, and to listen to bits of Stephen’s life experiences that have brought him all over the world.  I wrapped up my week feeling full in every dimension, and grateful beyond words.  I will continue exploring this remarkable art form, and see what transpires.  And I will carry with me the empowerment that comes from connecting with other kindred spirits who are creating such beauty in their lives, and continue to carry it with me in my connections to those in my life back home.

One of many baskets of gathered treasures sitting in Stephen's home...

Edible treasure from the amazing grocery down the hill...

Tiny presence... less than in inch in size, and full of light, and I love how it mirrors Stephen's light sculptures (or vice versa)...

Found piece of coral (Stephen), resting in the hands of a Buddha statue... embodiment of the peace and joy experienced on this journey...



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