Not-Dead Wood — The Autobiography of a Tree

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By Elizabeth Speth  

“When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree. The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying, ‘You’re too this, or I’m too this.’ That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”

So said Ram Dass, and I love the quote.  I love the way we accept — and love — a tree for what it is, and the elements and factors — some of which are harsh — that made it.

Sometimes, alas, a tree is harvested.  Often, unfortunately, though many of us love them best when they are stretching between an earthy tangle of roots and the clouds.  We love them in the silent cathedral forests, in parks crawling with  happy children, or sheltering a favorite spot in our yards, shading our cups of tea and our books.

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But a tree gets harvested.  Say, oh, a redwood, and it begins a different sort of life, and it is shaped again by the elements to which it is exposed.  It is formed to look like something else, and scarred, and marked.

Say the redwood is dragged from its fragrant forest, from the dappled, wild light, and it is first cut and planed and raised to form the foundation of a house and a barn, somewhere in California. Farmington, for instance, on a rural homestead, sometime in the 1930s.

Say the house turns a weathered color, and shelters a generation or two of children.  Say it is cared for lovingly, or not, but that it eventually falls into disrepair, an abandoned structure.

Say that young lovers stumble upon it, out there in the lonely open.  Maybe they shelter there for an hour or two, and they surely carve upon it with a knife, initials joined together for the life of the wood, if not the life of the carvers.

Say the old redwood structure is a silent witness to some drunken firelight revelry, overhearing hunting stories and bar-room brawl tales, and late in the night guns are fired by the beer-soaked story-tellers, and say a few bullets lodge in the old redwood, which absorbs them  stoically.  Another part of a visible history.

And then say some day my artist friend, Kermit McCourt, comes to look at this wood, with an eye toward turning it into something else.  He sees the square nail holes, where someone has hammered wallpaper.  He sees the knife slashes, the bullet holes.  He sees the original grain of the wood, the beautiful whorls.  He rests his hands on the wood, and feels all of its lives, the derelict, the sheltering, the forest.  And Kermit takes a hammer and gently begins to harvest this wood yet another time.

He stores it in his shop.  It watches him work for a year or two, until I write to Kermit and I ask him to make me a table, a big table, for my kitchen, where all my family can be together and have conversations and meals to remember.  I ask him to find some scarred, old wood.  Kermit recycles everything — he uses nothing new to make his paintings, furniture, jewelry, metal sculptures, so he is the guy to ask about scarred and old.  He is not the guy to ask if you want to separate a freshly-harvested tree from its venerable kin in the forest.  Kermit doesn’t operate that way.

Kermit says to me:  “I have this wonderful wood…  I will do it.”

And, because Kermit is a conduit for beauty that remains unknowable and unseeable to the rest of us, until it passes through his eye and his hand, he does.

He uses that beautiful old redwood, re-births it into a fine, big, strong table, held together with bolts reclaimed from a flatbed truck.  He does not stain it.  He knows the wood’s own face is beautiful, and it’s what he allows the world to still see.  He rubs it with teak oil, and layer after layer of wood wax, until it glows in candlelight and in sunlight.

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He leaves the bullet holes, and the scars, the nail holes.  He runs his fine, talented, work-roughened fingers over them, to show me, and I could weep with the beauty of it.  I do, a little, because the entire life of this wood is laid open before me.  The entire history, lovingly polished and, well, published.  Kermit has just put forth the redwood’s autobiography.

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We load the table into my horse trailer, so carefully, and I can’t believe I will take this wondrous thing home, memorize its topography, touch it every day.

As we are closing the trailer door, Kermit tells me to put my hands, from time to time, on the wood. On one level, I think he means to point out that the wood is a beautiful thing to feel, with its deep, smooth gloss, its soft, thick strength.

On another level, he is reminding me to seek those things which cannot be derived via our mere senses.  Because beauty has a feel, and so does history.  He is reminding me to step away from my judging mind.  To turn people into trees.

And we put the table in the kitchen, and it begins its next life.  A life of holding candles and fresh fruit, hot plates and soft napkins.  Bearing up under sad conversations, and serious, and silly.   Our gratitude will change the shape of it here and there, a little, maybe.  Maybe my someday grandchildren will accidentally scar it with a pair of scissors, or stain it with a marker, or glitter will become permanently stuck in some of the cracks.

That will be life, and the redwood will allow it.

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Generous Man

 By Elizabeth Speth

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Kermit Pahkum McCourt believes everyone deserves a little (or a lot of) art. The artist in one of his signature wood tie creations.

Forgive me. I’m about to get carried away here about a beautiful thing.  This is a local story, in that one of my favorite artists is about to open his own gallery nearby, a long-overdue and well-deserved cause for celebration.

But this is also a global thing.  Because the artist, Kermit Pahkum McCourt, firmly believes that beauty should be accessible to everyone.  He prices his work accordingly,  and at his rate of production, there might just be enough to go around.

I don’t know what else to call this but a study in mind-blowingly talented generosity.

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I remember when I first met McCourt, at his work space in an industrial area near a rural stretch of freeway.  He and his dog were there alone, surrounded by a breathtaking array of sculptures, paintings, furniture, garden installations and light fixtures.  Eventually he added jewelry to the list of things he creates beautifully.  I tracked down his work at the Flower Farm, a local coffee shop/ art gallery in my hometown of Loomis, CA, and gasped at the price tags.  In a good way.  Shock gave way immediately to the tingle of possibility at taking these wonderful things home to enjoy every day. There is no other feeling like it.

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This is an old window. Glass is the canvas, and the original wood frame carries its job forward, beautifully repurposed.

He only creates with things that are existing. Canvases can be old glass windows in frames, sheets of metal, rough slabs of wood.

 

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This canvas is actually a piece of sheet metal. Its frame is old wooden barrel planks.

Everything he turns into beauty had a life before. There is no waste. There is only re-creation. You won’t believe what his eyes find in the jaded, faded, dented, twisted, rusted and discarded. That glorious approach to creation in a world that already has too many things, in a society that throws away without thought, deeply enhances the enjoyment of his work.

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He is prolific. Unbelievably productive. Diverse. Tangential. Pioneering. Constant. Copious. There is always, always something new and different coming out of his studio. Jewelry. Ties made of wood. Paintings. This is a good thing. Because wherever he displays his work for sale, it is gone almost immediately. And there is always more. All of it wonderful.

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What drives this fierce, powerful artistic engine?  How to account for so much beauty at such a furious pace?

“Personal freedom,” he says simply.  “While I’m painting I feel no pain.  I’m free.”

McCourt is fast and loose with the fruits of his pursuit of freedom.  They are meant for you and for me to have.  For a song.  With love from the artist.  In fact, you can identify his work by the trailing  signature at the bottom of the canvases, but also by the word ‘love’, which he usually scrawls somewhere on the back, out of sight when the piece is hung, but there like a warm secret nonetheless.

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McCourt was born in 1981 in Susanville Ca. His early childhood was spent in the high desert near Litchfield, which he called “rural living at its finest, (with a) generator to power the well pump, kerosene lanterns for light, and an outhouse.”

His father Mike McCourt is a general contractor, and the years McCourt spent working with him and learning the trade have profoundly informed his art.  He can transform a piece of wood into anything, wire the light fixtures he builds. twist scrap metal into beautiful and massive sculpture.

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A headboard fashioned by McCourt from scraps of wood.

“I could swing a hammer ever since I can remember what a hammer looked like,” McCourt says simply.

His mother Marlene Kramer remains one of his most ardent fans, with a home tastefully full of his art and furnishings.  She let him completely remodel her kitchen when he was quite young, and the cabinetry he designed and built is a thing of functional beauty.

Later, when McCourt moved to Placer County, he continued to work with his father when he wasn’t roaming the countryside with friends, enjoying the kind of partially feral childhood that is a cultural relic in these days of sedentary electronic usage, organized sports, and hyper-protective parenting.

Interestingly, he and his friends used to poke around the abandoned fruit packing sheds that are today a busy hub of galleries and artistic shops in downtown Loomis.  It is here, in the High Hand ‘sheds’, that McCourt will be opening his own gallery on Friday.

McCourt attended Del Oro High School just up the road from the fruit sheds, where he took his one and only art class with teacher John Bowler.

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After graduation, McCourt tried a brief stint at Butte Community College in Chico, but he was restless.

“I hated college,” he says.  “The only course I liked was Badminton.”

Instead he studied for and passed the test to become a general contractor.  He started a contracting business with brother Quincy McCourt, and he held out for three years before giving in full time to his artistic destiny in 2009.

From the beginning, McCourt’s work was a hit, selling out at the Flower Farm, High Hand, and Beatnik Studios in Sacramento as fast as he could produce it.

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Close up of a piece on display at Beatnik Studios in Sacramento.

After two years, he realized he was making a living as an artist.  “But the goal was never the money,” he says.  “The goal was to get the art to the people.”

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McCourt’s work on display at the High Hand Artists’ Cooperative Gallery, before he had a space to call his own.

Last year, his eyes craving new vistas to paint, he packed up his paints, his welder, brushes, jewelry making tools and wood-working equipment, and hit the road, travelling cross-country for ten months, working every leg of the way.

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“That was my starving artist phase,” he says.  “I sold my car, sold tools I could live without, made arrangements for my horse, did two garage sales, and bought a truck and fifth wheel trailer.”

Supporting himself on the road was hard, he said.  He sold his work at farmers’ markets, flea markets and other local venues.

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The artist’s work on display during last year’s cross-country odyssey.

He painted up a storm, made jewelry, and  took some time to ‘watch the whales migrate’.

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McCourt and his constant companion, Mahkahnah.

 

He came home with a lot of work completed, and a renewed energy to produce more.

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You can see some of it Friday, April 4th at the ‘soft opening’ of his gallery at High Hand from noon to 5 p.m.  The official opening is May 3rd.  While you are at High Hand take advantage of the wine tasting there, pop into the gourmet olive oil shop, visit the other galleries and the sprawling nursery.  You can eat at the restaurant, which is located in a massive conservatory on the nursery grounds.  But whatever you do, go and see McCourt’s work.

For those of you not local enough to take advantage of his new venue personally, check out his Facebook Page.  If you see something you like, get in touch with him that way.  Enjoy. Tell your friends. Bring his art home. He wants you to.  He’ll make more.

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