Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Totally Endearing

When Meg White, co-director of Gallery NAGA, told me about Tommy Simpson's show, Totally Tommy, and showed me images of his work, my first thought was "Totally ADD" because this is clearly the work of someone who is in constant motion. Each piece has required a phenomenal amount of work and, rather than being the work of rigorous planing, it seems to be pure stream of consciousness. To make work like this an artist has to be an uncontainable ball of energy.
Work the Soil

As with these chairs, every piece is constructed individually. There is no economy of scale, no repetition of parts. All the rails, stiles, and spindles are unique, everything is carved, and then there is all the inlay and decorative carvings, not to mention the words, phases, and poems that are also cut into the wood.
Work the Soil (closeup)
Tree of Life

Moon Milk Eyes
But once I got past the energy of the pieces and started looking at what he was doing, I could see the focus and purpose of the work. The words, hearts, flowers, and whimsy of the pieces are all expressions of exuberant, uncontrollable joy.
Moon Milk Eyes (close-up)
Just look at this table made with big-leaf maple burl. It has an absolute insane amount of in-laid decorative objects throughout. Stars, hearts, birds, flowers, butterfly joints, circles, and abstract designs. It seems you could spend hours looking at it and still not appreciate all that is in it.
The Path

It is so difficult to make a living as a studio furniture maker that they need to be careful planners, precisely calculating how they spend their time. In contrast, this is furniture done by someone who hasn't done ANY calculus regarding the monetary value of his labor. Nothing about it indicates that he has done any analysis regarding how much each inlay would be worth for the final price of the piece or how much more he could get if he sculpted a flower verses leaving a part plain. Although Tommy has an MFA from a prestigious school and has work in a number of major collections, his work retains a raw nature that is similar to folk or outsider art. Contradictorily, his work is still very refined in its execution. His joinery, inlay, sculpture, and lettering are all made with absolute precision.
The Path (close-up)
The quantity of inlay in this table is pure exuberance. Anybody who wanted to make money making it would have just cleaned it up and filled any gaps with finish or epoxy, possibly adding a couple of butterfly joints. This is a table that seems to be made for the simple joy of making and expressing.
The Path (close-up)
Likewise, Tommy's has inventively created sculptural joinery that is equally functional and aesthetic. The best example being this door, Doora - It Swings Both Ways. In both the top and bottom panels he has created unique designs that work as well as dovetail joints but that also work as stand alone sculpture.
Doora - It Swings Both Ways
In this close-up you can see how well made (and conceived) his "head joint" is.
Doora (close-up)

What really comes through in Tommy's work is an immense sense of joy and love through the imagery, but especially through the words and poems he integrates into the work. One of the strongest pieces in the show along these lines is Intimate Beats, a mixed wood non-functional ladder that includes a poem carved into the rungs:
Intimate Beats

Intimate Beats
Held In Comfort
Reach Tender
Giving Me
The Joy Of
Your Being

In the catalog, next to the piece, there is also the poem:

Contemplate a mountain red,
Trees upon a yellow head,
Think of good and jolly times,
Stomach pie,
Eyes of Pine,
Think of skies wrapped in twine,
wishing you a kiss of mine,
Remember this,
my Valentine.

There are also a few pieces in the show that are mysterious in that they reference things that aren't obvious, thereby drawing the viewer into their secrets. This cabinet, Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make It Do, or Do Without, is a good example. The title is carved into the rails of the doors but I've had a hard time determining its relationship to the rest of the piece that includes a wooden bird, a bird etched into the glass, a bird house hanging from a large peg,
Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make It Do, or Do Without

an ear carved into the outside,
Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make It Do, or Do Without (close-up)
and a bell on the inside.
Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make It Do, or Do Without (close-up)
Maybe birds are very fugal beings, or maybe they seem to be whispering this proverb to Tommy through their songs, or maybe the two things are unrelated and Tommy just likes birds. It seems to be a puzzle but maybe it is just an unanswerable abstraction meant to evoke thought rather than answers. I don't know, but it is interesting either way. (Actually, I just came up with the theory that birds might represent freedom and that frugality leads to a freedom as well, in that, not needing "things" lets one do what one loves - which Tommy is clearly doing. I still don't have a guess about the meaning of the bell and the ear.)

On Tommy's Frisky piece you can again see his inventive joinery. This time he has made a heart/dovetail joint.
Frisky (close-up)
On the largest cabinet in the show is Touching Blue - Touching Brown. Tommy has carved and painted the casework so that, even though he hasn't used any of his classic inlay style on it, his busy hands still envelops every bit of surface.
Touching Blue - Touching Brown
I like the inventive latch that he made, and the designs he carved into the hand,
Touching Blue - Touching Brown (close-up)
as well as the cool hinges - they function well but their aesthetics seems to be just as important.
Touching Blue - Touching Brown (close-up)
My favorite of Tommy's sculptural pieces is ERrOrS, an obvious double entendre (it is wonderful how Wikipedea makes up for a lot of sleeping during Greek mythology lessons), with the words "The House of ERrOrS" carved into the sign at the bottom and "OOPS" coming out of the chimney. Though, perhaps what draws me to it is that it reminds me of Brittney Spears' song Oops! I Did It Again, a song that I had totally dismissed as the epitome of trite pop tripe until Richard Thompson recorded his own version, which somehow makes it seem so sophisticated and deep (and, just for fun, I highly recommend taking some time to listen to 1952 Vincent Black Lightening - pretty much required whenever the topic of Richard Thompson comes up).

And finally, there is this bed which, regretfully, I somehow forgot to photograph (so I lifted the image from the gallery's website). I particularly like the refined sculptures on top of the posts, but what really makes the piece is the poem carved into the headboard:
Valley of Love and Delight
Tis a gift to be simple
Tis a gift to be free
Tis a gift to come down where you ought to be
And when you
Find yourself the place
Just right
You will be in
The valley
Love and delight

On the foot board it reads:
Seek seek and ye shall find,
knock knock and the door shall be open

I believe the show was called Totally Tommy because it encompasses the broad range of his work -- furniture, sculpture, ceramics, paintings, rugs, drawings, poetry, and jewelery (and I'm probably leaving something out). It is a remarkable display of the wide range of media Tommy works in and works well with; but what makes Tommy Simpson's work great is how totally endearing it is.


  1. I wonder how long it took him to make all the work in this show. Not that it matters, really, but it had to take an enormous amount of time. I can't even imagine!