Bamboo is a prehistoric plant with an amazing hollow structure. This very strong structure can be used to build load bearing structures, yet can be split down so thin it can be used as a light bulb element. It grows in a sustainable way, doesn’t need to be replanted, and has harvestable material within three years. I believe it can replace plastic in most scenarios and is a plant at the forefront of helping solve our global warming issues.
The use of bamboo has such a culturally rich history, and has been used for centuries to create utilitarian objects, spiritual objects, medicines, ritual celebrations, and fine art. I was not aware of how rich bamboo’s own culture was until I went to SOFA Chicago in 2000 and met Nancy Moore Bess, who wrote “Bamboo in Japan” and Robert Coffland, the founder of TIA Modern Gallery, which specializes in Japanese bamboo basketry. Later I met Ned Jaquith, founder of Bamboo Garden Nursery, who taught me everything I know about bamboo as a living plant. I was also introduced to Jiro Yonezawa, who has generously shared his bamboo skills with me over the years. I would not be where I am today without any of these people!
Before I had discovered bamboo as an art material I was using other plant materials which were naturally cast off of plants, such as leaves and maple seeds, or tree trimmings.
I loved the patterns in the plants and the shapes they were, which seemed to naturally fit together into form. I felt like the materials spoke to me, and that we were in collaboration. I also liked the idea of taking a living plant and extending its life. That my materials were free was also an attribute. I made work out of these materials from 1993-1999, combining paper and hand stitching to create sculpture, borrowing techniques from the basketry movement and creating some of my own. When I was at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia for the graduate program in Fibers I was given an opportunity to teach an undergraduate class in Off-loom construction. I wanted my students to have the experience of using found materials from both nature and cast off man made objects. In my research to find places for my students to gather materials I talked with the groundskeeper at Abbington Art Center. He did not have trees scheduled for trimming to gather bark from, but he did have bamboo. I had never used bamboo, or seen it live, so was hesitant to teach using it as a material. The groundskeeper encouraged me to come out and take a look at it anyways.
We met, tromped through a forest, and came to a large bamboo grove. The vertical bamboo culms with the nodes, and the horizontal branches slightly moving in the wind, looked to me like a living, breathing tapestry. My mind flooded with patterns and forms I did not quite understand but gave me a deep rooted feeling that there was work to be done. The bamboo had spoken to me. When the groundskeeper asked, “Well, can you do anything with it?” I replied, “Oh, yes!”.
I took it back to my studio at Tyler and started to try to cut it apart, split it, drill holes in it, and manipulate it in anyway I could, using any tool I could get my hands on. My first assignment to myself was to try and give some stones I had used a place of honor. The stones no longer needed to be tools, and deserved a home. I tried to make a hole in a bamboo cane to place a rock in and found that burning a hole was not the best method but that adding heat to bamboo caused an oil to come to the surface. I did finally make the hole I wanted in a cane for a stone and found I had made the hole to big. I wedged the stone into the hole with some bamboo scraps and my stacking method was born. The stacking of split bamboo led to investigating stacking round bamboo, which led to using thin crosscut bamboo to create form. (Image)
Further investigation in graduate school relieved several ways of stitching it together, and two more methods were born to create a fabric like bamboo object and a coiling technique. Another idea to create a ladle out of bamboo helped me to develop the spiraling technique I still use today.
The ladle project also led to a technique I call feathering. The first piece made using this technique was an arrow.
One other question I am asked frequently is “How do you come up with your ideas?” The first ideas I had in working with bamboo came from material research, which lead to happy accidents, which lead to further research. After developing several systems with which to build form I found the ideas came while working, that seeing a form evolve lead to seeing the potential for the form to become more complex in a variety of ways.
Over the past 20 years of working with bamboo I still see the potential within forms to be come more complex, the bamboo still speaks to me, and I still feel there is a lot of work to be done.