Q&Art with Russell Pirkle

This week: Todd Cloe, wood sculptor of benches, rings, and large works for galleries. Todd is also the Woodshop Technician at Louisiana Tech. You can explore Todd's art at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Cloe-Studios/116171901774199 This interview has been edited for length.

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 Could you start by telling me how you decided to become an artist?

 I knew from the time I was about a fifth grader that I wanted to really study art. I had always drawn. I made a little soap sculpture of an owl head when I was in third or fourth grade. My dad helped a little bit, but I felt like it was all mine, you know? So I thought, 'This is something that I can do.' Didn't offer art until the sixth grade. And I took an art class and really enjoyed it. Simple stuff, drawing, and little toothpick houses. And then art wasn't offered again until my freshman year in high school. I took art all through high school and really did well. I won a couple of little competitions for the kids. We'd all travel to one of the local universities, and the art professors would assess everybody's work. And hand you a little ribbon. Everybody got a ribbon; some just for participating. Mine happened to be blue and red. So I got a little positive feedback. Then I went to Oklahoma State Tech. It was just a two year program in commercial art. I thought that might be where I wanted to go. My granddad said, “Todd, if you're going to do art, you need to do something people will pay for so you can have a steady job. So commercial art's the way you need to go.” So I did that, did very well. Of course, there weren't any computers until my last trimester there. And this was '82. Hardly anybody knew anything about them, so everybody was learning how to hand-render things. So my drawing skills and my lettering skills got real good. I still use the lettering skills here and there, that I picked up so long ago. I went on interviews, and didn't get picked up by anybody. And thank God, my aunt asked me if I wanted to go to a four year school and study art. I'm like, “Yes!” So I did that, went to Oklahoma state. And I got my BFA in '89.

 Were you still studying commercial art?

 No. I had gone in in commercial art and realized, 'This is a mistake. There's no reason to do this.' So I changed after one semester, and did very well in my drawing classes. I tried to take a drawing class every semester. And eventually I was taking painting classes and doing very poorly. I could not get above a D in my painting classes. And I was there all the time; my stuff was more paint by numbers almost. The drawings were solid underneath, but the actual painting part was very rudimentary. Then I took my first sculpture class. My very first project, he said that it's open, you can use any material, it's just got to be an organic form. I saw this stump in this guy's front yard, and I asked him if I could take his stump away from him. And he said, “Yeah, here let me get the garden hose. And I'll get the ground nice and wet, and we'll pull it out.” It was a cedar stump. So I started carving on that. All I had was a chisel and a mallet. And eventually started buying a file here and there and a rasp where I could get into the tight places. It eventually became a very nice piece, and my sculpture teacher said, “Todd, sculpture is your thing. Don't let anybody tell you any different.” He really enjoyed watching me work on that, because I was just all elbows and sawdust, and sweat. It was a very physical, labor intensive piece. My mother's got that at her house, and she's very proud of it. I did a few more wood sculptures and realized, you know I do this pretty good. I was working nights at the time. I worked for Safeway. I worked nights for ten years, running the night crew. It was a pretty hard thing to go to school all the time, and my grades suffered a little bit. I think I had a 2.9 average when it was all done. I always wanted to go to grad school, but never got real motivated to do that until I got married in '97. My mother-in-law, who's a very generous person, she paid for my graduate program here at Tech. And it was a really good ride. I made a lot of nice big pieces, was really happy about those. And got a lot of positive feedback. I guess that's it in kind of a long nutshell.

 I was thinking about how big a part tools play in your life and your art. Of course, you work as the woodshop technician. And often a big part of the sculptures and benches and rings you make, they almost act as a record of the interaction of the tool with the wood. I was wondering first of all what sort of significance and meaning do you see in that, in the use of tools?

Gosh, man's been fascinated with tools for thousands of years, and I guess I'm really no different, other than I try to do something aesthetically different with the tools. I like to leave tool marks that, like you said, do give a little bit of a history of what's happened to the wood. And my large sculptures are inspired by Native American handtools that I've picked up over the years. Most of them were broken little curiosities. I would take the broken parts and rearrange different parts of different tools, and then blow the scale up and make them really large. The sculptures were inspired by Native American handtools. I would walk these cotton fields and find these pieces of Native American handtools and my mind would wander, imagining what they were used for. So you'll see whenever you look at my work, finger divets that might be six or eight inches across, just trying to kind of keep in scale with the size of the tool maybe. Not necessarily that a giant race of people used these tools, but just more of a design element I guess. When they get that large, they really start not to speak so much about handtools anymore, but they take on their own presence. They command a space, you know. You see them upright, and they just scream come here and look at me.

What are some of your favorite tools to work with?

I love working with the chisel and the mallet. That is just about as personal as you can get with extracting the wood. It's very slow, but the payoff is you can see a mistake before it gets too far along. Whereas if you're using a chainsaw you can really go too far in a hurry and maybe not be able to save something. Speaking of saving things, I've been pretty lucky. I've never had an accident that I couldn't make better than it was whenever I originally thought of it. A lot of times the wood will only let you do what it will let you do. If you try to force something, it typically shows, or it just won't happen. But I have never had nothing but happy accidents. I've lost things and really stressed over it, and then come to find out I didn't need that element of the sculpture anyway. It's better off without it. Getting back to what you're saying though, the chisel for me is a great thing. I really like the chainsaw wheel. It's a little four inch disk with a chainsaw on the outside of it. It grinds a lot of wood in a hurry. I like that. You can't work too fast with the wood. You kind of have to be a very patient person. You can't rush it.

I was thinking about how much time and effort goes into making each piece. They're very heavy pieces of wood oftentimes. It's also just a feat of strength and endurance. I read on the website that during one piece you had to have back surgery in the middle of it. I was wondering, how do you think that affects the value and the meaning of the piece?

 I don't know, other than whenever someone walks up to it, they can just tell. My God, moving this piece is a feat in and of itself. I'm hoping it will affect the value in a positive way. Haha. I like being able to be seen as somebody who really puts a lot of effort into what I'm calling art. That makes me feel good. Because it does take a lot of effort. I'm not saying it's not art if it comes easy. It's just that I can't go there. I have to, it seems, bleed a little bit, and strain myself, to actually reach an end.

 How much of the sculptural pieces you make is planned, and how do you plan? And how much is unplanned?

 Really very few of them are actually ever planned out. I did plan one, but only half of it looks the way it did when I did my drawings. Every one of them have always been, 'Ok, I'll just start with this blank canvas, being a large stump, and just start making marks on it, and kind of drawingthe in the wood with the chain saw. And constantly walking around the piece. Stepping back and looking at it. And taking off some notches here and there. Every single time, something has come about that's worthy of finishing. I do have in mind that 'Ok, this is tool-like. I need to have certain elements in the sculpture.' Some areas kind of have to be concave, and something else may have to be convex. Or there has to be a point or a serrated edge or something like that. So there is some planning, but nothing is ever drawn, or exactly how I draw it is how I'm going to make it. That's never happened.

 When you take the different kind of woods, and then also consider the Native American tool influence, you can think of it either as a geographical element to the pieces, or maybe an interaction between human history and natural history. You know what I mean?

 Right. The bodark tree was revered by the Indians. That's what they made their bows out of. Bodark translates “arc of a bow.” It has a lot of flexibility to it. It will flex a lot more before it snaps than any other hardwood. And I'm sure they experimented with a lot of different kinds of woods for their bows and realized this is the only one that really works great every time. And it's absolutely impervious to bugs. If they get into the heartwood, they will back right out. I used a piece of bodark that was at my granddad's dairy farm. It was a corner post that he and his dad never used. And it laid by the dairy barn for seventy years. You can imagine what's in a dairy, a lot of cow dung everywhere. And the bugs had gotten into the sapwood, but once they got into the heartwood they backed out. So it was a very structurally sound piece. It was in great shape. I made my wife's and my wedding rings out of that wood. Whenever we got married. She has metal allergies. I made us that wooden wedding set out of that wood. I think the wood rings really are a better metaphor for a marriage than a diamond is. Because diamonds are absolutely forever, and marriages rarely ever are. And like a marriage, the wood rings need a little bit of attention. They need some maintenance. You've got to be careful with them. And that's exactly like being married. If you want to maintain that, you've got to do something to protect it, and seal it against the elements that would otherwise ravage it.

 I keep thinking about what it would be like to find one of your sculptural pieces hundreds years from now the way you found the tools that they're inspired by.

 That would be quite a find. I'd like to be there for that. And you know, I've thought about how temporary people are on this planet. And avoiding a fire, everything I make will definitely outlive me. Especially if the sculptures are enjoyed by somebody, they're going to be taken care of. It's a dream of mine to see one of my pieces on antiques roadshow. Haha.

I like to think about the way it portrays our society. Obviously it signifies an appreciation for tradition and other cultures, and leaves out a lot of that stuff that will fade away because it's on a disk, on a harddrive or something.

Right. Not that you can't make art with technology, but to me, if I can't see that somebody has really put some effort into making something, I struggle with validating that it is truly art. I'm sure that's just me. There's a lot of people that can put things together and call it art and sell it for lots of me. But in the end those things fade away, and what stays is something with some permanence. Where there's some record of somebody's toil that they've gone through to create something. I think that that will ultimately survive and outlive all of these other ephemeral artforms that are everywhere.

What do your sculptures convey to the viewer about you?

 I think they can tell that it's somebody with a strong will to start something of that kind of magnitude. I'm hoping they're saying to themselves, 'God, I could never do this. But here's somebody who can.' I hope that they see the finesse that I try to give every square inch. I leave very little untouched. You just have to go around the whole piece many times and address it all. They might think, 'Oh, here's a guy with a lot of time on his hands,' maybe. It does take a lot of time.

 And you really don't have a lot of time.

 I really don't. It's an illusion! Haha.

 Thank you for speaking with me.

 Oh you're welcome. I enjoyed it.


NCLAC is supported in part by a grant from the Louisiana Division of the Arts, Office of Cultural Development, Department of Culture, Recreation & Tourism, in cooperation with the Louisiana State Arts Council, Funding has also been provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, a Federal agency.