A Surgeon's Hand, An Artist's Heart

Thank you to all who came out on Sunday December 11th to celebrate the life and work of Sandy Graham. The reception was exceptionally well-attended which is a testament to this late artist's talent and his positive rapport with our community.

Please follow this link for a feature in the Grimsby Lincoln News:

Here are some images of the exhibition opening:

For those interested in knowing more about Sandy Graham, his son was kind enough to provide us with a touching and informative write-up on his father. Please read after the page break:

A letter to Rhona Wenger and Mary Rashleigh from John Graham, December 2011 to accompany the exhibition:
A Surgeon’s Hands, An Artist’s Heart: Works in Wood by Sandy Graham
December 9, 2011 – January 29, 2012 at the Grimsby Public Art Gallery

Hi, Rhona and Mary:
Since you ‘only know what you know’ about Dad, I’m happy to share a few things. Although the question in your note was very open, I’m certain you want to know more in relation to his love of wood and woodworking.

This might read like some publicist copy—while my familial bias is obvious, I confess Sandy is among my favorite men. These are mostly observations while other parts are gleaned from my recollection of many conversations.  I was privileged to be close to him during this part of his working life. As an adult, I was able to watch him master aspects of woodcraft and push it into the realm of personal expression. Visits home always started with looking at current work and the resulting discussions would never really stop. Sandy had a preference for questions and criticism rather than simple praise. He would always reserve his opinion until I shared mine. So whether challenging or complimentary, our conversations were fun. Incidentally, his self-criticism was always reason enough for change in technique or aesthetic choices.

Many folks know some basics of Sandy’s biography—he was a veterinarian surgeon, he founded Grimsby Animal Hospital and was a skilled sailor—but not so much about what informed his woodworking. He related all of his occupational interests to early experiences growing up on his family’s farm (animals and crops) near Wellington in Prince Edward County, Ontario. His childhood spanned the depression and the Second World War when making things was an everyday necessity; it was something he watched everyone around him doing, and it was something he himself had to do. (Have you ever read John Kenneth Galbraith’s, The Scotch, about the character and lives of Scottish settlers and their descendents in Ontario? Those were my father’s people.) 

His general interest in artisans, materials and making things started in this time and lasted his entire life. He always had preference, and an almost instant affection, for people who made things. Marjorie, my Grandmother, who supplemented their farm income as a schoolteacher, encouraged Sandy toward book learning; he was willing and good at it. Dad was always restless in meeting his responsibilities so he could then get to what he really loved doing. He remained so through his career as a veterinarian, always with an eye toward learning more and traveling, as well as making things. Like many craft occupations woodturning attracts a more then a few retired professionals, so Dad’s background was not unusual among practitioners. Still, none of these biographical elements really explain how he was able to produce desirable objects that earned peer recognition.

Both my parents shared a life-long enjoyment of craftwork, landscape, art and architecture; travels with them always included lots of looking, lots of analyzing. Technical questions fascinated him, yet he would never fetish an object and was always curious over matters of production and to know something about the makers, their lives and working methods. Sandy came of age with the emergence of mid-century modernism and not surprisingly he was attracted to and curious about what was new and made in his time, as much as he was with everything that came before it. His appreciation of design was established in the late 1940s when he spent time in Montreal to work his way through university with the ROTC. He always recalled his experiences in the city as formative and everything he took in at the time—jazz, design and visual art—became lifelong interests. As long as I can remember, he had a critical eye on materials, proportion and scale. He started planning Grimsby Animal Hospital about ten years after his Montreal experiences, around 1959. He was proud of the building (1961) that was designed and built by Ross Hall and Noel Ogilvy, and he would reference its form as appropriate and elegant.

Dad never shared any particular childhood experience that explains his interest in aesthetics, but I’m pretty sure he was a whiz in geometry.  When I was a teen he gave me an unforgettable lesson on the golden ratio—pieces of wood and an outline of a doghouse were involved. He recalled his experience learning this concept as a boy, and took care to help me understand how it factored into the appearance of many things, and whether something seemed “right or not.” Thinking about this as an adult, I realized Sandy had long been influenced by the idea of a formula for proportion.

My math tutorial, by the way, was conducted in our barn near his assorted wood piles—collections that included broken bits, milled wood, scrap, reclaimed furniture, odd sticks and tree pieces, some from Dad’s own childhood, carried from the family farm. Entropy was common in the stacks and tending to those piles was a regular chore—a task that was never popular with my older siblings or me, although they knew the stories about pieces of wood too, having had a much longer history moving them about with Dad. Similar piles were made wherever he went, my mother, Joan, did a noble job keeping them under control or hidden. He also collected wood while living and working in north Africa and through extensive travels elsewhere, including pieces he would ‘fish’ while sailing. I suppose an argument could be made that most of the exotic wood he gathered and used had a kind of local component for him.

So when Sandy started this professional training, around age 62, he came to it with a highly developed eye over form and detail in design, an odd collection of raw materials, and a longstanding desire to return to his earliest vocational interests. When he started around 1988, he worked full time in the basement of his 1400 square ft retirement home. The shop was in a room with no windows and no ventilation. We had regular debates about the Dickensonian conditions of his workroom. Mom put up with it for a short while before insisting he build a proper workshop. As much as housing his production, it was also a new spot to contain the piles.

Dad’s ability to know wood owed something to his training in anatomy in the sense he was used to seeing what was obscured by surface. Cutting and dimensioning raw logs and tree pieces was mostly a deliberate thing with him. And not surprising for a man who understood the ‘science of form’ his deliberateness extended into detailed drawings for many pieces. Visualizing work was a complex activity: sometimes the wood itself would determine the appearance of a finished piece, in other instances pieces emerged through plans and detailed drawings. This was particularly true of his segmented work. From planning to completion, many pieces would take two to four years to finish. To me, because of his early proficiency, it seemed like he had an innate ability to reveal grain patterns and movement.

But turning wasn’t an inborn skill—his ability came from serious rigor and discipline, and it was mostly self-taught. Dad took up repetitions and would practice, then practice more. In the days when he was allowed to have a woodstove in his shop, no one knew too much about what he considered failures. Work always began around eight in the morning with breaks for tea and lunch. After a short rest, he would continue through to late afternoon. Saturdays too. This working pattern was basically what he did through his entire career. Even when he started to extensively care for Joan, he never let up. His output was even more extraordinary when you consider he only dedicated 7 months a year to production during his nearly twenty years of woodturning. Although, while spending winters in the American southwest, he would carve extensively and attend workshops as well as plan and draw. Perhaps his most prolific year was his last in 2008.

In that year, particularly with his segmented Aurora vessels, he was more satisfied than ever with the quality of his work. This segmented series was among his most personally expressive and fulfilled a number of long-standing ideas for original work. Sandy was basically shy in talking about his craftwork and his preoccupations, particularly when he didn’t know his thoughts entirely or was uncertain about something.  Such was his bearing in mulling metaphysical and physical phenomena; the same with existential questions. No surprise these things come up when you live on a 12-metre boat and travel through seas and across an ocean, especially during night watches or when conditions get rough. There’s a more everyday connection here too: after he finished training in celestial navigation sometime in the mid 1970s, he took up a reading interest in space and physics. While he sought explanations for auroral events, his fascination and connection to them was clearly linked to his very being—they were imagined as a kind of transit point or interface with things beyond, something, perhaps, we would “go into, or are already part of, who knows.”  His meditations on the Aurora Borealis resulted in a kinetic sculpture, a departure for Sandy; it was something he struggled with for years before finishing in the days before he died in December 2008.

I must mention Sandy’s hands. As with most surgeons, he had good control and could be quite graceful. The thing about his hands was not about actual production, but tactile assessment, a necessary part of his planning, reviewing and critiquing.  It may seem odd, but he spent a lot of time mindfully holding raw materials, tools or finished objects—I can only guess at the number of different ways he perceived and understood them. It was always fascinating for me to observe him engaged in this way, and if you lived with him, you knew this form of study was a reflex like breathing. Like high achieving artists and artisans we know, he never ever stopped looking or thinking about things made or to be made.  Holding stuff was an elemental way to stay connected to work.

Tools. Dad loved them, particularly sharp ones. We used to joke that he took up woodworking because of his surgeon’s attachment to precision and sharp steel. He enjoyed tools in both a practical and aesthetic way. Like many turners, he made most of the handles for his own turning tools, all the better to control outcomes. As sharpness was an absolute requirement for him, Sandy’s honing was terrific (he could have been a professional) and was a skill he never stopped working to improve.

I’m probably getting into stuff you know when I mention that he was a happy colleague. But he really did relish information sharing, his extensive social network and interactions over all his occupational pursuits. No relationship, however, was as vital to Dad’s output as the one he had with my mother. As with all his successes, Joan’s encouragement, participation and critical perspective was vital; she made him confident. In return, he never stopped pleasing her by making beautiful objects or generating fun controversy with others she didn’t like.  Sandy smartly organized his life so he could make things and be free from worry over practical matters like having to sell work to pay bills. This suited them, and while Dad enjoyed recognition from colleagues and the encouragement of friends and patrons, I always thought that he had a market of one: Joan. This was certainly almost true of his flat woodworking—linear, milled wood and furniture forms—something he only did as gifts to Mom or functional furniture for the shop or birds. Turning and flat woodworking are two very different things. Occasionally during his turning career, he would veer to the other side and try making furniture.  Sandy was never pleased with these projects, not so much because they were a ‘flat wood’ but because outcomes never met his standards. With more time, it’s easy for me to imagine he might have continued explore and refine functional forms. It was hard for him to turn down a challenge to learn more and make something new.

Dad was frequently irreverent, but kind of serious about movies he found funny. He loved interruptions by critters and other friends. I could go on. Anyway, I hope this much helps.



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