FREEING THE STORIES OF OLD WOOD

“The headboards were totems, they have been witness to so much life. They stood witness to births, deaths, sickness and lovemaking for generations.” —Doug Frati, woodcarver

 

interview by NANCY GORDON

Artist Doug Frati.
Photo: Ashley Jaqueline
Photo: Ashley Jaqueline
Tang chisels.
Photo: Ashley Jaqueline
Fox
Grasshopper, Crows and Rabbit
Headboards.
Photo: Ashley Jaqueline
Photo: Ashley Jaqueline
Spools.
Photo: Ashley Jaqueline
Wheel Bird
Sailboat

Let’s start with your grandmother, who you told me was “the first woman in town to wear pants where she worked.” Tell us about her farm, her talents and strengths and what they gave you.

My grandmother was an old-fashioned woman and a practical woman. She drove a 1949 powder-blue Buick with her long white hair piled in a bun on top of her head. Locally she garnered respect and was a hardworking, kind and honest woman. She was born Florance, but everyone called her Flossie. It was not uncommon to hear a Flossie story from someone in passing. She was rumored to have jumped barrels on skates, raced horses at the track in July and to have been the first woman to wear pants in the woolen mill where she worked.

Born in 1900, she straddled the Old World and the New. Living alone, she cooked on a wood stove and gathered water from a well in the dooryard. The barn was full of animals and a garden was planted every spring. There was a quirky rhythm to her farm and it ticked along like an old clock. I spent a lot of time with her in my youth and I think some of her may have rubbed off on me.

Any advice from your grandmother that has stayed with you?

“Don’t be afraid of spiders.” My grandmother believed in spiders—not that they existed, but that they serve a purpose. She did in fact carry that idea to an extreme. Spiders and spider webs were never removed from the barn, sheds and, most horrifying if you were a kid, the dark narrow walk to the outhouse in back of the woodshed. The upper half of the barn was dedicated to the spiders, their webs and the business of catching bugs. The barn was a hundred years of silk webbing, layer upon layer covered in dust in a diffused light. The late-summer spiders are fat and they spin their webs anew each morning changing the upper barn to a spider circus. All in motion, alien acrobats meticulous in their work. Scary, fascinating and beautiful all at the same time.

You grew up in Pittsfield. How did the local library and church expand your cultural world?

There wasn’t a lot of culture in Pittsfield, but it also wasn’t a void. There was a library and a church. I devoured books at the library. Any book with illustrations or photos. I didn’t read them, but I studied the pictures. At the time, of course, I didn’t realize I was studying. For me it was simply feeding a hunger. I knew every book on every shelf that had pictures and returned often to my favorites. The church my family attended in town was an old elaborate church with dark vaulted ceilings with frescos and tall, brightly colored stained-glass windows. The windows were numerous and Sunday morning light would pour through them sending arrows of blue and reds onto the oak pews and painted walls.

Once a year a car trip to the Boston Museum of Art was organized by volunteers from the church and off we would go with bagged lunches for a four-hour journey to Boston. We were brought into the museum, handed a bagged lunch and informed where to meet at the closing of the day. I roamed away, lost, soaking it all in, taking a stair to the next level if I found one. Back then, the museum’s lower levels were full of dark corners, dusty antique furniture displays and old model ships. It was very quiet and no one ever went down there, preferring the brightly lit upper floors. I was interested in the old objects with their old wood, ancient paint, wear and shapes. I roamed the lower levels soaking it all in, later to wonder if there was another level below that I might discover on my next visit.

You didn’t go to art school until you were 25. What did you do after high school?

After high school I traveled … always with a sketchbook. I moved around a lot, living in different places and meeting new people. By the time I turned 25, I was back in Maine and applied to the Portland School of Art. That was 1979. Back then, the school was housed in the old Calderwood Bakery building. It was a tight community of students and instructors where everybody worked hard. It was good and I graduated in 1983 with a foundation in painting and printmaking. A year later, a large painting I had made of a woman standing in a garden was purchased by the Portland Museum of Art and added to their permanent collection. That was very empowering and set my course going forward.

Time—history—is a big element in the woods that you choose to work with. Tell us about the antique wood you work with and where you find the pieces.

Time is relevant and art is relevant to time. The two cannot be separated. Time is an element or an ingredient in a piece of art and that idea intrigues me.

I work with a lot of antique wood salvaged from old furniture. Wood in its very nature holds memory. It shows age, it shows wear, the colors vary with time. It becomes a charged material, like a battery. That memory acts as a trigger with the viewer when viewed in a new piece of art.

You’ve said that, working with antique wood, “I add another layer to its history.” How does this work?’

When I take a salvaged piece of, say, an old headboard I’m changing its purpose. By turning it into a piece of art I’m extending it into the future. Its past remains intact, but its function has evolved. So yes, that can be called a new layer. This is important to me. I care a lot about what I’m doing. It seems very much worth doing.

You discovered a collection of wooden headboards in your grandmother’s barn. What intrigued you about them?

What first started me on this type of carving was the old headboards. I had been holding onto a stack of them for a number of years. At some point I decided to carve motifs into them. The headboards are a salvaged material found in dusty barns, sheds and attics. I was attracted to their flowing curves. A simple but sophisticated figurative element. Mostly pine and sometimes tulip, aged well with good color, making for an ideal carving surface.

Have you added your own carving and story to the headboards?

Yes. I am adding my own story by carving images into the old headboards. I’m changing their function without changing what they are. What they were was much more than a structural function in a piece of furniture. The headboards were totems, they have been witness to so much life. They stood witness to births, deaths, sickness and lovemaking for generations. The headboard stood over the sleeping while they dreamed. People hesitated to throw them out as they fell out of use. I think they were such an intimate part of everyday life that people couldn’t let them go.

Do you love to dismantle old furniture?

I am a collector of parts and pieces, all of it wood, mostly old and formed by hand. What I dismantle is either incorporated into art or shelved. I’m orderly and like multiples. I didn’t set out to collect all these parts and pieces; they were simply a byproduct of dismantling old furniture in the search for usable parts. Everything is a story. In a weird way I’m a custodian and an artist.

Your grandfather’s store, Frati’s Pawn Shop in Bangor, was like a candy store for you. Stephen King even mentions the store in IT! What were the main delights for you?

My grandfather, on my father’s side, came from Italy with his family as a young man. He was a goldsmith and opened a jewelry/pawn shop in Bangor shortly upon his arrival over a hundred years ago. As a kid, my grandmother would take me to Pickering Square in downtown Bangor to visit my grandfather’s shop. The shop was a long, narrow storefront full of merchandise in an old brick building with tin ceilings where musical instruments hung by wires. Shelving circled the walls, all full of secondhand goods. Glass cases on the floor were full of jewelry. It was a unique store full of curiosities and art.

Yes, Stephen King mentioned Frati’s Pawn Shop in the book IT. He described it well.

You use mostly black stains. Any reason?

I like minimalism and I like telling simple stories. Staining the wood dark allows me to draw my imagery in white chalk before I cut into the material. I’m working in reverse: dark becomes light and light becomes dark. My imagery of birds, snakes, fox, fish—all of it, the whole menagerie—are silhouettes dancing to the tune of the wood they are carved in.

If I’m drawing a bird I’m not thinking, ‘How do I make this look like a bird?’ I’m thinking ‘How does this shape interact with the shapes around it?’ The contrast keeps everything simple and keeping everything simple can sometimes be more.

When did you take over your grandmother’s farm? Lots of renovations?

Erin, my wife, and I moved into the old homestead in 1997. It had been empty for some time and it took a complete renovation to bring the place back. My grandmother was good with the animals and garden, but as far as repairs on the place went, it was accomplished with string, wire and bent nails.

We kept some things, like the old Home Clarion cook stove in the kitchen. We use it all winter for heat and cooking. The outbuildings were torn down and the barn restored, keeping its charm intact. We still grow a garden on the original garden plot.

Is your studio in the barn?

I work in the studio, but the barn and studio function as a gallery space as well. In fixing up the barn I tore off the old cow tie-up and replaced it with a studio. It’s a comfortable space, insulated and heated with lots of windows. Folks visit by appointment and I do get a lot of visitors in the warmer months. Everybody has navigation now and I think people are looking for a more authentic experience, which they’re willing to search out. Coming to my studio/barn offers a look into the process and materials used in the woodcarving I do. There is a lot to look at and we sit in a pretty spot.

Above: photography by ASHLEY JAQUELINE

Recently, you started selling your carvings at outdoor fairs rather than through galleries. Why the switch and what’s been the big upside?

I started selling at outdoor fairs about six years ago. Prior to that, most sales were done through galleries. There are a good amount of high-quality art and craft fairs throughout the summer here in Maine. The fairs attract a lot of interesting people. Being able to talk to and interact with the people who come into my booth has been eye-opening. Art needs an audience and how people react to my work is important. The insight from the viewer was missing when I sold through a gallery. In a funny kind of way, the viewer is an ingredient in the art as much as the material which it is made from.

. . .

Instagram: doug_frati_art

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