Art, Life and Wooden Toys
Updated: Sep 7, 2020
I’m sitting in the studio surrounded by bits of wood and found objects.
Getting new window-doors put in has literally shed light on all the stuff that needed clearing. In the process I enjoyed discovering new things that were hidden or stashed away in the corners and shelves. Simplifying the space and getting rid of things I don’t use (or storing them somewhere else) brings emphasis on the uniqueness and usefulness of the pieces I do have, and opens my eyes to new possibilities, new creations.
I’m continuing with the combine work in my studio - bringing together found wood objects, cut-offs, and beach findings along with painting.
The term ‘combine’ is most closely associated with the artwork of American artist, Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), who coined the phrase to describe his own creations. Rauschenberg’s Combines explored the blurry boundaries between art and the everyday world.
Here’s what it says about his work on Wikipedia:
“As the name suggests, the Combines are hybrid works that associate painting with collage and assemblage of a wide range of objects taken from everyday life. Neither paintings nor sculptures, but both at once, Rauschenberg’s Combines invade the viewers’ space, demanding their attention, like veritable visual puzzles. From stuffed birds to Coca-Cola bottles, from newspaper to press photos, fabric, wallpaper, doors and windows, it is as though the whole universe enters into his combinatorial process to join forces with paint.
Rauschenberg collected discarded objects on the streets of New York City and brought them back to his studio where he integrated them into his work. He claimed he "wanted something other than what I could make myself and I wanted to use the surprise and the collectiveness and the generosity of finding surprises. [...] So the object itself was changed by its context and therefore it became a new thing."
Rauschenberg's comment concerning the gap between art and life provides the departure point for an understanding of his contributions as an artist. He saw the potential beauty in almost anything; he once said, "I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly, because they're surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable." His Combine series endowed everyday objects with a new significance by bringing them into the context of fine art alongside traditional painting materials. The Combines eliminated the boundaries between art and sculpture so that both were present in a single work of art. While "Combines" technically refers to Rauschenberg's work from 1954 to 1964, Rauschenberg continued to utilise everyday objects such as clothing, newspaper, urban debris, and cardboard throughout his artistic career.”
Canyon, is one of Rauschenberg's most recognisable Combines.
Rauschenberg famously stated that “painting relates to both art and life,” and he wanted to work "in the gap between the two.”
“It is neither Art for Art, nor Art against Art. I am for Art, but for Art that has nothing to do with Art. Art has everything to do with life, but it has nothing to do with Art,” Rauschenberg once declared.
Returning to the subject of clear-outs (something many of us have put our hand to during lockdown), my parents were clearing out their garage in Ontario recently. While doing so, they came across some of my Opa’s (grandfather’s) wooden toys, designed by him and made in his factory in Holland: Sliedrecht Speelgoed.
Dad remembered when, as a young boy, he and his own father (my Opa) would go to the various cafes and restaurants along the beachfront in Noordwijk, selling his ‘Sliedrecht’ beach chairs. My father, on his most recent visit to Holland went with his sister to Noordwijk and asked shop owners if they had any chairs left from my Opa’s factory. Much to my father’s surprise, one cafe owner brought Dad to a back room where stacks of Opa’s chairs were stored. They bought them from my Opa in the 50s and have been using them since! He said that if they were still being made, he would have ordered a whole bunch more.
When I was born, Opa had designed a series of tables and benches that just came out at the time. He named the series model ‘Monique’, after his first grand-child. I didn’t really know my Opa, but I was privileged to be able to sit on that small bench and at that table when I was a child. My brothers and I would often play with his wooden creations. Later, when a teenager, I got to visit the site of his factory in Waddinxveen
Sliedrecht Speelgoed was the longest running wooden toy factory in Holland before it had to shut down in the mid-late 70s, because of a large fire, as well as the introduction of plastic toys which became very popular and took the place of wooden toys. Interesting now how plastic has become something that is a little more ‘out of fashion’ now because of it’s negative impact on the environment.
Of course, my father was very influenced by my grandfather, and eventually became a mechanical engineer. He loves to design, invent and build new things.
If I think about it now, I can recall sitting in Dad’s workshop as a kid, and gluing bits of wood together, sometimes painting them…. I’d grab all the bits that had fallen to the floor - offcuts of beautifully crafted pieces of furniture that my dad made for our home when I was growing up.
Dad made me a beautiful desk once. I still have it. I used to dream about that desk. What a joy it was to receive that desk one year for my 15th birthday. It was such a treasure, and still is. It even has a secret compartment built into it!
It’s interesting how these different threads and interests in our lives can find their way into our adulthood. I think about Rauschenberg. So much of art is ‘play’. It’s wonderful how he saw beauty in the every day.
Perhaps, this week we can follow his example and perceive fresh possibilities in ordinary things.