Story and Photographs by FRIDERIKE HEUER
Predictability – noun
- The quality something has when it is possible for you to know in advance that it will happen or what it will be like
- (often disapproving) the quality somebody/something has when they are exactly as you would expect and therefore boring – Oxford English Dictionary
It has been quite a while since I wrote my last Art on the Road essay, more than two years, in fact. Predictably so, given the pandemic’s impact on traveling. I am still restricted to short car trips, but mobile now, and so hopefully have interesting things to report across the next months.
Predictability and its opposite, unpredictability, currently loom large in my mind, given that we’ve seen such sudden changes in a world that considered itself, at least from Western nations’ privileged perspectives, relatively stable. Now the horrors of millions dead from or afflicted by the lasting damage of a virus have been joined by the terror of an unprovoked war in Europe, with unpredictable outcomes in a world filled with nuclear weapons.
Humans like predictability, given its relation to something we crave: a sense of control and protection from randomness which threatens our longing for a rational, just world. As societies we have created norms, both legally and customary, to allow us to predict and trust. Those who defy these norms are usually disliked at best, punished at worst. This rule comes with exceptions, though. People versed in political or militaristic power struggles often favor unpredictability to seed chaos and fear. And those in the sciences and the arts who approach problem-solving or creation in unpredictable ways often come up with the most creative solutions.
Another dimension of predictability is what we are trying to predict, based on our understanding of how the world works. Once upon a time, Newton gave us a basic model for prediction: Express the immutable laws of the universe in formulas, plug in the data, and do the math. That might work if we want to know when a dropped ball hits the ground, but that’s not nearly the full spectrum. We have trouble predicting psychological behavior given the many visible and invisible factors that affect our minds. And when we do predict outcomes we often have no clue about the underlying cause – just look at the internet’s prediction markets that allow people to place bets on future events. The resulting odds can accurately predict outcomes (who gets elected, what show will thrive) without giving us insight as to why these things will happen.
And then there is the (un)predictability of the material one works with. Which brings us at long last to the artist I want to introduce today, sculptor and woodturner Christian Burchard. He works with wet and unstable wood, which often, if not always, behaves in unpredictable ways. In fact, today’s title is a riff on the title of a lecture, Predictable Unpredictability, that he and another artist, Pascal Oudet, gave at the prestigious Chicago’s SOFA (Sculptural Objects Functional Art & Design Fair) some years back.
I met with the artist at his Southern Oregon wood shop and house, which hold vast collections of his work. It was pretty much a chance encounter. I had come to Ashland to interview his partner and was introduced to Burchard, who graciously agreed to talk to me as well and show me around the next day. The beauty of the accumulated wooden objects, turned, carved, polished, raw, strewn about or stashed in shelves outside the usual formal displays one encounters in exhibitions and galleries, caught my eye as an artist. The story behind them caught my ear as a writer. No titles, no dates, no artist statements about this or that series, just the artist and his creations, addressed as “my acrobats” here or “my books” there, a tangible relationship.
Burchard collects, cuts, turns, dreams wood. Almost exclusively the wood of one of the Pacific Northwest’s most distinctive evergreen hardwood trees, Arbutus menziesii, known as Madrone. It grows on drier, lower elevation sites, coastal bluffs and in the mountains. Drought-tolerant, it doesn’t need particularly rich soil and can live up to 200 years, growing to about 75 feet or more in height under ideal conditions. Madrone is culturally significant to the Pacific Northwest Coast Salish First Nations. Legend has it that during the great flood Madrona trees provided an anchor for their canoes to hold steady and not drift away.
According to Elder Dave Elliot in Saltwater People, “W̱SÁNEĆ peoples traditionally do not burn Arbutus for firewood because it is an important actor in the origin of their people. Some elements of the trees could be used, such as the bark and leaves for medicines. The extent of this tree’s meaning as a symbol of life and resilience cannot be measured.” (Ref.)
The tree, seeking sun, often grows in crooked ways, with lots of burls, interesting shapes, perfect for a sculptor exploring new form. Working with the wood when it is still green, though, introduces not just unpredictable outcomes: how will it warp and flex when it dries? It also contains a serious element of risk – when you put it to the lathe, careful to turn, creating a form, will it snap and break at the last minute? All the work in vain, a good piece of wood ruined? Will charring or bleaching, carving or chiseling enhance the character of the wood or obscure it?
Burchard is not a stranger to risk-taking, in fact I am tempted to describe him as a perennial risk-taker, on many levels of a life intensely lived. Judging by the results, and the deep laugh lines around his eyes, it has served him well. Then again, the concurrent losses might not be visible to the stranger, even one who felt the familiarity that so often spontaneously arises when one ex-pat meets another.
The artist and I are both of the same generation, have left our shared country, Germany, within three years of each other some 40 years ago, lived in the same city, and had the travel bug even before we emigrated, spending some chunks of time abroad (Australia and Asia for him, South America and Africa for me.) It cannot have been easy for Burchard. He comes from a distinguished family of politicians, bankers and lawyers who played a significant role in the history of the Hanseatic League, a great-grandfather serving as mayor of its largest city, Hamburg, and its immense harbor. Think Thomas Mann’s seminal novel The Buddenbrooks, just in a different town. The small network of patrician families ruled for centuries as a kind of oligarchy, providing mayors, senators, clergy and lawyers, fed by the wealth of a huge merchant imperium and shipping companies. Aristocracy was disdained, as were Jews, even assimilated ones, and a strict separated class system was de-facto maintained despite the official version that in the Hanseatic city each and every inhabitant was of equal standing. You could purchase the right to be a citizen of higher standing (Großbürgerrecht) only with true wealth, and that right was then inherited by male heirs, allowing you to serve in political office.
True democracy was, in other words, in short supply; pride, on the other hand, was not. There are reports of Burchard’s ancestor, the mayor Johann Heinrich Burchard, that he ordered the portrait painter Heinrich Kugelberg during the creation of a mural in the ballroom of Hamburg’s city hall to remove the image of a young man kneeling to receive baptism because “Hamburg’s citizens don’t kneel in front of anyone.” (Ref.)
There was some rise and fall of individual families, but across the centuries it was a prestigious, exclusive lot that ran the city’s business, courts and politics, intermarried, and accumulated wealth. Diligence, responsibility, reliability and predictability were all high on the list of values of the Hanseatic classes as was devoted service to their city and a coolly analytic approach to trade. To be born into this world came not just with silver spoons but also intense pressure to perform and uphold those class privileges. If you did not, complete ostracism was one of the possible consequences. I remember the years after my uncle (by marriage), a descendent of another famous Hamburg mayor, Heinrich Kellinghusen, walked out on my aunt, unannounced on Christmas Eve, no less, to move in with – the scandal ! – a purported prostitute, and I was told that no one ever talked to him again.
Others, however, seemed to escape that fate. Another Hamburg lawyer and senator of the Burchard branch, Wilhelm Amsinck Burchard-Motz, became deputy mayor of Hamburg in 1933. The election of the new Senate under Nazi leadership that March prompted him to switch party allegiance from the DVP to the NSDAP. That seemed not to matter in post-war Germany where he served as the chairman for the German Association for International Maritime Law and as Vice President of the German Golf Association and Chairman of the Hamburg Country and Golf Club in the Lüneburg Heath, as exclusive a club as they came at the time.
(Here is his portrait by artist Anita Rée, an insanely gifted avant-garde painter in the 1920s. An assimilated Jew, she converted to Christianity and was expressly anti-semitic herself, only to get sucked into the maws of rising fascism. She committed suicide in 1933.)
Another mayor who served the city recently for seven years is now the German chancellor tasked to bring the world away from the brink of nuclear war. Here is a perceptive portrait of the man from the New Statesman Journal, describing Olaf Scholz’ hanseatic profile and demeanor, assumed to bring us safely through this crisis.
To defy the strong expectations to follow in the footsteps of your forbears, and give up much privilege if you don’t, must have required an iron will by Christian Burchard – an intense wish to control his own fate, or a kind of desperation to get away from it all. After apprenticing as a furniture maker in Germany, he escaped to the U.S. in 1978, at age 23, studying sculpture and drawing at the Museum School in Boston and at the Emily Carr College of Art and Design in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Burchard opened his own studio in Southern Oregon in 1982, supplementing his income with furniture making and house construction, building a house for his own young family, all the while garnering more and more recognition as a gifted wood sculptor. The list of exhibitions is long: He is represented in various private and public collections, and he regularly is invited to the important craft shows of the Smithsonian, or the American Association of Woodturners. In fact, preparations for a cross-country trip, bringing new work to the Smithsonian in D.C., were in full swing during my visit.
It is pretty predictable that you find common ground when you share the experience of immigration. There is a tacit understanding that things are lost as much as gained. There is an unspoken agreement that you know some things that are hard to explain to those who did not leave a complicated past behind. In our conversation this became explicit only due to the timing of Putin’s unpredicted, if feared, invasion of Ukraine that very day. The topic of war and its associated frights and horrors was inescapable during a post-war German childhood, stifling and paralyzing at times, guilt-laden or guilt-avoidant, depending on your family, always hovering in the background. Nothing we could control; it controlled us.
All the more it is interesting to see an artist commit to a path – working with unstable wood – where control is ephemeral as well. Maybe it is exactly the balance he craves: Where lack of control once created sorrow, here it results in visceral beauty. Something emerges, authentic, if scarred, from unpredictability, and takes on a life of its own.
There is a vitality to his small books, a fluttering sense of just opening or just closing, as you wish. But Burchard exerts spatial control as well, introducing his own visual blueprint in his latest framings within quilt-like configurations or wall sculptures. A sense of order direly needed in an environment where climate change has become an agent of chaos.
The beautiful land that he and his partner live on, the goats he rears for making cheese, the pond that is necessary for sustaining their independence with a vegetable garden, are all affected. To meet the danger of the ever closer, encroaching fires, they had to rip out many trees, bushes, much vegetation, fire -proofing the buildings. He – half-jokingly – referred to a recently acquired van as something useful for flight, should it become necessary, which brought me full circle to the imagery of our childhoods as related by our parents, the firestorm from bombs destroying large parts of Hamburg and the flight from the invading forces in Berlin and parts further East.
Recent psychological research in the study of memory has turned from looking at memory exclusively as the processes involved in preserving the past, to exploring how it is used to predict the future. We have the tools – and the choice – of looking back or looking forward.
The meaning I found in Burchard’s work reflected that dual function. It also reminded me of Antonio Gramsci’s future-oriented declaration:
“I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”
― Antonio Gramsci, Antonio Gramsci: Prison Letters
The sculptures express the optimistic view that the imperfect, the warped and twisted and charred, can all connect us to a vision of nature’s beauty, but they also point to the possibility of acquiring a new life after an old one ceased to exist.
On my five-hour drive home from Ashland I left the highway for a break and found a small pond with picnic benches, close to a campground. (Why anyone would want to camp next to I-5 is a mystery to me. Solving it has to wait for another day.) I stopped next to a park-service van and took the leftover from the previous day’s sandwich to the bench. A woman in park service uniform was pacing at the edge of the water, searching for something. It turned out she had nursed a duck, severely injured by aggressive geese, back to health the previous summer, driving more than 40 miles every other day to bring food, water and splints for the creature. She had seen the duck during the winter as well, fully restored, but now it was gone. I got the story in more detail than I can relate, her worry for the bird gushing out of her. Her final words before she drove away were willfully optimistic: “Perhaps he found a nice wife and they are off to build a nest.”
Wherever I go I predictably meet people who are passionate about something. What that something might be – a life devoted to being independent and making art, a year devoted to saving a duck – is unpredictable. What I do know, though, is that I am glad to be on the road again, encouraged by people who put their faith in a possible future, during times when dark forces try to drag us back into an oppressive past.
Below is a presentation by the artist:
Music today is by Tuvan Throat singers, who hold a special place in Burchard’s life.
- This essay was first published March 7, 2022, on Friderike Heuer’s website YDP – Your Daily Picture. It is republished here with permission.