Aleph Geddis Carves a Living Out of Old Trees, Strange Shapes and Some Very Arcane Mathematics
Originally Published in Smith Journal
Words by Jenny Valentish and Chris Harrigan
THERE ARE CERTAIN PEOPLE YOU MIGHT EXPECT A WOODCARVER TO LIST AS AN INFLUENCE.
An encouraging teacher, perhaps, or a furniture designer whose work they admire. Plato, the Greek philosopher who died over two millennia ago without so much as picking up a handsaw, wouldn’t be at the top of most woodcarvers’ lists. But then, Aleph Geddis isn’t most woodcarvers. Geddis grew up on Orcas Island, north-west of Seattle. From a young age he apprenticed with his stepfather, master woodworker Walter Henderson, doing the fine detailing on realistic plants and animals. But as he began to develop his own practice, it was the father of philosophy who gave him his point of difference.
Geddis’s ever-growing range of geometric wood sculptures is based on the so-called ‘Platonic solids’ – the cube, tetrahedron, octahedron, icosahedron and dodecahedron. Plato hypothesised that these somehow made up the classical elements – earth, fire, air, water and ether, respectively. We know now that they don’t, though mathematicians continue to find the shapes fascinating, if hard to explain to laypeople. Geddis tries his best: “A Platonic solid is a three-dimensional convex polyhedron whose faces are all the same shape, with equal sides and angles.” What makes them interesting is the way they can all nest inside one another, like Russian dolls. “At a glance the shapes seem so foreign to one another,” Geddis says. “But in truth they are so interconnected.”
It’s this interconnection – between shapes, as well as maths and philosophy – that draws Geddis in as an artist. Instead of replicating simple cubes or tetrahedrons, he carves shapes somewhere on the spectrum between two forms. Some of his works rely on simple ratios he can figure out in his head. Other times Geddis uses a brass wire tool to study the relationship between two shapes. With more complicated sculptures he might spend a week 3D-mapping them on his computer, before executing the carving over a few days. “You’ve got to rough-cut and refine every step, then put the patterns on that piece, then rough-cut and refine again,” he explains. “It’s very much like a puzzle. Some things take years to figure out. I’m stuck in limbo with one piece right now, trying to get my head around it.”
Geddis sees carving as very different from other forms of sculpture. “Maybe it’s the intimacy with the wood,” he says. “That feeling when the chip comes off and falls to the ground.” He prefers hand tools to powered ones, and makes many of his carving knives himself, as artworks that create more artworks. For his raw material Geddis favours maple – “for its creaminess” – and yellow cedar, reserving red cedar for his bigger pieces. That’s when he’s working out of the family’s carving shed in Orcas Island, where he bunks down in the old milking shed. For the other months of the year he lives near Canggu in Bali, in a small, white workshop that is his and his alone. There he tries to use salvaged teak or ironwood from old boats. That’s partly because he’s not keen on “abrasive” young teak, and partly because he enjoys the energy of something that has been around a long time. “As a lover of trees, it pains me that the best wood is from old-growth trees,” he says. “It’s a struggle I have inside me.”
Since leaving his Seattle boutique, Moksha, to concentrate full-time on carving, Geddis has taken a pay cut and simplified his lifestyle. Though, like his sculptures, there’s a hidden depth to this simplicity. “You get up in the morning, and the gravity of the work pulls you in,” Geddis says. Some 2000 years later, Plato’s favourite shapes are as alluring as ever. •