A View of the Achievements at HDG

/Report by Zoe Lin /Translated by Greg Niederhaus

We made our way out of the drizzling Taipei metropolis and headed to the mountainous outskirts of the city. As the high-rises got smaller, we found ourselves on the rural county of Linkou, where the sun shone through the trees upon the HDG Academy of Traditional Woodworking. Full of anticipation, we embarked on a tour which felt like a baptism from our everyday office worker existences, into the world of woodworking. We witnessed some of the processes involved as the students of HDG express the art within them through the working of wood by hand. It was superb to see a combination of testimony and metamorphosis, as educated workers with no practical skills became woodworkers with souls and skills. What caught our attention first was a frame on the wall encompassing the coveted "HDG Academy Experimental Woodworking Certificate". Once the students demonstrate that through woodworking they have been able to step out of the shackles of society and are able to surpass their limitations, they are eligible to receive the certificate. We came to HDG on this day in particular because it was the day of a special event. Marking the end of a semester, this special day was for students to display and present their achievements. As we entered the main workshop we noticed heavy machinery located at each of its four corners, a testimony to the months of effort of the students. In the center were all of the works by the students, some large, some small, but all very intricately designed and built. Before long the room became bright with natural sunlight which illuminated all of the various works.

Furniture, a Vessel for the Heart

Novice students at HDG usually start off with a basic project like a stool, and gradually progress on to things like tables, cabinets and other furniture. Regardless of their level of skill, most students aim to make something of wood to present to their loved ones. One gentleman used old wood and brought it back to life in the form of what he calls his "black cat table". Inspired by his past military service, he served in the Black Cat Squadron and has many fond memories. This piece was forher sister, whose limited living space warranted her design of this dining table with folding legs. His next project is a threshing machine for his mother in law, and he imagines her joy when he sees her using it... Linking the experience of everyday life with their unique wooden creations is a kind of intimacy; not only in sharing with others, but also in sharing the future. Through the process of designing, planning, executing and completing a project, not only does a piece get built. The process creates memories, emotions and stories which are significant and long lasting. One professor named King has a daughter with a stringed instrument called a pi-pa. She needs a stand to rest it on, and there are two simple requests involved: While playing she hopes that it can also hold her sheet of music, and while not in use it must be able to hold both her collection of sheet music and the instrument. King said that although the degree of difficulty for this project doesn't rank very high on the spectrum, the challenge was to put himself in the shoes of the end user, imagine her comfort and convenience, and make it as ergonomic for her as possible. With this project, where there would normally be nails, King used acoustic strings as his fasteners. Through the works of student Even Wu, one can feel her psychological nature, her unlimited imagination and her poetic sensibility. For example, she has built a series of very cute stacking stools called “Growing Up” which are each slightly larger than the next. Designed for a group of children differing in size and age, there is a suitably sized stool for each one. The smallest one may even be for the Barbie doll. Another work entitled the "Coat Tree," reminds one of a cactus in the sunny desert. Its base constructed of heavy laminated blocks rounded to an elegant ovular form, its presence invites you to hang up your straw hat and sit back with some iced tea. Beyond the original practical aspects of furniture there is another amazing fantasy world.

Discovering the latent potential of materials

Xie Ming-da is one student who has been working with steam. He took three pieces of wood and heated them with steam, He then bent them and let them cool down. Repeating this process three times allowed him to achieve a beautifully curved handle for a lamp he has made. In the center of the base is a wooden knob which may be turned to adjust the brightness of the bulb.

Meeting challenges with aesthetic solutions

Professor Lin Tongyang explains, "In the whole world no two pieces of wood are the same. In places you encounter knots, in others you get waves in the grain; the challenges that arise are ceaseless." Class leader, Mr. Zheng Qi-cong had been making a wooden chair. During the process he discovered a load bearing problem, and that the piece was not comfortable enough to sit on. To overcome these problems he incorporated different materials with the original timber. He wove soft rope between the rails of the chair to create a flexible seat, and added a beautifully shaped reinforcement piece underneath. He felt it was important to remember to identify with the aesthetic beauty of the solution. The former principal of Ta Tong High school, Mr. He Yao-zhang built a series of cabinets. The styles and rails which make up the frame work are all of walnut, while the panel work is of pine. This combination yields a sharp contrast between a dark hard wood and a light softwood. His custom shaped drawer handles resemble the almond eyes of a delicately made up woman gently swerving up and away. Their placement spans slightly upwards from bottom to top. He says that the power of woodworking comes from ones relationship with the wood; logical thinking skills combined with familiarity with the characteristics of the wood. His philosophy translates roughly to: "Eyes to heart to hand to the less, knowledge is to learn while learning." One of the class leaders this semester endeavored to create a chair inspired by all time woodworking great Sam Maloof. He explained what he has learned about hard and soft lines. "Every project you work will determine the order of your selection of lines, and the integrity of the tools will affect their flow. It is vital to maintain your patience until the project comes full circle, and to find the best way to join the hard and soft lines. Hard lines are structural while soft lines have more to do with ergonomics, design and character." When asked how he achieved such balance in the rocking chair he said, "In the early embryo stage, I experimented with pressure at all points throughout the full range of motion. I was after the longest, most stable rocking effect."

"The true potential of wood can only be brought out by those who know how to carve and polish it."
--- George Sturt Bypassing limitations through structural integrity

One of the most compelling works was by a student named Zhang Lifan. It is a bench constructed of thick hardwoods that remain girthy at the joints and span, yet taper off into a slender finish like the elegance of a woman's legs. When it comes to design ideas, he said: "I want to present unique, clean lines that appear to be unstable and mask the true strength." When asked about the effects of climate change and humidity on wood while in production, he said, "We must consider how the wood will behave as it grows and contracts. Furthermore, as a slowly replenishing resource, careful planning must take place so as to waste as little of it as possible. This is why I try to build furniture that is strong, but with legs and other components that are as fine as possible, as well as multi-purpose where appropriate." On the subject of structural integrity, he explains, "The methods to achieve load capacity and stability have been tried, tested and proven throughout time. But I don't think we need to limit the answers to what already exist. My challenge is to focus on ways to make furniture as light as air yet as strong as traditional pieces."

From the heart, through the hands
The students at HDG view the craft of woodworking as a Zen activity, as the dialogue between heart, mind and hands joins the three into one with the piece being crafted. A kind of meditation occurs while one is shaping the wood, and the deep concentration that is necessary unites the person with the wood. As they hone their skills, they exercise their minds. One student was making table legs and removing 3 cm off of each one. With three of them already cut, he began to cut what he thought to be the fourth when he was chatting with another student. As it happened, the leg he cut was still the third leg and it became 3cm too short. In this single moment of distraction what was supposed to be a dining table for adults became one for children, as there was no other choice than to cut all of the legs to match. As he told the story he seemed quite frustrated, but sympathetic laughter from the audience cheered him up again.

Words from the students
- "In learning to interact with the wood, she will take the initiative to come to you." - If you want to achieve 20 degrees, don't cut corners. Find a way to get the exact degree you need. - Be reasonable in what you require of yourself. Don't over-build: build to fulfill the essence of the furniture's purpose, rather than adding unnecessary ornamentation. - "To sharpen a chisel, grind the first side one week, and the next week grind the other side. Sharpen a blunt chisel as if it were your own character." - "A chair for a semester is a reasonable goal. If you're going to learn to do something, learn to do it right. If you get it wrong, go back to re-do it right."

Dandelion seeds
As more and more attention is paid towards creativity and craftsmanship across the world, Professor Lin Tongyang sees the endeavors of HDG as a universal movement towards the rebirth of traditional craftsmanship. More and more Taiwanese are attracted to this movement, and he believes that as the art of woodworking comes back to life, it will have a beneficial effect on the country's culture. One could equate the relationships cultivated between the instructors and students at HDG to a dandelion and its seed. As the seed catches flight and wafts on to its new destination, it grows into a new dandelion and breeds more seeds. Looking at woodworking in this way reveals that indeed, Taiwan is steadily growing richer with the re-spawning of this craft. The unification of Human beings with the materials of Mother Nature can produce a priceless product through the hands and heart. "People are the most intelligent of animals because of their hands." Anaxagoras Anaxagoras was a Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher. He attempted to give a scientific account of eclipses, meteors, rainbows, and the sun, Anaxagoras marked a turning-point in the history of philosophy. By the theory of minute constituents of things, and his emphasis on mechanical processes in the formation of order, he paved the way for the atomic theory.

For more photos, please visit interwood album: http://wfdadmin.pixnet.net/album/set/16228789
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