In Honor of Robert E. Mueller
April 3, 1925 – January 18, 2017
There are so many wonderful memories to unpack of my life with my Dad—here are just a few standouts that are flowing from me right now. I am so grateful for his love and kindness to me. And I am so thankful that he is in many ways responsible for my deep love of my sense-experiences. I remember so fondly when he and I did woodworking projects, together in the basement workshop, that used his jigsaw. I equate jigsaws with my Dad. I don’t think I ever really heard the word in any other context than with my Dad. I suspect I never really even realized before putting pen to paper today that a jigsaw puzzle was probably initially created using a jigsaw. A jigsaw is what my Dad had in the basement that we used to cut shapes out of wood—regardless of the purpose. That’s the only kind of electric saw that existed in my child’s mind. And it will always be the best saw to me.
Anyway, I also loved what we created with that jigsaw. Together Dad helped me to use the jigsaw to build jewelry-related items. My purple velvet-lined jewelry box is a perfect combination of rough unfinished wood next to ultra-soft napped deep-purple velvet. Possibly it was my first use of the jigsaw. A bit more ambitious project, my display jewelry holder in the shape of my hand so perfectly makes use of a wood knot as the palm. We used the jigsaw to cut the hand shape and the base. I probably traced my hand and forearm as the pattern on tracing paper with a soft graphite pencil. That unique pencil smell comes to mind. Then we cut dowels for fingers (other than the thumb) and hooks to hold bracelets and more rings. I love my little jewelry box and hand display. They still are very much in use today in my jewelry cabinet. A glance at them is love.
My Dad and I also did other larger woodworking projects together. I suspect we used the jigsaw to cut the 2×4 pieces into lengths for the bookshelf we made for my bedroom. We also built a desk together which had three wood legs, a plywood top with strips of wood around the edge to soften and finish it and a small file cabinet anchoring it as the fourth leg. Now that I have been exposed to more woodworking tools because of Andy and his workshop, I suspect that using other saws might have been more effective for cutting large pieces of wood. We used the jigsaw! I know we occasionally used handsaws of different sizes as well. But the jigsaw is king. I can conjure up the loud sound of it turning on as I sit here. Even with its raw power and energy, it’s a calming and comforting sound. I can also smell the fragrant, yummy wood. To this day I adore the smell of cut wood.
Just last week I went with Andy to Dain’s Lumber, a local family-operated lumberyard where we got to pick pieces of wood. Andy needed members for his project of restoring his father’s (and his grandfather’s before him) workbench. (Andy had lovingly taken apart the workbench at his childhood home in California in December and shipped the pieces to our New York home). Andy and I watched as the wood workers planed the pieces of wood to a thinner dimension. The planer was so loud and thrilling and the smell of cut wood around me so reassuring. I am sure there is a primitive reason for my love of cut wood. I know that I am not alone in that feeling—Andy certainly shares it. I also owe addition love for cut wood smells to my Dad. (Andy learned his love for woodworking from his Dad). I didn’t spend as much time with my Dad over the years compared to my Mom, but woodworking was a standout.
Another sense-based love that I owe to my Dad is my adoration of the smell of oil paints. Although I should say that my love is probably a bit broader and includes linseed oil, ink and turpentine. My Dad started working in oils, though for many years he used acrylics—but they don’t smell as good! I have a small set of oil paints and to sniff them is to experience joy and to transport me to my Dad’s studio in our attic. I am sure that the smell of oil paints is still lingering upstairs in the Britton House—our childhood home. Dad worked in our attic on painting, ink schemas, sketching and—woodcuts! How could I forget that woodcutting was not confined to the jigsaw in the basement for building structures? Woodworking was part of his art creation!
My Dad cut wood for his amazing and intricate woodcut prints. Using woodcutter’s tools of different shapes and taking advantage of the grains of wood, he crafted many woodcuts. From scenes of many people depicting slavery to peace marches and workingwomen, to individual nudes and portraits, my Dad was a gifted woodcutter. I can smell the ink as he rolls it over the beautifully carved planks of wood. And then using a smooth burnishing tool made from wood, I can feel him rubbing the textured white rice paper laid on top to transfer the image. Yes, I do indeed love texture and smell—is it any wonder?
My Dad’s life, and therefore my childhood too, used the senses. Sights—the beauty of his artwork and his design eye. Sounds—the delicate brush against canvas, the scraping of wood curls from his cutting tool and the jigsaw drone. Textures—the crevices in his woodblocks and blobs of oil on canvas. Smells—fragrances from all the materials he worked to create lasting art. The remembrance of sensations from my Dad’s woodworking and artwork will forever sustain me and provide me with love.