Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The Furniture Piece That Started It All

You know that white cabinet in my blog logo, it actually exists, it's real, and just as curious as any 'cabinet of curiosities'.


This cabinet was actually designed, built, and carved by my Nonno Antonio (father's father). I've been told that my interests in cooking and food came from my mother's parents and my artistic abilities came from my father's father. I can see how that's true. My Nonno was an unbelievably talented person. As a young man, back in his home town in Craticella, Provincia di Cosenza, (in the region of Calabria), he was a drawer, a poet,  a sculptor, a musician (playing the clarinet until he injured his hand during the Second World War), and local actor. Talk about doing it all. I was surprised to hear that he did all these things because the Nonno I knew, the charismatic speaker that was said to be an artist and poet through stories, was very private about his artistic talents and abilities. In fact, it was only until after he died in early 2010, that I began to find out first hand how complexly talented and impressive he was as an artist and writer. I guess you could say he was another cabinet of curiosities, that was discovered after its owner had passed away, leaving no explanations or descriptions of the contents stored inside. My father and I had to do a bit of 'Indianna Jones-ing' to unlock the mysteries and wonders of my Nonno.

I'm 23, and when I think of the time when he was my age in southern Italy, having the same number of interests as me, interested in the artistic creative sides of life, and not being able to foster his talents or have the support from his family for an education, the idea hits me quite heavy. It's humbling to think I live in an environment of love and support. Every thing he did, he taught himself; how to draw, carve, write (with the aid of his father), act, etc. No formal training. At that time, guys my age were fated to work on their family farm, work in a trade to support their family financially, and help provide for their parents, grandparents, and other siblings (who usually all lived under the same roof). There was no room for dreams, or heaven forbid, creative expression. There is always 'expections to rules' but for the most part, my generalisations were the realities of that life, in that area, in that time period, for men.

As a sculptor, he carved wood, and in particular, carved the relief sculptures for caskets. Every time I think of this, the song My Boy Builds Coffins by Florence and the Machine puts my feelings about this into words quite perfectly. Here's an excerpt:  

My boy builds coffins with hammers and nails
He doesn't build ships, he has no use for sails
He doesn't make tables, dressers, or chairs
He can't carve a whistle 'cause he just doesn't care

My boy builds coffins for the rich and the poor
Kings and queens have all knocked on his door
Beggars and liars, gypsies and thieves
They all come to him cause he's so eager to please

My boy builds coffins, he makes them all day
But it's not just for work and it isn't for play
He's made one for himself, one for me too
One of these days he'll make one for you
For you, for you, for you

My boy builds coffins for better or worse
Some say it's a blessing, some say it's a curse
He fits them together in sunshine or rain
Each one is unique, no two are the same

My boy builds coffins and I think it's a shame
That when each one's been made, he can't see it again
He crafts every one with love and with care
Then it's thrown in the ground, it just isn't fair...

The idea is bitter sweet and slightly Romantic (in the late 18th mid 19th century art historical sense). All the countless hours of work, skill, energy, and passion for the craft, was put into carving all the ornate architectural motifs of classicism and the elegant lines of foliage and natural references to create a beautiful composition. Then imagine having all that work, seen once, on the day of someones death, to be then buried in the ground, never to be seen again. Wow....Plus, for him to already know, prior to carving, that his art would be create for the purpose of being buried forever, and then still choosing to make the art regardless of its subterranean fate, is remarkable. I have trouble enough, just giving away paintings I've painted.

My father has 3 other siblings, and for a wedding present to each of his children, my Nonno carved  all of them a furniture piece. My father's wedding gift was this cabinet I have in my logo. Another surprise about my Nonno is that he built  his own carving tools which he brought to Canada when he immigrated with his family. I was honoured and privileged enough to inherit his carving tools, which consists of 44 hand made tools. I don't carve that much myself, and I only used them a couple of times when I made furniture for an art project, but I don't really feel like my low carving skills are worthy of using such beautiful tools. Hopefully one day I can do them honour and justice.

He built the wooden carrying box too. With so much age, weathering, nicks and scratches, I can't help but feel the strongest sense of reverence when I'm in its presence. Like witnessing a legend in the flesh.
In my Nonno's eyes, nothing could go to waste, and he could always find some purpose for what some might call 'trash'. Margarine containers would make perfect workshop storage containers, old liquor bottles were made to store his homemade wine in, and in the case of this wooden carrying box, cardboard Gleneaton nylon hosiery packaging made a perfect liner. A true maverick in the best sense. I can see these same qualities in my father, and in me. I used to think these qualities of resourcefulness as more like 'magpie' tendencies when I was younger, but I'm proud of them now, proud to have inherited character traits from my Nonno that live on in me.

The cabinet is solid wood and I'll never forget how heavy it was to move when we first brought it into our house. The design, carving and build of the cabinet was all done by my Nonno. I can't choose words or formulate any sentences that would do justice to this cabinet. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Here's where the 'cabinet of curiosities' comes in: appearances are not what they seem. To quote The Black Keys from their song Next Girl:

Well, the look of the cake, it ain't
It ain't always the taste

The sides of the cabinet hold built-in hidden speakers, the small doors open to reveal a storage space for vinyl records, and the top opens up to expose a built-in record player. So cool! He was so creative.

After all these years, the record player and speakers still work and I play all my records on it. The only thing that needed a little love was the record needle that my father had to replace. There is something about records that you can't get from the distilled digitalised music of our day and age. The sound is muffled, raspy, and rich which add character and charm to the music, and there is something special about the act of physically setting up the record and flipping it to the other side which you can't get from an iPod dock. There's a physical connection to the music that occurs, which doesn't happen when clicking a touch-screen-something. I still catch myself forgetting that I can't pause or rewind music on a record. The idea could be frustrating at first, but in a way, it forces me to slow down, stop what I'm doing and just enjoy the music playing, being in the moment.

This cabinet is special to me, which is obvious because I chose to draw it for my blog logo, but I chose it for more reasons than that. To me it represents a marriage of tradition and innovation, and a jester of time, escaping the confines of the past present and future, and existing in all three. It's a manifestation of a dreamer's life's work, his passion, talent, and wonder. It's devotion a it's most powerful and purest, and I'm it's devotee. An emblem of love and a symbol of strength. Above all, it's my Nonno, manifested into a form where he can continue to exist in my life, to protect and watch over me, and remind me to dream with ambition and that nothing is handed to you. You achieve through hard honest work, and when success comes your way, remain humble, and share it with the ones you love.

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