At his art show last summer, when Lee Secrest bartered his most expensive piece of artwork for an old riding lawnmower, none of us were surprised.
"But it's worth so much more than that," we told him later that evening, sitting around a fire outside his cabin, north of Polebridge. "It better be one hell of a used lawnmower!"
The situation eventually got straightened out and Secrest wound up with a hefty check, befitting his talent and art. But, he confided, while the cash would certainly come in handy, he still thought the lawnmower would've been cool.
This is how Secrest is: cloistered from the world, fostering his own cockeyed pragmatism—a true backwoods artist.
I heard rumors about him long before I met him: "He lived in a teepee and ate nothing but ground squirrels for two years!" "He brain-tans hides better than anyone in the world." And, "He'll remind you a little of the Mad Hatter."
Turns out all of the stories are to some degree true. It's nearly impossible to encapsulate Secrest. The best I can offer is: Imagine what it would be like if artists raised Davy Crockett in the 1960s. What you get is a skilled woodsman, a goofy and kind soul, an endearing tendency to get nervous around strangers, a reverence for nature, a fondness for revelry, and above all a passion for art.
After 30 years as an eminent tanner and artist, he says, "I was a little burned out...Brain tanning is very physically demanding, and I'd been doing it forever."
Around that time, he began operating a small sawmill on his property. That's where he found new inspiration.
"At first the mill was just a way to make money. But then I started really watching the wood—an odd or interesting piece coming through—and I thought, 'I could turn that into something people might like to look at.'"
The change of mediums was a smooth transition, Secrest says. "They're very similar, leather and wood. They're a natural material, something of the earth...And in both, it's a process of highlighting the beauty that's already there...I've always had a reverence for wood, even as a kid."
When Secrest sees a beautiful piece of wood, he moans like someone who's just taken a bite of something delectable. When discussing wood with friends, he uses the word "awesome" a lot, and becomes so animated that he can't sit still.
His sculptures vary widely, but his primary focus is the sphere, utilizing the shape to showcase a piece of wood's character. "Spheres are just incredible," he says. "They have the smallest surface area of any 3D object! As a minimalist, I grabbed a hold of that."
Spheres and ovoids appeal to him for other reasons as well.
"The form is so universal. People with no connection to each other, on opposite sides of the planet, do the same thing in terms of form. Spheres and circles are really pleasing to people, for some reason."
He's quick to add that none of his spheres are perfect:
"They're not supposed to be, because things rarely are. There are a lot of religions in the world that say only god's perfect, so I'm not gonna crowd that one at all!"
He says, though, that form is incredibly important, and so is proportion. The trick is getting that balance of material, form, and proportion—without measuring.
"I have a lot of people say 'Oh you must've started with a burl,' or 'you must have turned it on a lathe.' But no, that's not true at all. Heck, anybody can put a piece of wood on a lathe and make it round. This is about touch and feel and doing it all by hand."
He starts by selecting the right piece of wood, one with character—a lightning scar, perhaps, or interesting cambium growth, or natural blue stain in the wood. Then he chops the corners with a chainsaw and does some preliminary shaping. He makes sure to leave a part of the outside of the tree on the piece–bark, or a scar–because it helps people make a connection between art and the trees they see every day. Sometimes he makes plans to include another natural material in the design, usually one of the smooth, round rocks that he finds on his property. Next he moves on to hand-held power planers, and finally to sandpaper.
"I have constant contact with the piece with my left hand, and my hand tells me where to go. It's all about feeling the form. And it's an opportunity for more connection to the piece, and more reverence for the material. If we can look at something and feel a sense of place among other organisms on the planet, that's pretty great. I just want to try to maintain that connection between the natural world and where we seem to be going today, which is not good...My goal is to just show a beautiful spot in a plant, combine it with a beautiful form, and make it into something that when you look at it, it just makes it a little easier to get through the day."
When I saw Secrest last, he was gearing up for this year's art show. This time, he said, "No more lawnmowers"—and added, "maybe."
Secrest Studio presents the 3rd Annual Summer Art Gala Saturday, July 30, 4 to 8 PM, 14 miles north of Polebridge on the North Fork Road. Free.