THE SOUL OF A TREE: A MASTER WOODWORKERS REFLECTIONS
Updated: Sep 17
George Nakashima (May 24, 1905 – June 15, 1990) was an American woodworker and architect. His innovations in the design of furniture were one of the major influences on the craft movement. The craft movement was a verdant celebration of independent makers who revivified time-honored techniques and design, using traditional materials such as wood or glass. Nakashima’s work was so immediately celebrated that a book was commissioned to catalogue his life’s work and philosophy. You will have encountered his influence in furniture design and motifs everywhere. His thoughtful, poetic style has only increased in popularity since his passing, and when you think of ‘live edge’ or single slab tables, you are thinking of him. For even though this style is not his own invention, he is associated closely with this technique that delivers us both an ancient past of simplicity, and an exquisite future of refinement.
Nakashima’s The Soul of a Tree is an homage to his life and the practice of woodwork, as well as a document that envisages wonderfully his technique and philosophy. Within this tome holds some of the best prose on the life of the forest that you will ever encounter. But also be prepared to have Nakashima assault you with the sheer beauty of his dedication, a dedication to enshrining in new form the honored tree giants, that they may have a second life exposing their beauty through grain and construction.
“Each tree, every part has only one perfect use. The long, taut grains of the true cypress, so well adapted to the making of elegant, thin grilles, the joyous dance of the figuring of certain species, the richness of graining where two large branches reach out - these can all be released and fulfilled in a worthy object for man’s use.”
- Chapter 8, page 93
As the quotes I insert in this review demonstrate, this book turned out to be much more than how to sharpen chisels. And while he does generously share his techniques and tools, I was not prepared for the majority of the book to be such a vast homily to trees and the natural world. He takes little credit for his furniture, instead deferring that honor through poeticism to the giants that made his work possible. I had no idea what a poet of nature the man was.
The artist with a book-matched walnut slab table of his creation.
“On the ole mountains of Yaku, off the coast of Kyushu, grow old Shugi trees, or cedars, that seem eternal. They are among the grandest gifts of nature, and have spanned perhaps the whole history of civilized man. They are great trees, their bodies cathedrals of all time. Specimens stand over many millennia, the wood resistant to decay… some are said to be over five thousand years old.”
- Chapter 7, page 83
In America, when we are trained to make art, we are really trained to self-inflict pain and self doubt. We are taught to push ourselves and force our will upon others, to make things happen instead of let them happen with grace. We use muscle, intellect, and power to subjugate and beat reality into the tapestries we imagine will change our lives, solidify our egos, and cement us into the hollowed, chiseled, edifices of statuesque reverential worship that we long to be. For the American way is one of rugged individualism, which requires boots and gut-punches and engines. We spend most of our qi on this masquerade, which we hope will enshrine us in veneration. Then, in cycles and epicycles we realize, usually in mid life, that we have squandered our precious treasures and are overwhelmed with lack, lethargy, and conflicted melancholy. Only then it occurs to us… is there another way to create?
And there is...
From the Taoist perspective, art is something that is easily revealed with no effort at all, no self-inflicted pain, no self-doubt. Because it’s not about the creator, it’s about the creation. The talent and wisdom lies in listening, not speaking, letting the beauty reveal itself though you, and exercising subtraction rather than addition to reveal the inherent beauty within. In this process, the artist becomes no one, an egoless mass of flesh, an emissary of the object being created and refined.
Sideboard by Nakashima. Walnut Casing with Burl Door
“A box leads to a chair, a chair to a house, a house to a shrine. To create a cathedral one must only search for the divine truth, to look for the hand of the charioteer in a battle of Kurukshetra to point the way.”
- Chapter 10, page 117
The influence for Nakashima’s woodworking came from his studies in India, Japan, France, and his birthplace in the Pacific Northwest of America. He attributes just as much to architecture school as he does to his friendships with Russian composers, reading Dostoyevsky, and learning Japanese calligraphy. In India, he had both his first major architectural assignment as well as an experience as a member of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram at Pondicherry. There he practiced yoga, studied the philosophies of India, and undertook the construction of a new main building for the ashram.
It was here that he adopted a perspective of Karma Yoga, the yoga of doing, working, and making. The Karma Yogi seeks selflessness through these acts, as the things produced are dedications to the generation and support of all life, and the extinguishment of ego or self.
“In my shop, each woodworker is an individual craftsman, free to work out his own sadhana, spiritual training to attain deep concentration resulting in union with the ultimate reality. The will must aspire to produce as fine an object as is humanly possible. Each man must find his own personal truth. The endeavor must be to bring out the beauty and proportion, the textures and depth of the material used, to produce something that may last forever.”
- Chapter 10, page 138
What comes of these influences is a unique way of thinking and feeling into one’s work on earth in this lifetime. From Nakashima’s perspective, each day that he sat contemplating the use of a piece of wood, or each moment he spent hand-planing a slab, were all acts of spiritual service. His work was to give as much support and honor to the wood he worked with as he would give to his family, friends, colleagues, and apprentices. This perspective also allowed him to see everyone else’s work on earth as a celebration of collectivity, a generous perspective to be sure.
Nakashima’s sketches for chair designs. The Conoid Chair would become his most celebrated seating innovation, with the joinery on the legs allowing for unique stability and graceful yet balanced proportions.
“Craftsmanship is a silent skill. People who talk excessively cannot take part. In New Hope, we work with wood, in a sense an eternal material, for without a tree there would be no human life. And we work with solid wood, not veneer, the better to search for its soul. We meditate with a board sometimes for years. We search for its essence, to share its joy and tragedies.”
- Chapter 10, page 121
The Soul of a Tree is as much about finding your tao, inner peace, and a free and easy relationship with your own creativity, as it is a pure celebration of aesthetics and fine woodworking techniques. It is suitable to be read by artists of all mediums who seek to bring reverence into their craft, to have a more loving and honored connection to the things they create and the natural world that creates us all.