The sun is shining, and Dan Webb is talking about Christmas and death. "Doesn't it smell like Christmas?" the Seattle artist asks. It does smell like Christmas, because there's a Douglas fir lying at his feet, cut down not four hours ago.
We're on the porch of a wood shack in the middle of the grounds of the Olympic Sculpture Park on the waterfront. It's a hot and silly-beautiful Seattle summer afternoon.
"This tree is really green," Webb continues, not looking up, mindlessly wielding the knife in his sap-blackened hands to cut apart the tree and strip it of its needles. "It's still bleeding, and its blood smells really delicious."
Soon he will slice his finger, and keep talking and working on the porch while his own blood drips from him.
Webb will be out on that porch all summer. He's there, carving and talking to people, at the invitation of Seattle Art Museum, which owns the park.
First, Webb built the shack. Then he cut down the tree. He'll carve all its big-enough limbs into sculptures—they'll be small, because the tree was young, planted when the park opened in 2007. But as he "finishes" each sculpture, he'll keep whittling away to create smaller and smaller shapes, accumulating a mounting pile of sawdust and a disappearing collection of objects. The sawdust will be folded into mulch for the park, the shack will be torn down, and Webb will walk away, all the conversations carried away in the wind.
It's all a project called Break It Down, the first performance Dan Webb has ever done. He's a well-known sculptor whose wood carvings are as impressive as the ancient marbles that have survived history. But his works are made of once-living stuff whose deaths he's deferring. After 20 years at this, Webb has plenty to say. Anybody can stop by and talk to him at the park, and many people do. Here's an edited version of the wide-wandering conversation I—we—had with him last week.
Don't let me interrupt. [Man with dog is leaving.]
I'm really wondering if I'm going to get anything done out here. People want to chat. Which is fine, actually. This is a project where the tree is really just context for the life around it.
Seeing this tree lying here makes me look at all the other trees in view differently, and there are a lot of other trees in view. Why did this one come down? Is it a Douglas fir?
It's a Doug fir. It was shading out the other trees. So Bobby McCullough, the gardener for the park, needed it taken down so others could grow. It's really tough to grow to maturity as a tree, actually. They tend to shade each other out and kill each other.
That over there is a native species of oak, and I didn't even know there was a native species of oak. And we kind of have been looking at this [Mark] di Suvero over here, which is partly made of wood. [Bunyon's Chess, 1965.] This project also references Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark, and the difference between the two. A couple years ago, I was an artist in residence in Ohio and I went and saw Smithson's Partially Buried Woodshed at Kent State, and it was beautiful, but I was aware of Matta-Clark's comment about land art being, for him, like landscape painting. People are taken out—there are no people. It looks like a Donald Judd buried in the ground. Smithson was about entropy and things falling apart, but it's very abstract. Conversely, Matta-Clark lived in New York while the city was in bankruptcy, started a restaurant in a shitty neighborhood in SoHo, and really chose to see entropy in political human cost terms.
I was interested in seeing if this [Break It Down] could be a bridge between the two. Smithson is so canonized, so lionized, but the guy I prefer, the guy I think about, is Matta-Clark. I like the human element.
[As if on cue, a woman and her father walk up. She and I speak to Dan, and she translates to her father in French. Seagulls caw. The woman and her father leave.]
Is this your first performance?
Yes. It's in the spirit of carpentry. A team sport. When I was doing carpentry, other people on the job would say, "You can't really only do this," and I would say, "Well, yes, I do this other thing." It was interesting to see who wanted to have a conversation about art. After they scratch their balls and fart and all that, is there room for that? It turns out almost always yes. I wondered if I could just continue that. I don't need to tell somebody that I'm getting in the way of an argument between Smithson and Matta-Clark, but I think it's interesting that the conversation can go beyond the cookie-cutter stuff.
[As if on cue again, two older women walk up.]
Woman 1: What are you carving?
I don't quite know yet. I'll just keep going until it's a giant pile of sawdust.
Woman 1: I love it. I love your honesty. And that's what I read this would be. [She plucks up a pinecone and narrates a children's story about a mouse.]
Woman 2: We live around here. We'll come back. It's sad to see things [blowing motion with hand to mouth] going.
The last time you made something and kept going until it was sawdust, it was a head you carved into a skull and then into nothing, and it was after your brother died of a brain tumor.
Yep. I don't talk about my story that much, though. I think it's more powerful if it's their story—if they have seen that process, the process of somebody dying. And if you don't know about it, you will. It certainly informs my work. There's not a day that goes by, it's crazy, when I don't think about that process or that stuff, and other people who have died, and the relationships along the way.
My brother's breath got ratchety at the end, and I'm listening to these trains... [Points behind him at the train tracks] It reminds me. I'm listening to this chest hum, and I'm surprised. There is no, like, forgetting.
There's all these years when people come up to you and ask, "How you doing?" and it's like, how do I say this? How do I tell you? You hope it comes out in the work, but there's something distasteful about marketing your own tragedy, so I want to make things where people get more than my story.
How do you do that?
I don't know. I really don't know. I try to make it matter to me, and I try to make it readable. There's a lot of ways to make something mysterious, or make it hard to read. A lot of artists can say, "I don't want to tie myself to a single reading," and I don't want that either, but even if you're the Ramones and you're making it as bloody simple as you can, what is "Beat on the Brat" about? I mean, who is the brat? I think there's an allergy to being direct that I don't necessarily have.
How do your pieces age?
I always tell people when they buy stuff, "You know this is gonna change." They fade, they crack. They don't crack a lot, because a lot of the wood I use is recycled and quite dry. Take Fortress, the piece that Bill and Ruth True bought, of two children under a blanket. That tree was green when they bought it, and it's taken years for it to dry. I've re-sanded it once. There are teeny cracks. There's no finish on it. I told them I could put something on it, but so far I haven't gotten the call. Have I mentioned that the Trues are awesome?
One [of my pieces] hasn't really opened up yet, but I'd be happy to fill it [if that happens]. Mostly, they just change. Fir, when you cut into it, it's pinkish, but it ages yellow.
How old are your oldest wood sculptures now?
The oldest I have in Seattle I made in 1995, and John Kucher owns it. It's made out of balsa wood and it's quite yellow. That's the one I consider the first. I mean, when Charles Ray gets asked about the first work of art he made, he shows that picture of him and his brother and that thing they built out of Tinkertoys. What's a sculpture?
Well, I guess it's that thing you made 20 years ago. How old are you now? And your kids?
I just turned 50. My kids are 9 and 11.
Your art is older than your kids.
Yeah. It must be weird to be an artist's kid. We go to a museum in LA and they'll go, "Do you know these people?" They'll be looking at, like, Etruscan marbles.
So back to this tree here. After you strip it down, then what?
I'll put the detritus and needles under the shack. I'm going to mulch the seeds that come out with this dried-up material. Then there's going to be a lot of super-repetitive stuff of just making a tree disappear, and people are going to see just how slow and not-flashy carving is.
I'm going to make things a little rougher than I usually do because of the tight time schedule, but that'll be good. I usually make, like, five things a year, but this entire tree has to disappear in two months.
I swear a barbecue just wafted by.
Those food truck folks over there are going to serve dinner. Now this is a picture. [Gets his phone, holds it over his bleeding finger.]
Are you bleeding? Are you posting that to social media?
Did I tell you I joined the Instagram world? The museum wanted a face for this project, so I'm DanWebbwood on Instagram. [Takes picture.]
Here, here's water and a tissue. Let's...
Nah, it's already... See, the sap gets in it and stops it bleeding. See?
Okay. Back to art, I guess. While you're here, the Seattle Art Fair is happening. What do you make of a thing like that?
I wish the fair well. I believe Greg [Kucera] is taking some of my work, so I am in it. I'm a huge Greg Bell fan, and he and Greg K. helped organize it.
What about Greg Lundgren's show Out of Sight? So many Gregs.
I love that he's doing that. It sounds like that space, at King Street Station, is just crazy-good. Seattle needs a Greg Lundgren. He has all this energy and all these plans and finds all these openings for stuff to do. Are there no other satellite fairs?
I don't think so.
It's so brilliant to do something right next to the fair that's a satellite.
Part of the premise of Out of Sight is that Seattle artists will get attention from people outside Seattle who are here for the fair. Do you need the world to see you more?
I would like to feel that what I do has some ability to financially support me, I guess.
Doesn't it? Don't you make your living from your work?
Yeah, I do. I wax and wane on doing well. Sometimes I'm super-glad I have a wife who has a job. It's just a super-crazy way to make a living. But as I often say, art is not for whiners. If you're gonna whine about it, you may want to take up something else.
On the one hand, artists who choose to stay [here] choose a certain amount of anonymity. You're not going to have a New York art career in Seattle. You're not going to have an LA art career in Seattle. But sometime, a curator is going to come here and see a bunch of people at the peak of their powers who haven't shown other places, and that person could have a hell of a show on their hands. I'm just not holding my breath that that's going to happen.