Ralph Churchill's newest work ranges from geometric inlays (in his hand) to the abstract “Desert Cathedral.”
||“Wire Pass Slot Canyon”
“Abiquiu View No. 1.”
Signpost featured artist of the month: Ralph Churchill— Whittling to a different tune
—Keiko Ohnuma, Signpost
Ralph Churchill would be the first to tell you he is a most unlikely sort of artist. He won’t even use that word to describe himself, showing an engineer’s precision in measuring the label against the contents. But through his self-directed, experimental, persistent engagement with tools and materials, Churchill has, in fact, cut an archetypal artist’s path from copying to creativity.
Until he retired five years ago, Churchill was fully absorbed in his career as an environmental engineer, a direction he had settled on right out of graduate school. He designed wastewater plants, ran people’s companies, headed his own consulting business, moved from city to city, and raised a family. On retirement, his wife presented him with a set of wood-carving chisels—“mostly to keep me out of trouble,” he recalls. It was his first real encounter with wood beyond tinkering around the house and taking shop in junior high.
But, being an engineer, Churchill approached the gift as he approached everything: as a project. He had always considered math and science to be simply tools to accomplish a task, and these very sharp, curved blades were yet another set of tools, for which he set himself the initial task of copying the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe in wood.
Why O’Keeffe? Not because he felt any affinity for her modernist abstractions—“which I still don’t understand too well,” he admits—but because he had been struck, while watching a show about her life, by her love of the New Mexico landscape. “It was everything we had been feeling for over thirty years,” he said of the many trips he and his wife had taken to hike the state’s mountains and mesas before they finally settled in Placitas in 2003.
Churchill shakes his head again as he recalls his early struggles with transforming blocks of soft basswood into O’Keeffe landscapes. Each step posed a new psychological hurdle. For a while, he had blocks of wood that he dared not cut; then came the closet full of finished carvings that he dared not stain.
“It was terrifying,” he said of his first attempts to color the bas-relief landscapes, whose oil-based pigments call for a no-turning-back plunge. He points to a carving of the Sandia range that “took forever—forever,” once he realized he had bitten off more than he could chew. In those days, he could work only thirty or forty minutes at a time before he grew dismayed at his progress and reluctant to admit defeat. “I couldn’t take the intensity of focus,” he says.
“As I gain confidence, it’s easier to sit and work for hours,” he says now, “because I know it will be OK.” Gradually, his understanding of tools and materials allowed him to give in to that uniquely human urge to experiment.
A pair of carvings in the living room illustrates the developmental leap that followed. One is a faithful rendition of an O’Keeffe landscape; the other came from asking himself, ‘What if I try to convey the same idea using just lines and shapes?’
Five years after he first picked up a chisel, Churchill sees evidence of his progress in this move away from “just carving pictures” to carvings that are abstract. His newer work is not identifiable as particular places at particular hours, but vacillates instead between landscape and anatomy, colors in nature and color pure and simple. Consciously or (most likely) not, his undulating feminine forms draw inspiration from O’Keeffe’s fantastic, sensual abstractions.
Which is all the more remarkable when you consider that Ralph Churchill never harbored any special love of art, and basically approached life for forty years through the right angles and left brain of so many logicians. “I’m still project- or task-oriented,” he says, a man who still directs himself toward mastering the tools for the task—“making things, rather than creating things,” as he puts it. But what he can’t seem to account for is the point at which he started to step back, and consider his subjects in a different light.
Part of it is being retired, he thinks, and taking more time to see the world around him. He has always loved the outdoors, so it is nature, rather than art, that he would call his teacher. “Exposure to the outdoors, the sheer beauty and power of it, tends to draw things out of you,” he says simply. From his hillside perch in a house sprawling with vistas in every direction, the retired engineer from Pittsburgh witnesses the desert shifting from sunrise to nightfall.
“It’s always different—every hour, every day,” he notes. “To most people, the mesas are just brown or ugly, but if you watch them, they change. I still find that fascinating.” Now he finds that lines don’t have to be straight to be satisfying, and pictures don’t have to represent anything real.
“It’s part of a transition—maybe part of being retired too,” he says. “Being not so focused on the end point and getting done, but enjoying the process.” He has discovered, for example, that the satisfaction of finishing a carving is quite different from that of coloring it—often with results unplanned. “If it’s a stretch for an engineer to do wood carving,” he quips, “it’s a whole other stretch to do colors.”
Recently, he has tried some sculptural work using naturally colored woods that he leaves unstained, and indulged his inner engineer with geometric pieces that express mathematical formulae. Trim and quick, Churchill yanks examples from the corners of the tidy office where he does his work, clearly caught up in the wonder of navigating uncharted terrain—now that the initial terror of it is behind him.
This year he tried entering the Placitas Studio Tour, reasoning that he would have to find out eventually if his work had any audience. He sold a few pieces and earned the admiration of a son who marveled, “it takes guts to put yourself out there like that.”
But Churchill doesn’t feel he’s even halfway down the road to being a real artist. “It’s taken me a long time, and I wouldn’t propose to say I’m there,” he says. “But I have more confidence, and that gives me freedom.
“I’m still a long time from being an artist,” he concludes, shaking his head. “I’m an engineer who’s getting soft around the edges.”