On Signing our Work

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When we first see a work of art, of course the inscription is something we will take into consideration …. However, signatures are just one part of what we look for.... Everything you need is in the painting itself—you just need the eye.
— Angelica Pediconi, fine art conservator and art historian

You are so good at erasing yourself,” he said. This was last year. He was my coworker; a designer I had done some research for to illuminate opportunities for improvement in his design. He meant it as a compliment. As in, I am able to fully separate myself from the results of my work. If I had a super power this would be it … erasing myself. I have many examples throughout my life where, when given an opportunity to be known, I chose not to be. (Notice how I never post pictures of myself in this blog? Wink.)

This preference falls under the “road less travelled” heading given our current culture of sharing, sharing, sharing. Nothing is real until it is seen. And we are nobody until we are seen doing it.

But being unseen is so necessary to some types of work, if it is to be done well. Design (or any kind of) research is one. Even design itself. And timber framing is another. Fated to anonymity, leaving no trace of his identity, a timber framer is an artist who doesn't sign his work. Throughout history timber framers have understood that while their creations may stand for centuries, their names will most likely be lost to the mists of time. Some have resisted oblivion in their own quiet way by developing a signature style which can be traced through different examples of their work; a particular type of joint used here, an unconventional decorative treatment placed there. But on the whole they remain to us, in a future generation, unknown, and unknowable.

But while the introvert in me salutes this noble anonymity, the historian objects. What would we know of our predecessors if they’d been more modest? If the rulers of ancient Central America had not had ornate stela carved to exalt their greatness? If painters didn’t sign their work? Last year we commissioned a branding iron from an Etsy artist with our company logo. It sits on the desk in Dan’s office, covered in a layer of fine sawdust, not yet used. It’s a lovely thing in itself; gleaming brass, its negative space etched as meticulously as the sharp-edged image. I keep encouraging Dan to use in on his frames. To break the long tradition of timber frame artisan anonymity and be known to future generations. Since his frames will certainly stand long enough to be known by future generations. He resists. Like me he is good at erasing himself.

But he can’t entirely, because his work, and the work of the OCH team is identifiable by its high quality alone. To paraphrase Angelica Pediconi, everything you need is in the frame itself--”you just need the eye.” Look for the precisely housed joints. The fact that each timber is expertly extricated from the log. The places where the natural characteristics of a particular piece of wood are featured rather than hidden. And in some cases even in the existence of the frame itself--when it’s a unique custom design that departs from the prevailing aesthetics of our time, or a feat of engineering. Dan is nothing if not a risk taker in the name of inspired building.

I will continue to encourage Dan to use the branding iron, even if only on an inconspicuous area of each frame, and perhaps someday he will. As signing one’s work is what artists do, or should.