Names often reflect key aspects of our character. My last name Zaruba is an old Czech name that loosely translates as 'he who splits wood with an ax'. As Allen means harmonious, then I am the happy woodcutter. Yet, years before I discovered this, I was intuitively drawn to wood as a creative expression, even during the 20 years when painting was my principle medium.
As a consequence, the symbolism of the ax has periodically appeared in my sculptural work. This began with acquiring an eroded ax head in 1991 that had lay buried in a 200 year old apple tree. I gilded it's lace-like form in 24k to translate the way I perceive it's context and resonance. The hollow of the handle suggests a house in miniature, such as the spirit houses of Asian cultures or the sky burials of others. Later this concept inspired two series of cage-like sculptures on legs during the 1990's based on human rights abuses.
During a 2015 residency in West Cork, Ireland, I participated in a fascinating annual bronze casting symposium, Umha Aois, which attracts artists and archeologists who utilized the basic techniques, raw materials and processes of the bronze age to produce new works, some of which were replications of historic artifacts, such as the ax. This was the catalyst that prompted the series.
In January of 2016, this series began with Awakening , which, in turn, bridges the series-A Tent of Stars. Based upon the ax as metaphor and symbol, the ax surface is covered in stars with a 3D form as flame that passes through a small canoe covered in lenticular image fragments of various works of art and cultures. The upper hollow is lined with slices of lenticular images and reflective surfaces.
Why the ax?
Considering the increasing cultural violence as well as our tendency to isolate ourselves through social media, I was initially at a loss as to why I would focus on what most Americans would peg as a weapon of violence, such as the Lizzie Borden murders. The research helped me to see that the ax symbolizes much that is positive and constructive, especially in regards to the building of civilization. Yet, the symbol, like a mirror, confronts us with what is buried in our own make-up.
The ax is an ancient universal symbol of authority and power rooted in many cultures, from the First Nations to Asian, European and African cultures. For example, in ancient China, the ax symbol was often woven into the silk robes of the emperors to signify the decisiveness of their absolute imperial authority. From there, I began to explore other cultural myths which led to the foundation that the first axes were stone. These created sparks and consequently became associated with lightning, thunder, rain, rebirth and...creation! They were often termed 'thunderstones' and held as highly sacred. It is interesting to note that both the Chinese and Pre Colombian cultures periodically created elaborate, non-functional ceremonial axes out of prized jadite and flint.
The metaphor of the ax can operate on many levels, such as splitting apart issues to reveal 'facts' or the truth. The ax is judgment in action, splitting truth from lies, clarity from confusion. It is both tool and weapon. My hope is that the abstraction of the symbol would offer a way of considering how each of us might see authority (vs. the current focus on abuse and fear.), possibly as a way to reflect more deeply upon what our culture is contending with. Above all the mud slinging, what is true? What are the facts? What vital aspects may be missing? Do we believe everything we are fed by the media? Are we selective in the building of our own 'false news' campaign? What do we not want to consider or see?
Gilding the blade edges with 24k gold questions what is eternal against the brevity of life. The moment of now is now past. Getting into the river now is not the same river tomorrow. Gold's stability is a fascinating medium, especially as it is the only metal that visible light can pass through and yet filter out those rays that can harm our eyes. It has been used in the visors of pilots and astronauts to protect their vision.