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Painting With Wood
T. Breeze VerDant is 'relaxed and present' in his medium
by Kirt Zimmer
They should have known from the way he mowed the lawn.
Those double circles around the bushes, those cross-diagonal lines, those perfectly trimmed hedges...how could they not notice that young Breeze was an artist!
As a child Breeze VerDant (then known as Tom Burns) wasn't really encouraged to explore his creative side. His father was "a little homophobic" about artists.
As an adult, Breeze could always intuitively figure angles, but was reminded by his construction boss that "we're not building pianos here."
Surrounded by these attitudes, it took many years for Breeze to figure out that his calling was in fine woodworking.
Better Cure Than Medicine
"My brain always worked differently," he says. "I was a poor student, and thought I was stupid most of the time. I was always a round peg in a square hole."
Today, Breeze realizes that he has Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), a condition that makes his brain "very willing to focus on too many things at once." The disorder is often dealt with by administering a drug called Ritalin, but for Breeze "the cure is worse than the disease."
Instead, he has discovered a cure of sorts in the form of marquetry. In this craft, variously colored woods are inlaid to form a design, usually in furniture.
"Marquetry requires an artist to be very grounded and precise," he says. "We live in a fast-paced, instant-gratification culture that can be distracting, especially for people with ADD. Marquetry forces me to stand still and focus. It's difficult, but a struggle that leads me somewhere positive. And with the help of meditation two hours daily, I manage to pull it together."
Breeze also has learned to embrace his offbeat identity. Just over ten years ago, he changed his name from Thomas Burns to T. Breeze VerDant. "I always felt like I had to apologize for my name," he says. "It felt too formal for who I was."
After meeting a girl named Breeze in Florida, he decided the name "feels good in your mouth." He adopted the word "verdant," meaning "lush and green," as his last name. Although he is happy with the name change, he doesn't recommend it as a way to please one's family.
Breeze admires artists like Claude Debussy, a French composer at the turn of the century. "He was like an impressionistic painter with music, and totally right brained," explains Breeze.
Breeze also marvels at the art nouveau work of Emile Galle and Louis Majorelle. In the late 1800s, these men transformed marquetry from its highly-structured, symmetrical approach to a more impressionistic style where wood grain is part of the design.
"They were working with the wood and being spontaneous with it as a medium, not just as a tool to carry out their designs," Breeze says. "They had flow."
The Art and Craft of Marquetry
Designs for Breeze's jewelry, furniture and boxes often include magnolia blossoms, an echo of time spent in the South. He also favors the irises, trillium and mountains of his Vermont home. He rarely depicts animals, because "the beauty of a deer is in that fleeting encounter in the forest, not pasting it down in wood."
After sketching his design, Breeze uses carbon paper to place the image on wood. Sliced wood veneers are precisely cut with a jewelry saw and pieced together using a double-bevel technique. To create an illusion of shadowed depth, he burns some of the wood edges with hot sand.
He doesn't use any stains or paints, preferring instead to use the contrasting grains in a painterly way. Nontoxic shellac and lacquer is used to protect the finished work.
Whereas the bodies of his pieces are made of common domestic woods, the veneers are all exotic. There is the orange-brown hue of the Brazilian Rosewood, and the white flecks of African Koto, and the stark black of Ebony from India. A small amount of exotic wood goes a long way when spliced into thin veneers.
Breeze keeps his eyes open for wood with unique color and character. Sometimes good fortune helps out, as when construction workers in San Francisco turned up a Sequoia Burl that had been buried in clay for thousand of years.
Breeze uses a veneer press to squeeze his work together with thousands of pounds of pressure. Then he sands down the uneven parts. This is more difficult than it sounds, some woods like pear are so porous that it's easy to sand right through the thin veneer.
Reaching New Levels
"I have cried over half the boxes I've made," he admits. "I make too many mistakes. But I've made my greatest strides from my errors."
Anne Majusiak, gallery manager of the Vermont State Craft Center at Frog Hollow, says Breeze has taken Marquetry to another level. "I think of most marquetry as being very pattern-oriented and not necessarily that expressive," she says. "But the nuances Breeze uses in shading are amazing. We haven't seen a lot of marquetry work in Vermont, and certainly not at this level."
Today, no one needs to look at Breeze's lawn to notice his creative side. His work reveals genuine artistry and a growing confidence. "The gift is there," he says. "The trick is letting go and getting in touch with it. If we don't let our gift out, no one else is going to get it out for us."
Kirt Zimmer writes from the Vermont State Craft Center at Frog Hollow in Middlebury, Vt. For more information about the work of Breeze VerDant, call the center at (888) 388-3177.