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Times Colonist
July 11, 2002

by Robert Amos

"Built up from wedge-shaped units to produce sweeping curves and delicate edges, the final forms appear to exceed the intrinsic possibilities of mere wedges."
Elias Wakan

Elias Wakan lives in the woods on Gabriola Island. His house is full of geometric sculptures — folded paper forms and larger wooden constructions. “I’m into math,” he admits. “And geometry too. I like abstract forms.”

After majoring in math and philosophy at Stanford, Wakan worked as a journeyman carpenter. A cut finger got him out of that line of work and into a series of other businesses. Then, during two years in Japan with his wife Naomi, he took 6,000 photographs. These were sold professionally to agencies, which led to book design projects, which led to a career in publishing.

We returned from Japan to see Expo `86, only to find that the B.C. Ministry of Education had decided that all Grade 6 students in B.C. should study Japan,” Wakan recalls. Using Elias’s photographs as a base, they gave school presentations and went on to publish Naomi’s writing on Japanese themes.

“In Japan, I didn’t do any origami,” he laughs. Their traditional style always involves organic forms — cranes and frogs and so on — which he considers “too arbitrary to interest my pedestrian, pedantic mind.”

During that time Elias didn’t have a woodworking shop, but began to create with white Lanagravure paper. Each folded piece takes its form and strength from the multitude of similarly-formed triangles that partition the surface. “It takes awhile for your hands to get used to how far you can bend it without creasing,” Wakan reflects. With a mat knife and some dental tools he made manifest his geometric fancies.

Those years in the city led to visits to Gabriola. As Wakan recalls, “lining up on Sunday to return to Vancouver was like returning from day parole to prison.” After they moved, on quiet island days the artist found himself admiring the way the shadows fell on his paper foldings, and wondering what they would look like in wood.

Basically his technique is to cut hundreds of little pieces of hemlock to precise lengths and bevels — each identical or a mirror-image. He then assembles them using masking tape to see what form the geometry can assume. Of course precise geometrical and mathematical imagining is involved before he gets to work on his obsessively fine woodworking. Then comes the patient and meticulous assembling and gluing of the parts. The results owe something to M. C. Escher’s drawings and Antonio Gaudi’s architecture.

The hemlock wood he uses has a story. Cut from the finest B. C. timber, it is milled in Richmond for an exacting Japanese customer. Wakan is able to buy the planks deemed “seconds.” From the plank rejected for a knot in the middle Wakan cuts two perfect shorter pieces.

I copied the following paragraph from Wakan’s extensive website to show you how a mathematician/artist thinks: “Now, it's fine to have accuracies to the closest 100,000th of a degree, but some practical woodworking concerns were to make things more approximate. For instance, rather than trying to cut a large amount of identical isosceles triangular wedges (with 4.00457° bevels on each long side), it was much easier to start with long cuboids and divide them in two, resulting in right angled wedges. After tilting the blade 8.00914° off vertical - twice the earlier angle (which, because of the nature of the tablesaw's blade bevel adjustment mechanism, could indeed be set very accurately) - each piece was cut in two on the diagonal, resulting in mirror-image, wedge-shaped pieces, with one side cut at 81.99086° and the other cut at 90°.”

“What I do is so tedious,” Wakan acknowledges. Fortunately, the hemlock has no pitch and doesn’t gum up his sawblade, making it easier to cut accurate angles. And it has the tight grain and even colouring he requires. His table saw and 10 inch tilting arbour saw are calibrated to a nicety, and sawdust is rigorously extracted.

The cut pieces, marked and kept in meticulous order, are painstakingly preassembled with masking tape to determine if his calculations and fabrications have been correct. Then, using an environmentally safe, water-resistant carpenter’s glue, Wakan glues and clamps every piece individually. When ordinary clamps can’t get into the spaces he has created, he fabricates his own, often using split bits of plastic tubing.

All that technique is just a means to an end. “It’s the form that I love,” Wakan insists. “It’s so sensuous.” Elias Wakan’s paper sculpture, wood sculpture and photography will be on display at Gabriola’s Artworks Gallery in the Folklife Village, (250-247-7412) from July 18 to 24. His large wood sculptures can be seen over the same period at his studio, Drumbeg House, 3085 Mander Rd., Gabriola (250-247-0014)

His Web site is www.island.net/~prp.

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Times Colonist
July 11, 2002
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