Saturday, August 7, 2010

Get the Lead Out

Pencils.  Remember them?

We're living in a post-Eberhard Faber world these days.  The keyboard is our new lead, the BKSP and DEL are the new erasers.  If anyone does use a pencil anymore, chances are good that it's one of the mechanical variety: a few clicks on the butt of the instrument and you get a length of lead.

I was always more of a typewriter man myself, but there were (and probably still are) whole armies of writers who went through pencils like beavers through forests.  According to Wikipedia, John Steinbeck "was an obsessive pencil user and is said to have used as many as 60 a day. His novel East of Eden took more than 300 pencils to write."

We have lost something valuable: the intimacy with a object which brought us closer to the creation of words.  For writers of a certain age, the mere smell of a pencil freshly-churned in a sharpener is enough to transport us to days of English-class essays, sore fingertips and graphite dust along the curve of the hand.  Not to mention the nightmares associated with filling in bubbles with a No. 2.

My wife and I watched Shutter Island last night and there's a key scene during which Leonardo DiCaprio scribbles a pencil across a piece of paper.  He presses hard and you can hear the squeak of the lead.  Yes, our pencils once talked to us!

If you held the woody tip of a pencil under my nose, rested it on the philtrum of my lip, I could instantly recall a very specific time, place, and piece of writing (1977, Mrs. Schlinger's English class, a book report on Where the Red Fern Grows).  Do the same with an HP laptop and I get...nothing.

So what do we do with all those abandoned, cherished artifacts from the pre-digital age?

Dalton Ghetti has transformed them into art.  The gallery of his intricate, fragile pencil sculptures was enough to drop my jaw straight to the floor the first time I saw his carved lead.  I stumbled across these mini-masterpieces via the Accidental Mysteries blog, which tells us,
The 49 year old said: “At school I would carve a friend’s name into the wood of a pencil and then give it to them as a present.  Later, when I got into sculpture, I would make these huge pieces from things like wood, but decided I wanted to challenge myself by trying to make things as small as possible.  I experimented sculpting with different materials, such as chalk, but one day I had an eureka moment and decided to carve into the graphite of a pencil.”
Dalton uses three basic tools to make his incredible creations – a razor blade, sewing needle and sculpting knife.  He even refuses to use a magnifying glass and has never sold any of his work, only given it away to friends.  He said: “I use the sewing needle to make holes or dig into the graphite.  I scratch and create lines and turn the graphite around slowly in my hand.”
The longest Dalton has spent on one piece was two and half years on a pencil with interlinking chains.  A standard figure will take several months.  He said: “The interlinking chains took the most effort and I was really pleased with it because it’s so intricate people think it must be two pencils.”

Though it's an art gallery best viewed through a magnifying glass, I still think these are the most beautiful things ever created from pencils.  After The Grapes of Wrath, of course.

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting topic! I'm more of a fountain pen kind of a writer, myself.