by guest contributor Anne Buckwalter
[Expository note: given that writing fiction has become, for me, a truly alarming struggle during these pandemic years, the act of writing promotional/acknowledgement material for my recent publications (and other creative endeavors) has become well-nigh impossible. To counter this (with any luck temporary) linguistic enervation, I have enlisted the aid of some of my most beloved and talented friends to act as my hype-people while I rekindle my spirit and relearn how to write. The first installment in this series is provided by the artist and writer Anne Buckwalter, a dear friend, a generous spirit, and an absolute genius in the realm of subtle detail. Her paintings catch my breath and her stories stop my heart. I am so honored for her words, words I now get to share with you without any further preamble.— DWM]
I grew up in a family of woodcarvers. My dad carves uncannily realistic ducks and birds, and his dad was a master decoy carver and cuckoo-clock repairman. I didn’t inherit their talents — I can barely put together a basic shelf, let alone a convincing avocet — but I like the idea of bending a hard, unforgivable material into something supple and suﬀused with life. Such is the feat of Douglas W. Milliken’s small and spirited wooden carvings, referred to by the artist as dendroforms.
I had to google this word. The prefix dendro means tree-like, meaning the wooden objects are eﬀectively self-referential, though they bear no resemblance to the form of an archetypical tree. Instead, they take on anima-imbued shapes that are not quite animal in the anthropomorphic sense, but nevertheless seem to have the capacity for life. The forms communicate a history of long existence, as if they are remnants or talismans from another time. Perhaps this is because they arrived to my apartment in Philadelphia carefully packed with descriptive cards explaining the material (all of the wood was sourced from local areas near Milliken’s home in Maine), the stain (all natural dyes, such as red wine, aronia berries, or black tea), and the finish (beeswax, linseed oil, etc) and a small drawing of each one— silhouettes ranging from long and sinewy (the Adrian Brody of the group, as I referred to it) to short and stocky (the George Costanza).
Trying to match each form to its correlating description felt like an exercise in species classification, and I wondered as I matched how critical this task was to interpreting the objects from an aesthetic perspective.
Very critical, I believe. As any other hopeless weirdo who also attended six-plus years of art school can attest, the context in which a work is experienced is as important as the work itself. Rather than seeing these objects on a shelf or in a vitrine in a white-cube gallery, they were delivered to my home where I could touch them, read about their origins, delight in their idiosyncrasies, experience their symbolic and literal weight (the former much heavier and the latter much lighter than I had anticipated). I moved them around my kitchen table like the pieces to a haunted prehistoric board game, I caressed them like the worry-stones I used to carry around as a kid, I played with them like toys, smelled them, I attributed them personalities (The Professor, The Athlete, The Drag Queen) and chose favorites. Within an hour of them being in my possession, they had become strangely intertwined with my own history, my own lost childhood.
Whether or not this intimate exchange was all part of Milliken’s intent is unknown, and arguably irrelevant. This is why the digestion of art is a dialogue rather than a monologue: what the artist means for one to get out of the work must be simultaneously considered as a vital component and disregarded altogether. However, having both read Milliken’s stories and heard his music, the dendroforms seem to me to be spiritual siblings to his other creative endeavors, and all three are inextricably connected by a unifying, weathered thread: the coexistence of roughness and smoothness, an unpredictable sharp edge or twisted knot on an otherwise soft plain. This eﬀortless contradiction, to me, is an ultimate strength of all of Milliken’s work, and his wooden forms are no exception. Though I might find myself endeared to their physical qualities, they are much more than that — not simply charming playthings, but hard proof of life, personal relics, not trying to exist as anything but what they are.
Though disparate in appearance and utility, it is easy to love Milliken’s carvings with the same tenderness I love my dad’s shorebird carvings. I have a shelf of my dad’s birds in my kitchen, and I set one of the butterfly pea flower tea-stained dendroforms between a least sandpiper and a mallard. Where the bird carvings play their tricks on me, wanting me to believe that tiny hearts beat inside their breasts and they could at any point fly away, the small, smooth lump of wood between them pulled no punches, told no lies. The opposite of a decoy. Not alluding to life, per se, but still full of it.
Anne Buckwalter is a painter and writer currently based in Philadelphia. Her creative practice explores female identity and the coexistence of contradictory elements. Inspired by the folk art traditions of her Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, her work arranges disparate objects in mysterious rooms and ambiguous spaces. By imagining obscure narratives that embrace paradoxes, her paintings delve into questions about the female body, intimacy, and gender roles. You can find her work at www.annebuckwalter.com.
To see more examples of dendroforms, as well as other occasional documentation of my life in art, consider following my Instagram @douglaswmilliken. You can also direct queries there, or through the Contact form on this page.