California State University, Long Beach
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The phrase “urban lumber” may seem like a contradiction in terms but not to Art’s Frederic Rose.

Rose, an expert in woodworking, joined the faculty this year as an assistant professor after arriving at CSULB in 2002 as a lecturer. He explains that an urban lumber program would transform wood gleaned from trimming city trees into furniture and sculpture at CSULB.

The urban lumber program is part of a larger movement in the general culture.

“A big part of any city’s waste disposal is getting rid of local trees and branches,” said Rose, who received his BFA in ceramics from CSULB in 1992 and his MFA in sculpture from CSU Fullerton in 2000. “And at the same time, there is the worry about where future wood is coming from. Do we get it from the Philippines or South America? What about the spotted owl? There is a growing focus on trees from the city. Instead of using them for landfill, why not create a new viable form of lumber?”

The city of Long Beach can be a treasure trove of wood for the artist.

“You can find lumber in a city you never could at Home Depot,” he said. “You can’t buy a wide plank of oak with a natural edge in a store where wood is always milled. But in a city, you find unusual lumber that isn’t common to mass industry. Plus, lumber can be expensive. If we can cut and mill trees people were going to throw away anyway, we could give students free wood, which is the equivalent of a scholarship.  It’s all part of a plan to earn my students’ respect for wood.”

Wood has certain characteristics because it grows in a certain form in order to deal with its environment. It often records a history of the things that have happened to it.

“I remember a board someone brought to class that was covered in circled dots that were labeled ‘Danger -- Nails.’ I noticed they didn’t come through on the other side,” he said. “So I used my pocket knife to pick at one and found the dots were really buckshot. I tried to explain to the student that such a thing is like treasure.”

Image of Frederic Rose

He has found everything from yellow nylon rope to a garden hose buried in living wood. “That is especially true for urban trees,” he said. “I can tell when a tree grew on a good corner for garage sales because you find lots of nails. There are occasions when I can document where a tree came from and I pass that on to the students. By counting the rings, they know when it was planted. That way, the students have a very different connection to the wood than by going to a lumber yard and buying a fairly anonymous board. I want students to learn the names of trees in their neighborhood. When you know the name of something, you feel more grounded. It is not just a tree anymore. It has properties and qualities.”

In a world gone technology mad, it may seem counterproductive to some to teach students how to saw logs in a mill, but Rose thinks that is exactly what is missing from 21st century culture.

“If you need to use a computer program to design a piece of furniture, go for that,” he said. “You can use the Internet’s reach to discover how wood is being used for sculpture or furniture in China or Japan or Sweden. But it is still important to be grounded in your environment and to know what a tree is.”

Right now, anyone can visit Sears and buy a “robotic carver” where a board is fed in one side and out comes a carving, and although Rose is “very impressed” by that, he sees the use of ancient tools as a huge, untapped area of research.

Image of Frederic Rose with Student

“Students can learn how to use traditional tools and techniques to develop a more personal relationship to wood and still create very contemporary work,” he said. “Table saws, band saws, hand saws, measuring tools, routers and a selection of hand tools specializing in carving are all need-to-know subjects.”

Rose’s students start off with carving. “When you carve something, you cut the strings of the fibers of the wood. That tells the student a lot,” he said. “When they start chiseling and it suddenly splits where they never intended, then they learn what wood is. Then they move up to boxes. They learn the basics of joinery. By the end of the first semester, they introduce mortises and more joinery. With that knowledge, they ought to be able to make a chair or a table.”

His own work addresses the connections that wood has to flesh. “I want to show how humans and trees are similar,” he said. “I want to develop an appreciation for the tree among the students as a living thing in and of itself. If it comes down or is removed, I want to make sure it isn’t thrown away like junk.”

Rose often asks his students if they are familiar with the great forests of Mars. “What about the great forests of Venus? Yes, trees may have evolved on other planets, but oaks may be unique to earth. I believe the universe is littered with diamonds and rubies because they are fundamental elements. The forests of earth are rare by comparison,” he said.

Rose sees similarities between a city’s trees and its citizens. “So many of the trees we have in Southern California are like the people; they come from somewhere else,” he laughed. “There are trees from Australia, China or Africa. We get some really interesting lumber. Some of the eucalyptus is quite nice. Some of it resembles teak wood. It’s very dense and could be used to build outdoors furniture or sculpture that endures.”

Rose’s goal is to find room on campus to store and cure wood as well as someday build a solar kiln. “There is a controversy in Santa Monica about cutting down 50 old ficus trees,” he explained. “If they end up cutting down those trees and CSULB had that wood, we would have enough to run the urban lumber program for 10 years. Students could develop any size product they wanted and could use any wood they wanted. It’s a lot of physical labor and a lot of hard work, but it’s worth it.”