Requiem for a forest

Robert Herhusky’s glass sculptures pay homage to nature’s balance

PLUMB TREES Giant glass plumb bobs are at the center of glass sculptor Robert Herhusky’s new exhibit at Chico State’s Humanities Center Gallery.

PLUMB TREES Giant glass plumb bobs are at the center of glass sculptor Robert Herhusky’s new exhibit at Chico State’s Humanities Center Gallery.

Photo By Tom Angel

The 10 glass structures are each about as large around as a human head, heavy with lead shot that glistens like the flesh inside a fig. The tops are filled with a fine reddish powder, the “soil” from which, trunk-like, water-filled glass ampoules sprout.

Supported by rough-hewn chunks of red wood, these symbolic plumb bobs stand in line, beaks pointing to the earth, representative of one of humankind’s oldest tools. They always, always find the vertical, thanks to the invisible pull of gravity. And in Robert Herhusky’s exhibit at the Humanities Center Gallery, What’s Plumb, What’s True, What’s Square?, they are included among the two-dozen pieces that may just serve as a divining rod for truth.

“These are all based on construction tools, you know, spirit vials, levels, plumb bobs, squares, things that will allow you to see whether vertical constructions are true,” explains Herhusky, a Chico State teacher and sculptor. His exhibit involves a close examination of the very tools we use for analysis: To analyze something, you have to “set your eye to it,” squint at it, determine, “Is it flat, or is it plumb?” Essentially, is it right?

“The idea of trying, testing, gauging to see if things are really right is something that has been kind of intriguing me.” In particular, the issue that Herhusky has set his eye to is the regulation of logging. As a builder and as a sculptor, the appropriate use of wood particularly haunts him. Given all the logging done around him at his home (built, of course, by himself) in Cohasset, he desired to know more about where this “wood flesh” came from and how it regenerated itself. This entailed learning, for the first time, what the heck the tree, in this case Douglas fir, actually looked like as an intact, living being. And, upon finding it, hunting for the form that began it all, its seed.

“I find these little Doug fir seeds, and they’re only about this big [he holds his fingers apart about one centimeter], and you get a 270-foot tree out of something like that.”

Each of his hand-blown glass plumb bobs serves as, in Herhusky’s words, its own little contrivance for everything that’s essential for a fir to propagate. The red powder, soft and fine as cosmetic dust, is local dirt that has been placed in a kiln and fired up to 1,500 degrees—the temperature it would feel in a forest fire, which is necessary in nature for the seed to become activated. It is then ball milled and screened to the consistency of fairy dust, a soft pillow for the tiny seeds that are found encased each of his creations. The life-giving water, suspended above it. The lead shot, its ballast.

Along the walls, the metaphor stretches and evolves, this time into a series of glass cases. Each contains a scroll of paper scorched by a drip of hot glass rolled like honey down the surface. These seared lines snake their way down, at some points exaggerated or skewed by the addition of lenses and other glass forms. Each plays with the concept of spirit vials and levels, bubbles being used to find the horizontal.

Herhusky pauses beside one of the pieces and identifies it as one of his favorites. I ask him why. “I don’t know, I just like it. It just seems true, authentic, the way it should be.”

Inside the recesses of the opposite wall are a curious series of pieces, pictures of old houses covered in glass and attached to swinging blocks of wood in the shape of … slices of bread?

He explains “This toast [represents] the primacy, the elemental sustenance that I think that wood is, very much like bread is.” And just maybe that, without careful management, we might too be “toast.”

“This is my requiem for the forest that was Cohasset."