Light and Shadow

By Alice Rich

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Enter the studio of sculptor Elias Wakan on Gabriola Island, and what strikes the eye is the incredible play of light and shadow within his sculptures. Eli explains that his constructions (he prefers that word, since his pieces are painstakingly built up unit by unit) are appreciated because they seem to change along with the light of day. With their architectonic nature, Eli says, architects are often drawn to imagine how each piece would be scaled up to full-building size in concrete, steel and glass, rather than the finely grained hemlock he uses.

True for many sculptures, a person needs to walk around them to fully appreciate their scope, but Eli’s sculptures make people want to walk into them. They invite participation. One piece, Sliced Ice, resembles a diamond. Eli says the light from it changed because of the interference of the wood. At one point, there is a view all the way through it. From a different perspective, a person can see through where he or she was looking before, but then, a moment later sees through at a new spot; it’s as if the light follows.

The name of the Sliced Ice sculpture came from the structure of water and the fact that it expands as it freezes; inside each molecule of ice there is a hollow space. The negative and positive shapes are what make his pieces so remarkable.

Before beginning a sculpture, Eli puts pen to paper. Stacks of pages build before he starts a single construct. On them are the keys to a perfectly executed piece - they include mathematical proportions, points of balance, wood densities, sizes of jigs, how the pieces should be put together, where the gaps should be - loads of calculations.

“As I make the constructions, I think 'Oh, I’ll just take it a stage further, maybe I’ll just add one more level.'” says Eli. “And then again, perhaps still one more level, until eventually the realization dawns that adding any more would be a mistake.”

Eli says the last step is the naming. One construction's name, Plane Sailing, was chosen because it looks like a pair of sails, and is a nautical term based on the charts all sailors use that employ the convenient fiction of being on a mathematical plane, instead of the messy curved Earth.

About his current outdoor project (with its own stack of papers), he laughs, “In the workshop, being out a third of a degree can be a problem for me, so it’s very different working outside on the fence for our new orchard, where a discrepancy of one inch is sometimes tolerable. Working outside on this project is really like a kind of sabbatical.”

All Eli’s pieces are made from single unit shapes, sometimes a square cross-sectioned stick, sometimes a wedge, but cut in the hundreds or even thousands, depending on how many might be needed.

Curiosity keeps this artist motivated from idea to completion of these complex sculptures. Eli wants to see what his ideas look like. If, before making them, he could see them already finished on a computer screen, he’s not sure he would have the incentive to spend the months it takes to make each piece.

Though Eli was a math major, he felt the need to put the math to use in practical ways. Pure math was too abstract for him - his interest was more in plane and solid geometry, so it wasn’t a big leap to carpentry to translate math into everyday use. And, eventually, he became a journeyman carpenter.

When he met his wife, writer Naomi Beth Wakan, they decided to live in Japan for a while. The Japanese aesthetic of unvarnished wood structures created with precision and no nails influenced Eli. On returning to Canada, he first experimented with folding paper, not exactly origami, but more like architectural maquettes. When the couple moved to Gabriola Island in 1996, he set up a workshop to see what these forms looked like in wood; his first showing was called “Origami in Wood.”

Living on idyllic Gabriola, nature plays a significant role in Eli's work. “My pieces are very organic and cellular,” he says. He points to a sculpture called Meeting at Infinity and says its double helix form suggests DNA.

Eli plans to continue designing and building his constructions despite the potential physical problems that may arise from the many hours of standing, not to mention the visual strain of working in precise detail. To ensure his longevity, he takes precautionary measures like using a heavy-duty dust mask, as well as ear and eye protection.

“If you’re good at something and interested, I don’t see why one couldn’t go on for a long, long time,” says Eli. “I just like puzzles and each piece I start is a puzzle I have set myself.”

To see more of Eli's meticulous woodwork, check out


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