Perched on a stool by a window one blustery afternoon, whittling away at a block of wood, Barry Lysaght at first glance looks a lot like a kid with nothing to do.
You see them all the time, trying to fill empty hours by drawing circles in the dirt or finding faces in clouds, until their buddies show up and they can get on to more compelling diversions.
But if you stop long enough at Lysaght’s sawdusty shop on Topanga Canyon Boulevard and watch him for a while, you begin to realize this is no kid in mild pursuit of diversion.
This is a guy lost in time.
The bleak afternoon fades to night around him and the distracting buzz of commuter traffic sneaks through an open door, but he keeps whittling without looking up, his attention focused on the small chunk of wood in his hands.
I watch him for awhile without asking questions because I realize I’m with someone trapped in his own sweet compulsion, creating something out of dynamics we don’t understand, the way life must have been forged in the first place with fire and magic.
Lysaght is a chunky little guy of 56, with thinning hair, a beard and clear-rimmed specs held together with what appears to be wrapping tape.
His hands are big and rough, the kind you’d expect on a lumberjack, rather than on a guy carving the delicate features of an angel out of wood.
He cuts in silence for a while and then I finally ask how long he can just sit there doing that. He smiles and says maybe eight to 10 hours.
“There’s no time when I’m doing this,” he adds. “The clock is off. I’m sliding into hyperspace. . . .”
My son told me about Barry. He knows his old man is always looking for people who feel about what they do the way I feel about writing, though I never could explain it.
The closest I ever came was to say I didn’t choose writing for a living, writing chose me.
Marty--that’s my boy--saw Barry carving one day in his cluttered shop near the Topanga Feed Barn. “You’ve got to see this guy,” he said. “He’s a master.”
Indeed he is, even though he doesn’t think so. Lysaght calls himself a whittler, not a classic carver, the way Steinbeck might have called himself a typist.
Talented people are that way sometimes, prone to minimizing their gifts in the fear that someone will set a standard for them, when they know in their hearts that creation seeks its own standards.
Barry’s art emerged from a complex background of religious fervor and battered dreams. He began whittling when he was 7, forced by a fanatic mother to do crucifixes instead of the stuff he wanted to do, like the Yankee sea captain he kept carving and re-carving.
He went through college and did a lot of other things over the years, but wood carving was always what he liked to do most; not in the convivial manner of a Geppetto creating Pinocchio, but alone and with intensity.
Lysaght, like any artist, is a tangle of emotions, not the least of which is a melancholy that lurks just below the surface, rooted in a memory of his dead wife.
Their marriage was ending in 1968, and she was flying off to Canada to stay with her folks for a while, when the plane she was in crashed.
Barry stops carving to talk about it, the curved Warren knife in one hand, a piece of Malaysian wood in the other, himself a kind of still life.
He thinks about all the things they might have said to each other, how the marriage might have been saved, but for the flash of pain and fire that took her away.
“You never get a chance to do it over again,” he says softly. “You never get to say what you wanted to say.”
He begins carving again, wood chips flying across the floor.
“She was suddenly gone and it was all unfinished. . . .”
He was an alcoholic before, Barry says, and when he wife was killed, he did a half-gainer into an abyss of whiskey and cocaine.
He calls it a light show that damn near killed him.
How he managed to quit is still a mystery, except that a guy named Bob Harris put him to work remodeling a ranch and kept him working no matter how badly he performed. It saved his life.
That was 10 years ago, and Lysaght hasn’t had anything stronger than an aspirin since. The light show is over.
Now he works at carpentry and cabinetmaking to eat, but wood carving is his sweet compulsion: the angels, cowboys on rearing horses, sleek tigers leaping into imagination, soaring birds.
“There’s just nothing I’ve ever wanted to do as much,” he says without looking up.
He’s still carving when I leave, bent over the angel’s face on a darkening day, lost in time and in those volcanic places where art is born.