Art that I feel strongest about usually relates to the human condition. If the art isn't making any statement, that's not an art I want to be involved with." So says Daniel Buford, associate pastor at the Allen Temple Baptist Church of Oakland, California, and wood sculptor.

Each year Buford hews a new sculpture for the African-American celebration of Kwaanza. One work, This Way Atlanta: A Fertility Signpost, has received an especially enthusiastic response. It combines a raw tribal image with one of a woman whose belly comprises dozens of smaller, agonized faces. Buford wanted it to call attention to the 1981 murders of Atlanta children in black communities, made controversial because of the lethargic response of local police.

His Praetorian Crucifix stretches a bound, muscular figure with severed and kneecapped limbs (a common form of torture in South Africa) so as to make the statement that the Roman Praetorian Guard—whose task it was to crucify Jesus Christ—sets the precedent for police in South Africa's capital, Pretoria. "This is the image of a figure in a lot of tension, who isn't just surrendering to inhumane police; it shows a struggle, a tenuous existence. I think of how the funerals in South Africa became political rallies," Buford says.


"I have a call," Buford states in a soft, firm voice. "I preach. Carving is a form of sermon writing for me. The wood tells me what it is, and once that happens, I try to carve nonstop.

"Each time I carve I push myself to carve something unlike the previous piece," says the self-taught sculptor in describing his process. "If a piece of wood looks like something to me, I speak up for that piece of wood, take it home, and work on it. I remember that that's what God has to do with us when he saves us. He has to clean us up. All this stuff we don't need has to be taken away."

One piece of wood, a large tree stump sentenced to the woodpile at the San Bruno County Jail, became central in a two-year process for Buford and some inmates. As Buford saw possibilities in the expendable hunk of wood, at the same time he gave the inmates a heightened sense of the possibilities and opportunities within each of them as they worked the piece into a seven-foot high, more than 500-pound sculpture titled Inseparable. Earlier work in detention homes had alerted Buford to the emotive malaise inmates feel. He describes them as "people whose humanity has been incarcerated, discarded—like wood that's in the way, just blocking the view." In this instance, even his choice of raw material was an act of redemption.

Inseparable, Buford says, is "the work of at least one hundred hands." It had its own show in 1992 in Oakland and has recently appeared at Stanford University and at other California sites. Its carved inscription credits the inmates of San Bruno, while Buford's exhibit notes point out that the sculpture's two intertwined figures represent the cohesion needed to make a community function. Furthermore, says Buford, "People are in awe of the fact that those who are 'society's lepers' can get to a point where beauty can come out of what they do." This sculpture, in particular, gives off a kind of magnetic attraction, he says. "People just want to touch it, or be in its presence. They sometimes come back several days in a row, sitting in the gallery, meditating on it." This pleases the artist greatly. He asserts that such a reaction evinces the power of the Holy Spirit—one that also resonates with the African roots that influence his art.


An artist for 20 years, and an artist with a Christian message to hone for 9 years, Buford observes, "There is a great need in the African-American community for people to understand they have a purpose." He draws talent out of young and old alike, coaxing them into the art-making process until it becomes a metaphor for believing that, with God, nothing is impossible. "When youngsters are working on wood, they see, symbolically, that this is what goes into making an individual," he explains. "We sand down, we smooth the rough edges. Things get imprinted on memory, just like burning a favorite Bible verse into the wood."

Psalm 23 alludes to God's anointing our heads with oil; the kids anoint their wood with oil. "Wood that seemed dry, almost dead, gets new life as a result of lemon or linseed oil—the oil brings up a pattern that wasn't there before, puts a new life in the wood," Buford says.

Daniel Buford is one of a handful of artists who is sanctioned and supported directly by a church to use his artistic gifts. In so doing, he rubs oil into his community and reveals the Lord's vision of humanity and dignity.

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