Whittling – Part 2

So to conclude my previous post I should tell you a bit about the whittling workshop at the J.B. Blunk estate.

It was with Japanese master whittler Yo Takimoto. Yo-san lives in the US and Japan. He was born in Wakayama and graduated from USC with a degree in Architecture. He subsequently worked for 22 years as a city planner in Tokyo. 16 years ago a friend gave him a ‘kiridashi’ a small Japanese style carving knife, to help him with stress relief from his hectic job and to remind him of his postwar childhood in Kumano; ‘where I played in the forests and swam in the river’. This set a new direction for Yo-san’s life and for many years now he has been running workshops in Japan and the US for children and adults where he shares the experience of what he calls ‘kikezuri’. This is not your regular back porch whittlin’ but a subtle exploration of the connection between your inner processes, your hand, the tool and the small piece of wood you have chosen to work with. Yo-san brings a smorgasbord of different delicious woods from the US and Japan to his workshops and then each participant chooses  a piece which ‘speaks to them’. Then with just a kiridashi, and later some dried horsetail stalks and a tightly bound palm leaf brush for a final polish, each person sits quietly for three hours and slowly brings a shape out of the wood. I chose a knotty little piece of Madrone with its sensuous blood red bark still in place. Yo-san later said that it was his favorite American wood to work with and that old growth, tight-knit redwood from J.B.’s collection was a close runner up.

J.B. Blunk’s home was a perfect setting for this exploration. Sitting under the shade of a live oak in good company letting the conversation flow as each of us was intensely but gently working away. I could imagine J.B. going through the same careful dance – with a chainsaw in his case!!

Yo Takimoto - master whittler. I love the fundamental contradiction in this title.

What's on the menu?

Whittlin', perhaps thinking about the fresh oysters to come.

The final outcome - a worry stick. I've taken to carrying it in my jacket pocket to keep me grounded.

The workshop was a real treat. After 25 years of working with wood I do admit to getting complacent sometimes. Yo-san helped me rediscover the pleasure of tracing grain, letting a form grow, and the feel of a good sharp tool at work. Very satisfying!

Whittling in the shade of J.B. Blunk – Part 1

I have had the privilege of visiting a very special place several times over the last few months, the former home and studio of J.B. Blunk in Inverness. The most recent visit was last weekend to participate in an all day whittling workshop with Yo Takimoto. Let me tell you a little about the place and show you around and then I’ll give you a taste of the workshop.

J.B. Blunk was an astoundingly gifted sculptor who gained a national reputation for his huge but sensitively carved functional sculptures. I have spent many a summer day lounging around in the carved furniture he created at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. They are now imbedded in the Plane trees which have continued to grow up and around these beautifully aged works. You can see his iconic piece ‘Planet’ at the Oakland Museum of California and dine at one of his functional sculptures at Green’s Restaurant at Fort Mason.

Shady seating at Tassajara

Perfect for a snooze.

Nice details

Here is a short slide show of some of J.B.’s sculptures in process (made by Rivkah Beth Medow and Mariah Nielson).

But perhaps the best way to get an inkling of the mind, spirit and process of JB is to visit his home and studio which he began in 1959 and then proceeded to tinker with until his death in 2002. The hand-built house and studio is perched high on the ridge line of Pt. Reyes looking down through the forests to Tomales Bay below.

You can read Glenn Adamson’s overview of J.B.’s life here, and see more of his work at the J.B. Blunk website. Unfortunately, I never met J.B. while he was living. My connection to J.B. comes through his daughter Maria Nielson (who was born in the house – literally!) and now cares for the house and studio and J.B.’s legacy.

Here are some glimpses of the house and studio – a delightful mix of zen minimalism, NorCal transcendentalism and ribald humor.

The house approaching from the studio.

The kitchen, which always seems to be laden with delicious hand-built food!

A wall collaged from exquisitely figured sculptural off-cuts - mostly from 'Planet' I believe.

The bathroom with panoramic views down to Tomales Bay and a richly detailed hand-carved sink. The window is a glass door mounted on its side.

One of many stools - this one threatens personal damage if you're not mindful.

Cubist construction from chainsaw off-cuts.

Every nook and cranny shows the artist's hand.

J.B. studied in Japan in the 50's and you can see the influence everywhere.

Every light switch has a sculptural pull.

Even in the functioning studio everything is thoughtfully arranged.

Tools ready for action.

I love the wooden gutters on the open-air chainsaw studio

Sculptures on the grounds.

Serendipitous ones too.

The quintessence of the 'pastoral'!

More on the whittling workshop in my next post.

New Materiality at the Milwaukee Art Museum

Over the weekend of April 16/17, Lawrence La Bianca and I flew to Milwaukee to participate in the ‘Dialogues on Innovation’ lecture series at the Milwaukee Museum of Art in conjunction with the New Materiality exhibition. It turned out to be an amazing and rewarding weekend. Several other artists who participated in New Materiality were invited as well, so it was a wonderful opportunity to meet fellow artists, hear about their work directly and to have multi-layered conversations about the parallels between our works and the engagement of the digital in contemporary craft. The other artists invited were Sonya Clark (chair of the craft/material studies program at Virginia Commonwealth University), Tim Tate (glass and video artist and rambunctious bad boy), Christy Matson (textile and sound artist and CCA alumna, currently at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) and Nathalie Miebach (basketmaker, sculptor, composer and data juggler). Its hard to know where to start in giving you a taste of a rich and multilayered weekend amongst creative thinkers and makers.

A good place to start is where Lawrence and I did, walking along the bridge towards Calatrava’s sculpted, white-boned building; like two Jonah’s about to be swallowed by the whale.

Santiago Calatravas extraordinary extension to MAM on the shores of Lake Michigan.

The lofty atrium space during the MAM After Dark soiree

The greatest treat for Lawrence and I was seeing our work ‘Soundings’ in situ. We haven’t seen the piece for a while and the last time we saw it we had loaded it into a packing crate in SF bound for Boston. So we were interested to see how it had survived its travels. We were delighted to see that the curaors had chosen to place it on the level above the rest of the New Materiality exhibition along with work by Christy Matson and Sony Clark to give all three works a bit more breathing room. We found ourselves in illustrious company among the MAM permanent collection of contemporary, adjacent to other inspiring and cross fertilizing works

Fortescue, LaBianca, Matson, Puryear – niiice!

Beth Lipman’s delightful work was secreted away in the tiny, cramped ‘Glass and Studio Craft Gallery’ nearby. So the floor admonition not to ‘cross the line’ had obviously been violated by someone!

Beth Lipmans delightfully baroque Laid Table (Still Life with Metal Pitcher), 2007

The separation of Lipman’s work from the main galleries is even stranger considering the adjacent (non-segregated) glass work by Josiah McElheny.

Josiah McElhenys Modernity circa 1952, Mirrored and Reflected Infinitely, 2004

Clearly occupying the main stream art discourse was Robert Gober’s Untitled, 1997. The open suitcase reveals a storm water grate through which we can see a weedy rockpool and glimpses of a mysterious bathing/birthing woman. I love the parallels with Soundings in this piece located just a few feet away. The mundane object (suitcase or occasional table) hacked to reveal a constructed liminal landscape/soundscape suggesting something deeper and darker while being superficially seductive.

Robert Gobers Untitled, 1997. Revealing a deep view into…

… pellucid pools of seaweed wafting in the current.

The Milwaukee Museum is such a great gallery. Every time I come visit I’m presented with new juxtapositions of works and get to see new art that I’ve never even known of previously. This visit introduced me to the work of Martha Glowacki.  A new addition to my roster of artists working in and with museums and the histories of scientific views of the world – along with Mark Dion, Fred Wilson, Rosamond Purcell and of course, yours truly.

Glowacki collaborated with the Chipstone Foundation to create a richly embroidered and captivating installation entitled “Loca Miraculi: Rooms of Wonder”. There’s a dense and very nicely crafted catalog/gallery guide available which you can view here. The objects on show are mostly derived from the Chipstone’s unrivaled collection of early American decorative arts which are housed in this exhibition in immaculately crafted interactive cabinets made especially for the exhibition. Each drawer has its own unique display often accompanied by a sound element triggered by its opening. I really appreciate that the display, the historical works and the contemporary art pieces are seamlessly woven together in this exhibition. All in keeping with the spirit of the Wunderkammern where the works of man and of nature (both imagined and real) were given equal weight.

The first room of Loca Miraculi

The Animalia display including an hermaphrodite deer.

One of the beautifully designed and crafted cabinets with openable drawers

The Grotto of Tethys by Mary Dickey imbedded in one of the drawers.

Gabriel Russo – Icon

This week my CCA Craft Lab class had the pleasure of visiting and, more importantly, playing in the studio my old friend and esteemed artisan and designer Gabriel Russo.

Gabriel is an incredibly talented and experienced clothing pattern-maker and designer with decades of industry experience in New York, LA and the Bayarea. He produces his own clothing lines in his densely packed studio in Richmond. You can read his tales of a life lived in the rag trade on his blog. Scott Constable wrote about Gabriel on his Deep Craft blog a few months ago – you can read that post here. The folks at  Artidocs are compiling a great video that captures a hint of his humor and style – here’s a preview.


We were at Gabriel’s to tap his knowledge and love for Indigo – that mysterious and spectacular dyestuff that is so much a part of Indian, Japanese, and West African culture. Craft Lab is developing a performance dyeing event for CCA’s Craft Forward conference to be held at CCA over the forthcoming first weekend of April. I plan to post about both the conference and our event over the weekend.

Gabriel revealed some of the strange properties of natural indigo dye and then let us loose is in his studio where we experimented with dyeing paper, wood, wool, porcelain, threads and all sorts of woven fabrics. We want to entrap text on either paper or fabric at our event so we tried a variety of resist techniques including, tying, selective dipping, wax and sewing as well as writing directly onto fabric with the dye. We did everything we could think of – all at once. Gabriel was very tolerant as we went berserk in his space.

In the moments between we wandered around his densely layered studio and enjoyed his tools, artifacts, clothing, assemblages and good taste in music.

Gabriel with indigo dyed hands and matching jacket with pocket pattern stitch resist.

Indigo brew

Healthy bloom on the dyepot - ready for action

Let's see what's in the pot? Carol Koffel and Johanna Friedman look on.

Gabriel and Johanna talking shop

Some of Gabriel's men's clothing racked and ready for his next sale.

Paper patterns


Tools of the trade - huge pelican shears on the gramophone

Dyed thread at that moment when the fresh green dye oxidizes to blue

Samples drying in the sun

Its hard not to wax poetic

Paper loves indigo

Stitch resist samples

Its always such a pleasure being in another artisan’s studio, learning new techniques and  talking story.

Thank you Gabriel for opening the doors!

DesignCraft Hero!

Regina Connell the auteur of one of my go to blogs Handful of Salt featured me as one of her DesignCraft Heroes this week. I’m honored.

Its also been very rewarding having so many people respond so sweetly to the post. I feel like I’ve been able to attend my own wake without paying the usual price. Nice!

Thanks Regina!!

Me and Nico - I'm glad one of us is getting some wooodwork done!

Lawrence LaBianca – Icon

My colleague (as sculptor, educator and surfer) Lawrence LaBianca invited my CCA graduate CRAFT LAB group to visit his studio last week. We are talking, reading, writing and making around concepts connected to tools and process so Lawrence’s work is particularly relevant to our project.

Lawrence has just returned from an extended residency at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass, Colorado. He is a prolific and dedicated artist and the quantity, diversity and intensity of the work he produced during his residency was amazing to all of us. His home/studio in the Mission is encrusted with his work, collections and artistic collaborations. Lawrence and I share a love and nostalgia for the great ocean voyages of exploration, and his living space resembles the cabin of a seasoned voyager: neat, efficient and tightly packed with discoveries of a peripatetic life of artistic and physical engagement with the world.

Lawrence explaining his river borne etching machine

No space wasted!

Echoing forms

Walls encrusted with old and new works. Tools for apprehending the natural world

Creative collaborations,

Mysterious artifacts,

Ghostly projections.

Lawrence shared the in-production footage of his weather ballon powered drawing machine completed at the Anderson Ranch.

If you’d like to see more of Lawrence and his work, Regina Connell did a nice interview with him last year on her Handful of Salt blog.

And the Anderson Ranch blog about his residency has some great process shots!

Paul Discoe – Master craftsman – Icon

I took my CCA cabinet-making class to visit with Paul Discoe of Joinery Structures today.

I have the honor of co-teaching this class at CCA this semester with Paul: a woodworker for whom I have immense respect. Paul is an ordained Zen priest in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshii of the San Francisco Zen Center. He was trained and ordained by Suzuki Roshii and subsequently lived in Japan for 5 years working with builders of traditional wooden building. Paul has enlarged on this unique experience by working on many important projects since his return; including major buildings at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center and Green Gultch Farm Zen Center, other traditional building projects around the world and sumptuous private homes created entirely in the immaculate Japanese tradition. His recently published book is a great resource and a joy to browse – available from SF Zen Center. Here is a link to Paul’s lecture at CCA as part of CCA’s Design and Craft Lecture Series in Fall 2009 – available for viewing or downloading for free at iTunesU.

Paul showed all of us around his extraordinary complex tucked away off Grand Ave. in West Oakland – just around the corner from my much more humble studio. Here he has the capacity to accept a wide variety of trees from our Urban Forest, which he then then can mill and dry entirely on site. We started by looking at some of the furniture pieces that Paul’s company Live Edge produces and at some samples of the woods that people bring him to mill, dry and then work with – Monterey Cyprus, Deodar Cedar, Redwood, Black Acacia, Camphor, Elm, Poplar and Port Orford Cedar.

Then we wandered out past several herculean piles of logs sourced from around Bayarea.

Redwood bones piled...

He has the capacity to slice these logs with relative ease on a full bandsaw mill – The Wood-Mizer!!

And has LOTS of equipment to dry, resize and finish the slabs.

Air-drying slabs

Deodar slabs fresh from the kiln.

A small part of Paul's irreplaceable archive


Trestles stacked ready for action

Dollies on rails to move the slabs

Eventually it comes down to handwork. Laying out and cutting joints with finely tuned handtools, assembling, detailing and finishing – all with a craftsman’s carefully honed senses.

One of Paul's master craftsman working with exquisite Port Orford Cedar.

Hand tools arrayed

Paul’s son sharpening Japanese style – using waterstones, on the floor, with great efficiency.

Thanks Paul!! For your time today, for working with us at CCA, and for honoring and maintaining great traditions.

Family Tree: Fine Woodworking in Northern California. Opens January 21

Cullen-neptune tabpeFamily Tree: Fine Woodworking in Northern California  

Opens January 21

Petaluma Arts Center

We eagerly await the arrival of our first exhibition of 2011, Family Tree: Fine Woodworking in Northern California. On exhibit from January 21 – March 13 in the G.K. Hardt Gallery, the collection will feature 25 artists whose work has influenced the important California contemporary fine woodworking movement since World War II. Artists include J.B. Blunk, Arthur Espenet Carpenter, Bob Stocksdale and many others. On view in the Community Gallery will also be faculty selected work by students from the Furniture Design program at California College of the Arts.

The Artists Reception is Saturday, January 22, 2 – 4pm.

Now Online! Throughout the exhibition will be weekend demonstrations, lectures and events such as a curator-led tour, lathe-turning demonstration, gilding and patination workshop and bridge-building for families. The complete listing of exhibiting artists and events is now posted on our website.


The Brothers Quay

I’ve spent some time over this winter enjoying the extraordinary animated offerings of the Quay Brothers.

Twins born in Philadelphia but currently living in London, their style owes a lot to the pioneering animator Jan Svankmajer. But they definitely have their own distinct oeuvre – creepy, enchanting and seductive.

You can see many of their animations on Dailymotion.

Here’s one to whet you appetite. This was filmed in the superb Sir Henry Wellcome Collection of medical curiosities in Euston Rd., London. Enjoy!!