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.

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!

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!

The best bread in the world

Tartine in San Francisco is reputed to make the best bread in the world.

Here is a video about Tartine’s resident baking genius Chad Robertson’s process that shows you why!

I love the surfing reference in this video. The idea that the weather provides the context for excellence in both surfing and baking. Its also a joy to hear the composition of local musical luminaries Tin Hat played by Marié Abe on the soundtrack.

Bread is a mixture
of flour and water
that is transformed
into something through
the course of fermentation,
that transcends
the simplicity of those
basic ingredients.

Chad Robertson

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.

David Nash – Icon

We just returned to London after a long day’s drive traversing the UK. We woke this morning in Blaenau Ffestiniog in northwestern Wales and hit London in the late afternoon (in time for a well-deserved pint of Guiness at our local the ‘Bird in Hand’).

We headed to Wales primarily to visit the studio of the world renowned artist David Nash. I’ve known David for 12 years and have worked with him on a number of occassions in California and at Penland Crafts Center in North Carolina. I’ve always wanted to see his studio converted from a huge old church in this frugal slate mining town imbedded in the stark but splendid Snowdonia National Park.

David is consistently incredibly hard working, busy and perhaps even over-committed. He was preparing to head off to London and California after having just returned from installing a commission in Basel. But he spared an afternoon and gave us an inside view of his various studio/work places scattered around the village and took us to his 4 hectare living workshop in the woods downstream from the town. I really wanted to physically experience this space and to walk amongst and touch the living trees that David is collaborating with in the construction of these works which are rooted in the Welsh countryside. I love the fact that these works are immovable (we have to make the effort to go and see them and they will never appear at your local Museum of Modern Art), that they take decades to develop, that they require regular care and maintenance, that they don’t always behave the way David expects them too, and that in tending and responding to them David is constantly learning and growing himself.

Thank you David for sharing your time and your work space with us!

David's wonderful converted church studio nestled under an imposing pile of slate waste

David's wonderful converted church studio nestled under an imposing pile of slate waste

Inside the church - an ongoing ever changing retrospective

Inside the church - an ongoing ever changing retrospective

Works in the studio

Works in the studio

Works in the studio

Works in the studio

David's main work area - open air but under cover

David's main work area - open air but under cover

Recent works and winter firewood in the drying room

Recent works and winter firewood in the drying room

Keeping track

Keeping track

Ash dome

Ash dome

Artificial order meets artificial chaos in the Welsh countryside

Artificial order meets artificial chaos in the Welsh countryside

Richard La Trobe-Bateman

For the last few days we have had the pleasure of spending time with Richard and Mary La Trobe-Bateman at their beautiful home in Somerset.

Richard and Mary's 18thC stone house in Batcombe

Richard and Mary's 18thC stone house in Batcombe

I was here last 16 years ago on my first trip to the UK, when Richard kindly responded positively to my request to come and stay and work with him for a while. I was travelling to Japan and the UK studying traditional crafts and their post World War 2 trajectories in these two radically different but strangely akin ‘island cultures’. Both islands played pivotal roles in the war despite their limited sizes, populations and resources. Both countries were decimated by the war and lost almost a whole cadre of young men who would otherwise (probably) carried on living craft traditions. Both cultures were fundamentally changed by the war and took radically new cultural trajectories following the war. I was curious how the crafts had endured and been changed through this process.

Richard was a great person to spend time with and to bounce many of my ideas off. He is an arch modernist and helped me understand and appreciate the key tenets of modernism. He also helped me see the various value systems and concepts imbedded in modes of making.

He studied under David Pye at the Royal College of Art – the key analyst of the ‘nature of workmanship’. And many of Pye’s perspectives are now made manifest in Richard’s mature work. Richard made the prescient move in the early 70’s to escape London and acquire a little chunk of rural England while it was affordable and so ensure a professional lifetime of minimal overheads and almost unlimited workspace. David Nash (next post) followed the same trajectory into Wales as did Richard’s contemporary at RCA, the master steambent furniture designer, David Colwell.

When I visited Richard last time we worked together on one of his signature footbridges and he introduced me to the ‘unregulated’ rigor of making furniture from hand split ash billets with the wonderfully simple but nuanced system of froe and brake and drawnife/spokeshave and shaving horse. I won’t go into detail about this here but you can get a greater understanding through John (now Jennie) Alexander’s wonderful (but I think out of print?) book ‘Make a Chair from a Tree’. This time I worked briefly with Richard on a proposal model for a river footbridge for the nearby town of Frome.

What a pleasure to work again in a studio that was a familiar workplace 16 years ago!

Richard's studio

Richard's studio

Richard and the Frome bridge model

Richard and the Frome bridge model

A great old vice found on the property when Richard moved in.

A great old vice found on the property when Richard moved in.

Richard's bridge on exhibition at Harley Gallery, Whybeck near Nottingham

Richard's bridge on exhibition at Harley Gallery, Whybeck near Nottingham