James Gentry, Comments at Edgewood Orchard Gallery, July 22, 2000.
I am James Gentry, a woodworker and furniture maker and Ill be giving a brief talk on my work today. Thank you for attending the opening here. Artists and craftspeople tend to work alone and so unless they are teachers, have few opportunities to speak about their work. I appreciate the opportunity today.
I will discuss four main areas: how I got started in woodworking; how wood as a material and woodworking tools affect my work; what influences the way I design and make things with the specific example of the table I have with me here; and the relevance of craft work to you, the audience.
My story with woodworking began really in 1969. I was drafted for the Army for the Vietnam war, and although I ended up being sent to Korea rather than Vietnam, that period was one of intense reflection for me. There is nothing like serving overseas in the military during time of war to focus your attention on a better way to spend the rest of your life. I was never in any direct danger, but the possibility was always there both as a transfer to the DMZ in the north of Korea and as a replacement to Vietnam. Anyway, it made me think that I would really like to do something more interesting when I got back to the states. As things happen, I was drafted with a friend from high school and we ended up riding the bus to Ft. Leonard Wood together and doing basic training in the same company. He was a law student at UW and promoted the idea of going to law school in Wisconsin to me. I had been to Wisconsin once before when I was a college student in St. Louis, on the so called childrens crusade for Eugene McCarthys presidential bid, and I was struck by the woodsy beauty of the state. So, this and that, and I end up in law school at UW in 1972. I was only an average student, but in my second year, I won my first legal case and that is how I became a woodworker. Let me explain. Since I came to UW from another school in Illinois, I was classified as an out-of-state student and had to pay the correspondingly higher tuition. Well, I thought that since I was practically a lawyer already, I should appeal. I took my case to the Board on the theory that military service had broken any previous pattern of residency, and wherever I lighted after the military was my home. Since my entry into UW was relatively close to my discharge from the army, they bought it and made me an in-state student retroactively, with about a $5000 tuition refund. It was like winning the lottery. I thought I could do anything I wanted. I finished up the remaining 3 semesters of school, because, among other reasons, my wife Ellen was a law student too. Best thing I ever did in law school. But I had acquired an interest in woodworking, and took a woodworking course at the Student Union , and before long I was hooked. I loved everything about wood and shop tools, plus people gave me a lot of encouragement, so after about a year of quasi-law jobs, I took my $5000 and opened a shop. Ive never looked back. It still takes peoples breath away when I tell them I actually gave up being a lawyer to become a woodworker, but the law and I were a mismatch. Ill give you an image to show what I mean. A good lawyer, and Ive known some, is like a mirror. If you deal with a lawyer, you never penetrate the surface, because the lawyer stays behind strategizing while he constantly shifts the mirror surface so you reveal yourself. When you reveal weakness or contradict yourself, he makes his move. My personality, and I think this is the artists personality, is more like a sponge. I take in everything I can, many things interest me, and I try to reconcile them all into some kind of coherent harmony. That is the artists vision. Mine looks like an egg. Lawyers dont think like that
So here I am trying to express my vision in wood, which bring me to the topic dear to my heart, wood and trees. Ive noticed one difference between fine artists like painters and sculptors and craftspeople. People involved in craft identify more passionately with their material. This is not to say that artists of another stripe dont prefer some material over another, I know for example that deKooning liked the slinkiness of oil paint, but I dont think it was essential to his art. But you cant imagine a goldsmith without gold, or a potter without clay, or a glassblower without glass, or a woodworker without wood. And conversely, woodworkers rarely become potters and goldsmiths rarely become glassblowers. Your material, as a craftsperson, becomes your story and you stick to it. So wood is my story and Ive stuck to it longer than Ive been a father, longer than Ive been a husband, longer than Ive been a child in my parents home, longer than Ive lived in any one place. Thats a serious commitment.
We all, I think, relate to trees. They stand upright like us. They live about as long as we do, 80 years or so. They are sort of big yard pets, so, and we mourn them when they die, as Ellen and I are now mourning our front yard maple tree. Im sure youve all seen the cross section of a tree with the various important dates in human history marked on the rings. We use them in our houses and fireplaces. We stand in their shade. Trees are intertwined with humans. And they invoke a certain awe in us and humility. As British sculptor David Nash says, Trees are the kings of the vegetable world, and so command our respect. Then there is the sense that wood is already a finished product, so you cant really improve it or make it more beautiful, and it comes from all over the world, so it can be like an exotic visitor. All of this adds a mystique to working wood that Ive never grown tired of.
When I first started my shop, I was in hunter-gatherer mode. Wisconsin was great, all these trees around! So, and my wife will attest to this, wherever we went on vacation or driving around, I would seek out local saw mills and buy a few boards for cheap and dry them myself. It was a great adventure, seeing the big logs on the carriage going through the saw, watching the graders sort the boards, talking to the sawmill people, making the deal, often for cash on the barrel. Then I got into collecting wood, piles of logs cut into thousands of board feet of lumber and stored in a shed in the backyard. That was when my back was strong. Now I collect a lot less wood and think more about the individual personalities or histories of certain species. Maple is silky smooth and cuts like butter. Birdseye maple drowns you in its dappled surface. Ash is the tree of life in Irish mythology and is straight and strong. I like the smell of it best of all, or maybe cherry. Oak is barns, houses, and boats. Cherry is sweet. Mahogany and walnut were the woods of the colonial cabinetmakers and I think of their spirit of independence. Lately Ive worked a fair amount of exotic woods from Brazil and Africa and some are so hard you cant drive a screw into them and so heavy they wont float. You develop distinct relationships with each kind of wood, and as I do more turning, even individual pieces of wood.
Less romantic but more practical is the relationship a woodworker has with his tools. The state that you want to achieve here is what someone described as flow. Its what sports players call being in a zone, the feeling that without conscious direction things will work out right. In a wood shop there are dozens of hand/eye/brain processes going on for any one thing and typically I have 2-4 projects going at once. I might make the joints for a frame and glue it up, then match the wood for the panel and glue it up, then by that time the frame is dry and I trim, inlay and sand it, and then I go to a different project like laying up the stringing inlay which is set into the panel before it goes in the frame or design a particular piece and draw up the cutting list for it. And on and on it goes, each process folding into the other. At the end of the day you havent made one thing but completed different processes for several. Its a very engaging state of mind because each process has definable markers to show the progress youve made and is also limited enough to provide immediate gratification.
Let me illustrate with this pedestal table. Wood, Flat Joinery, Laminated Joinery, Trim, Joint Bottom, Inlay, Carve, Assemble, Trim, Reinforce, Incise and Texture Top, Sand, Sand, Sand, Assemble, Finish.
So that is the physical processes generally that go into a piece like this. A further and deeper issue is why make this table this way, or what is behind this particular design. Here are some of the things I think about. First and always is craft. Craft objects, by definition, have to be well made, that is closely fitted, nicely finished, durable, and well proportioned. My feeling is that you flaunt those basic things at your peril if you are a serious craftsman, and most craftsmen give lifetime guarantees on their work. I certainly do. Second, I consider the historical use of a particular type of furniture. Tables for certain uses, like dining, have to be a certain height to be useful. Chairs likewise have to be a certain height. Horizontal surfaces have to be flat if things will be set on them. Pieces that occupy status places in a home or office should reflect that status in materials or detailing and should look dignified. After these basic requirements are met, I try to give each piece a personality, a life of its own. This is the best way to honor the fact that these objects have a long-term relationship with the people who buy them. I want the relationship to be interesting. The kind of personality I like is animation combined with stillness, energetic but thoughtful. Here is how I would interpret this table in that light. The energy is in the stance of the thing, like a hawk perched on a branch. The incised lines add a flow with the wheel inlay being the still focal point. The top is the peaceful horizon linestillnesspierced by these through shapes to let the energetic light through.
That leads me to my final thought, which actually concerns you, the audience. The question is why should you or anyone care about this craft stuff? I have 3 answers. First, and this has been written about in several books and articles lately, craft shows what is called hand intelligence, which, like emotional intelligence or linguistic intelligence, makes up an important part of human intelligence. The idea is that we actually learn about the world through our hands because they are such sophisticated instruments. The hand/mind connection was best illustrated to me recently at a piano recital in our home by a friend who was competing for the Van Cliburn prize. He would discuss what he was going to play and what technique it illustrated, and then tear off into 5 minutes of Chopin.And then he would do it again with another piece. There was no intermediary between hand and brain. It just spilled out. Craft work, in the same sense, connects the brain and hand automatically.
My second point Ill illustrate by the Martha Stewart phenomenon. You could argue that the most prominent spokesperson and symbol of handcraft in America is not Dale Chihuly, or Wendell Castle, or Beatrice Potter, but Martha Stewart. Few know the former, all know the latter, and she does all hand work. Truthfully, I find much to admire in her. As I noted in a recent announcement for our annual Watch Martha at Christmas potluck, Shes rich, shes foxy, she likes to work around the house, whats there not to like? But I can see that nobody is going along with me here because there is something lacking in Martha. She is also corporate Martha, controlled Martha, fake Martha. She lacks individuality, she is really anonymous. Compare her with Julia Child in the cooking field for liveliness. And so that is the second reason craft, as practiced by a real craftsperson is important. It is not anonymous. It is made by a real person, often that you have actually met and sometimes that you actually have a friendship with. People like real connections with real people.
My last and most important reason for craft work is that not only does it come from the skilled hands of a real person, but it also comes from the heart. I can think of very few craftspeople who are millionaires, and I doubt that they started in craft for the money. Very few craftspeople are in this for the money. We do it for the love of what we do and for the joy it brings to peoples lives. I cant tell you how many times someone has come up to me at a show and said we bought this or that 10 years ago and it still sits in our living room and we look at it and enjoy it every day. From my hands, through my heart, to their home and life. Its what craft work is all about.
Thank you sincerely for the opportunity to talk about
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