You can’t always tell where an artist studied based on his work, particularly if it’s been a while since school; artists are constantly growing, changing, evolving and adapting to new styles and new ideas.
But talk to a furniture maker about his artistic processes, inspirations and philosophies, and you might find it easier to pinpoint his beginnings. On view at the New Hampshire Furniture Masters’ Gallery in Concord from March 14 through May 30 is “Schools of Thought I: College of the Redwoods.” It’s the first of three in a series of exhibitions about how furniture masters were influenced by their studies.
New Hampshire furniture masters John Cameron, Tim Coleman and Sam Norris, along with Brian Newell of Fort Bragg, Calif., all studied at the College of Redwoods in California. For this exhibition, they will show pieces alongside reflections and notes about how the college molded them as artists.
Coleman became interested in the school because of its founder, legendary cabinet maker Jim Krenov, who died in 2009. Coleman grew up on the East Coast and moved to Seattle in the mid-1980s, just for a bit of adventure. While he was there, a handmade furniture scene was beginning to spread.
“Shortly after discovering that scene there, Jim Krenov presented a lecture about the College of the Redwoods in Seattle,” Coleman said in a phone interview.
Krenov was so captivating, Coleman said, that after the lecture, he sought apprenticeships and took a summer course at the school before applying and getting in during the 1987-1988 school year.
Here, he learned about how use of materials could inform the work.
“Wood was a holy commodity at the college. The wood storage room was like a temple, stacked to the rafters with thick slabs from around the globe: Swiss pear, dousie, cypress, East Indian rosewood, French walnut,” Coleman wrote in his exhibition reflection. “Students were taught to pay close attention to all the properties of the material — texture, density, shifts in color, grain patterns — and to make wise choices in each product.”
His pieces — “Key to My Heart,” “Tall Table” and “Summer” — were all ones that he felt fit with the context of the exhibition. Two of the pieces are cabinets, which are what Krenov is most known for, but each of their designs is also intricate, with patterns that complement the wood’s natural grains, texture and color.
For Coleman, the most influential aspect of the school was in simply watching Krenov work, navigating through a piece like a puzzle, fully immersed in the creative process. He never talked about designing a piece, Coleman said, but rather, Krenov’s method allowed a high degree of flexibility that enabled him to make changes along the way depending on what was happening with the materials as he worked with them.
Krenov also drew in these young makers with his ideas.
“He wrote a series of books in the ’70s and ’80s that inspired a lot of woodworkers. Ultimately the school came to being about some of his philosophical ideas about making furniture. It has to do with an intimate respect for the material and how it can be used,” said Ted Blachly, New Hampshire furniture master and gallery director. He curated the exhibition with the help of Brad Wolcott.
It drew in people like John Cameron, a musician who’d only worked part-time as a furniture maker until he attended the school.
“I was playing music in a semi-successful band. It kept seeming as though we’d never have it be a solid deal. There was almost a record deal, almost a show, so I decided to look into another passion of mine,” Cameron said.
Cameron’s three pieces, a crane chair and two cabinets named “Barney” and “Neptune,” are of a much different style than Coleman’s but contain a rich color and intricacy of design similar to the other makers.’
Each of the exhibition’s four artists, Cameron said, was influenced by the work of Jim Krenov.
“He’d written as much about philosophy as he did about cabinetmaking,” Cameron said. “I was full of East Coast cynicism when I arrived at the school, and I was met with fresh, idealistic air. It really knocked me off my feet.”
“School of Thought II” and “School of Thought III” will follow later this year and feature work by furniture masters who studied at the Rhode Island School of Design, the Rochester Institute of Technology, the Boston University Program in Artisanry, the North Bennet Street School and the University of New Hampshire.
As seen in the March 13, 2014 issue of the Hippo.