photo: Todd Hido
My interview with Brooklyn-based artist and woodworker Jim Christensen is the latest in an ongoing series of interviews and studio visits with other makers/artisans/crafters. You may read these by clicking here. If you would like to introduce yourself and your work to a growing Deep Craft network, I invite you to visit the PARTICIPATE page of this site. Meanwhile, allow me to introduce you to my old pal Jim:
DC: Describe what you do as a maker/artisan
JC: I’ve been making things since I was a kid. Like a lot of guys who grow up in small town U.S.A., my father and grandfather were both woodworkers, as well as my uncles. The craft of woodworking has informed the way I see things in this world and has influenced the types of material culture that capture my attention. A good introduction to my worldview can be seen at: www.youroldpaljim.blogspot.com
DC: Was there a childhood experience that you believe influenced you later or led you in a particular direction regarding craft or making?
JC: I can’t recall any single childhood experience informing my direction as a maker, but the extended experience of observing my father and grandfather practicing the craft of woodworking would be the greatest.
DC: What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to gain proficiency with a material or set of skills?
JC: I still haven’t overcome my biggest obstacle, which would be to accept failure as a part of the process of making. It really does stand to be your best experience in making as it forces you to innovate in ways that could be a surprise to you. But how to overcome the fear of failure?
DC: What comes first when you are making – formal constraints, functional parameters, a gesture, etc.?
JC: Mostly I work from sentiments and precedents. A lot of the time I am moved by things people have made before, things that they made for some inspired reason. It’s hard to put into words, but when somebody loved making something, you can just feel it when you are looking at that thing, whatever it is. Or maybe what they made is part of some great tradition with which they were communing when they made that thing, and you can feel it then, too. So I work from there, because that’s the best place for me to start. And working like this has taken me down a lot of different paths.
DC: Describe an ideal day in the studio.
JC: I’m not sure what an ideal day in the studio is anymore – I work full-time or more right now. All I really need is a hot cup of coffee and a clear plan for what I’m trying to get done that day.
DC: Do you have a favorite thing?
JC: I have so many favorite things – I post a lot of them on my blog.
DC: Do you have a favorite tool?
JC: I bought a Lie-Nielsen Model Maker’s Block Plane to start a never-ending model of every place I’ve ever lived. I called the model “Ideal Home (under construction)”. I really love that little plane and the shavings it makes.
Mrs. Cipriani’s Kindergarten 1999; subjective scale, but the dolls are 24″ tall; mixed media; collection of the M. H. DeYoung Museum
DC: What is the favorite thing you’ve ever made?
JC: I made a sculpture once called Mrs. Cipriani’s Kindergarten. It took maybe two years to make and I really felt like I had something special going on the whole time it was being made.
DC: When making something where is your concentration- on the present activity or on its desired result, or something else altogether?
JC: A while ago I started to believe that the present was the immediate resolution of the past and the future. I guess that moment can happen with more or less elegance and with greater or lesser meaning to my life. When I’m making something that I’ve chosen to make (unlike my job, where the client is choosing for me), this sentiment is heightened, so I’m right there in that sliver thin moment. That, I guess, is the framework that guides my concentration.
DC: Is there any material, tool or technique that really intrigues you that you’ve never gotten around to learning?
JC: When I was working on Mrs. Cipriani’s Kindergarten I found out about “compo”, a basic thermoplastic made from chalk, hide glue, linseed oil, and resin. I like the idea of this primitive man-made material but I’ve never had a good idea for how it could be put to good use.
DC: Where do you find inspiration?
JC: I find inspiration in the material culture that surrounds me. The unprecedented object is a myth and understanding the history of the forms of material culture that peak my interest hopefully adds an intensity to my production that can be felt in the things I make.
Ideal Home (Under Construction) 2005; 100″ x 96″ x 84″; sugar pine and basswood
DC: Where do you see yourself in relation to the current trends towards sustainability, DIY, craft, etc.?
JC: I don’t really know anything about the current trends in craft or art. I’m personally interested in the ethics behind the material culture we all produce, so that is what is in the front of my mind lately. I’m also concerned about how methods of making are not being passed on from one person to another via first hand experience. I started thinking about this as an undergraduate student, when I was helping other students make things in the woodshop. I was stunned at how little my peers knew about using tools and how things go together. That was in 1989. All through my educational experience I saw this and it really bummed me out. We used to be a culture that made things and we were proud of that.
DC: Where do you place yourself in relation to a craft tradition or heritage?
JC: I didn’t place myself, circumstance placed me in the tradition of rural American woodworking. This style of woodworking is an interesting hybrid of hand and machine and that is the way I saw my dad and grampa make things when I was a kid. I feel like this method of making produces objects with a certain efficiency and humanity.
DC: What advice would you give to someone just starting out in craft/making?
JC: Know your history.
Gatormouth 2007; 14″ x 42″; graphite on paper; private collection