T Magazine: A Little House in the Big Woods

November 17, 2016

Amanda Fortini

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A Little House in the Big Woods
By: Amanda Fortini 

In the sleepy Marin County town of Inverness, on a remote wooded ridge that overlooks the wide blue sweep of the Tomales Bay, sits a modest, low-slung redwood cabin that the late multidisciplinary artist-craftsman J.B. Blunk built entirely by hand.

The Blunk House, which resembles a cottage from a midcentury-modern fairy tale, is no less than one artist’s architectural treatise on how to live. The integrity of his vision — a total embrace of the handmade — is evident upon first entering the yard. There’s a rock collection, its contents gathered by Blunk; a ceramic studio (with three kilns) where Blunk once worked; and a woodcutting studio that still contains pieces of redwood he gathered. Two towering arches loom over it all. The first was carved by Blunk from a single piece of redwood circa 1974. The second was cast in bronze and installed by Blunk’s son, Bruno, in 2002, the year Blunk passed away, as a tribute to his father.

For Blunk, art and life seamlessly coexisted. Beyond the heavy, ponderous redwood door, the sort one might find in a medieval castle, is a simple open-plan home with a sleeping loft, all of it illuminated by sunlight pouring through picture-frame windows. “My father built everything in here,” Mariah Nielson, Blunk’s 37-year-old daughter, says. We sit at the kitchen table Blunk carved from a massive slab of redwood and drink tea out of ceramic cups that Blunk fired in his kiln. His pedestals, columns, stools, chairs and sculptures, with their clean lines, allusions to the human body and affinity for hollow spaces, are all around us, the California cousins of Brancusi and Henry Moore.

Although J.B. (“James Blain”) BLUNK moved fluidly among mediums — making ceramics and jewelry, painting and, late in his career, working with stone and cast bronze — he is known, primarily in the West Coast art world (and increasingly beyond it), for his chainsaw-carved wood furniture and abstract sculptures. He sometimes used cypress, but his preferred material was redwood, the soft, claret-colored wood of those majestic sentries indigenous to the area. He salvaged huge chunks of it that washed up on beaches or remained from building and clearing projects, often using massive burls that loggers left behind.

Blunk was born in 1926 in Ottawa, Kan., but he is a California artist in the truest sense of the term, his craft bound up not only with that state’s landscape, but also with its characteristic ideologies. His enterprising, self-reliant, independent spirit ties him to the settlers Joan Didion has called “the adventurous, the restless and the daring,” as well as to California’s counterculture and back-to-the-land movements. It takes a certain audacity to move to rural-nowhere and erect a house from found materials, to grow your own food and carve, kiln or create whatever else you need. And the house itself, in its porous approach to its natural surroundings, exhibits a typically Californian philosophy of design.

Blunk’s trademark large-scale “seating sculptures,” which blur the line between functional and sculptural and were created for various local institutions (UC Santa Cruz and the Oakland Museum of California among them), are, for the many Bay Area residents who grew up lounging on them, practically part of the landscape themselves. The pieces, culled from gargantuan pieces of redwood, look like magnificent oversized ashtrays you can sit in. Their power derives partly from their innate tension; these are works of artistry and precision carved with a swift, violent instrument.

But anyone familiar with Blunk’s oeuvre will tell you that the house is his masterwork. In 2006, Nielson — who designs a line of luxury basics called Permanent Collection and works as a freelance curator, in addition to managing her father’s estate — moved back to Inverness part-time and has since been refurbishing both the house and her father’s legacy. A show of his ceramics at Blum & Poe in Tokyo opened this month, and plans are currently underway for an exhibition at the Oakland Museum in 2018. “This show is going to look at Blunk holistically,” says OMCA senior curator, René de Guzman, “not just as an artist but as someone who was building a lifestyle.” It is this lifestyle, its ethos and aesthetic — seclusion and simplicity, a reverence for the landscape and an uncompromising fealty to the handmade — that feels so relevant now. But the real pleasure of Blunk’s house is that everywhere, from the chisel grooves on the hand-carved bathroom sink to the chainsaw marks on the oak-wood floors, there is evidence of that element too often missing from our modern, mass-produced lives: the human touch. 

Blunk designed and constructed the house with his first wife, Nancy Waite, from 1958 to 1962. He had no formal training in architecture or furniture making or joinery; he’d studied ceramics at UCLA. In 1951, while in the army during the Korean War, he took a trip to Tokyo, where he met Isamu Noguchi in a mingei (folk art) store. This was to be the most fateful encounter of Blunk’s professional life, and not just because Noguchi’s work, with its abstract, organic shapes and use of negative space, is an obvious influence on his own. Noguchi set him up as an apprentice to the acclaimed ceramic artist Kitaoji Rosanjin; later, he worked with the potter Kaneshige Toyo, who was a national treasure in his lifetime. The two years Blunk spent steeped in the Japanese stoneware tradition would teach him to welcome cracks and imperfections and color variations in a piece, an approach he’d eventually bring to wood.

Noguchi was also responsible, however indirectly, for Blunk’s turn to woodworking. In 1954, when Blunk returned to California, he floated among a series of odd jobs for two years before Noguchi introduced him to the Surrealist painter Gordon Onslow Ford, who would become his friend and patron. Ford was about to build a house in Inverness; he hired Blunk to construct the roof. This was the first time the young artist had worked in wood, and it’s surely not a coincidence that in 1958 he began constructing his own house on an acre of land that Ford had given him to live on. His first wood sculpture, a loglike throne carved from a hunk of cypress he found roadside near Petaluma, was created as a gift for Onslow Ford in 1962, and is now in the permanent collection at SFMOMA.

Blunk viewed his house as an ongoing creative project rather than a finished work of art. “J.B. never wanted it to become a precious place,” says Nielson, who has continued to renovate, replacing the carpet in the master bedroom with walnut floors, and adding sliding redwood panels to the kitchen cabinets. “It was really important to him that there was ongoing activity and creative production here,” Nielson tells me. Ido Yoshimoto, the son of Blunk’s longtime assistant, Rick, recently moved into the property’s ceramic studio, where he sculpts wood objects and dyes indigo silk-screen prints. And from 2007 to 2011, Nielson ran a residency for artists in collaboration with the nearby Lucid Art Foundation. Max Lamb, Gemma Holt, Jacob Tillman, Jay Nelson, Rachel Kaye, Rainer Spehl and Harry Thaler have all stayed at the house.

In the 1970 short television documentary, “With These Hands,” which profiled eight different craftspeople, Blunk — coiled like a spring, with dark, brooding eyes — is seen pacing panther-like around a giant redwood burl. He’s tuning into the essence of the wood much the way Michelangelo did with stone. “When working with a large natural form like this, the primary thing I think you have to accept from the beginning is that you’re going to make something from what is there,” he says, referring to his method of direct carving. He might have been talking about every aspect of his life.

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Blum & Poe Los Angeles, New York, and Tokyo will be closed for the summer from August 14 through August 28.