On Father's Day

Father's Day is coming near, and it's got me thinking about parents.

Our parents are the people who raise us up, support us, and love us, who pass to us the narrative of our genetic origin, in stories and DNA.

But as artists we have different types of progenitors: fathers and mothers and guides, teachers and mentors and communities.

Gustav Stickley
Gustav Stickley, via the Stickley Museum Pinterest

One of my art-fathers is Gustav Stickley, a furniture maker who worked during the first half of the twentieth century and is often known as the pioneer of the American Craftsman movement.

Table by Gustav Stickley
a Stickley table, via MOMA
A lot of beginning woodworkers gravitate to Stickley, because of the honesty in his work. But I think he's someone everyone should gravitate to. I think of Stickley, and William Morris, and others like them, as some of the more progressive makers of the time. They knew that the ornament shouldn't be applied, as with Victorian furniture of the time, but that the grain and beauty of the wood was ornament enough.

Stickley would use quarter-sawn oak with a gray flake, and the straight grain made it strong and durable, and exposing the grain honored the wood's beauty. His was a very modern way of thinking about it, even as it was harkening back to Medieval-era natural stains and finishes.

Unfortunately, as industrialization spread, his design aesthetic fell to the wayside. With mechanization, people could change their furniture as quickly as their clothes: it was fashion and trend, not art and craft. There was a sudden loss of depth.

But with the force of Stickley's vision, and others like him, over time American Craftsman work has developed into an indelible part of the story of woodworking. I think of it as really modern. There's a continuum to today's modern work that starts there.

He believed in bringing the hand back to furniture, and when I began my own woodworking in the early aughts, I saw this idea have a renaissance: with sites like Etsy, and a spreading surge toward the DIY. Happily, like Stickley, I celebrate this.

Stickley wasn't allergic to technology, however. He brought in routers and planes so that the craftspeople could focus on the design, and bring attention to the material. I believe too: work should heighten the worker, not enrobe her drudgery.

A bracelet by Gustav Reyes
one of my bracelets

Consciously I have inherited Stickley's idea of marrying the modern with the material, and I think it shows in my work. I want to make designs that push the possibilities of wood design while paying homage to its grain and strength. That alchemy is what I call my art. And I thank Stickley for it.

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