If you want to sit down and talk with John Nesset about the merits of mortises or the troubles with tenons, he probably won't have much to add to the conversation. But if you want to talk about the language of furniture and producing an emotional response with your work, you will learn a lot.
We encountered John's work at a recent show in our neck of the woods: the Northern Woods 19th Annual Exhibition of Fine Woodworking here in Minnesota. The description of his piece included a reference to Jackson Pollock, and that made us sit up and take notice. Certainly a lot of artists have influenced woodworkers and their designs, but Pollock isn't usually among them.
After seeing an original Pollock at a museum, John concluded that his work was about pure emotion and language creation--things he has tried to do with his work, too. "I'm interested in making usable forms, but I'm interested in what it says about us. I think of them as artifacts of humanity," he says about his furniture.
One of the recurring themes in his furniture-but by no means the only one-is the uncertainty of life and the reality of constant change. "I don't trust things that pretend to be secure," says John. "What I do trust is the acknowledgement of uncertainty. To me, that's truth." And much of his furniture talks about the uncertainty of life in the language of wood.
He also splits (sorry about that) with Nakashima's ideas about wooden furniture, in particular the idea that the soul of the tree speaks through the piece and the artist melts into the woodwork. John counters that most of his work, when he's being honest with himself, is really deforming a tree for his own purposes. In making furniture, he says, "you've really dismantled the tree in a very brutal way and reassembled it for purposes that have nothing to do with the tree."
That's why John titled his latest piece "I am Nature" after a Jackson Pollock quote. He feels that he and what he can imagine are as much a part of the creation of the furniture as the "natural" wood.
He got started as a woodworker early, with a grandfather who was a carpenter and a father who did some carpentry on the side. John remembers the ceremony where he got his first jack knife at age six and how he learned to carve with it. The basement was always full of tools and, since he and his friends didn't have a lot of money, they learned how to make their own toys when he was a kid. Tools became second nature to him.
Woodworking turned into artistic expression when he decided to make an early American cradle for his 10-year-old daughter's dolls. He went and got some pine for the project and started cutting and assembling. That's when he noticed that two pieces of the lumber had matching grain patterns that indicated they were cut from the same log and were right next to each other. "It occurred to me when I was making this piece that the grain pattern could actually be part of the actual conception."
As John began to incorporate the grain patterns into his designs, he ran across a book by Krenov at a neighbor's house. That really resonated with him and he studied it closely. Then he began to realize that many of the tools he used when he was a kid were becoming available again, and he avidly took to doing his woodworking with hand tools.
There have been times when he has considered doing more production work and using power tools, but he's always decided against it in the end. Getting more done isn't as important to John as making sure his work speaks clearly about his artistic vision.
His latest piece, a bench he did for The Phipps Center for the Arts in Hudson, WI, won acclaim at the show. That project, he says, is his best to date, capturing a bold, joyous, defiant statement with just a touch of humor. And benches are one of his favorite subjects because, says John, "they're very expressive because they are so social."
His next piece will be a dining room table-another very social piece of furniture-and he's working hard to get ready for two solo exhibitions in the upcoming year.
John Nesset: Artist's Statement
Here's John's Artist Statement if you'd like to find out what he thinks about woodworking in his own words.
"Any piece of furniture is an artifact of a time, of a culture, of a maker. But furniture forms and woodworking are common to all of human kind and for that reason I see them also as artifacts of humanity, defining the who, what and where of us, maintaining our directions, speaking to our hopes, our aspirations, our fears, our delusions, delineating our boundaries. The driving rationale of my work is to reach beyond personal issues and the specific, transient issues of an era, of a group, of a belief system, of a method, and investigate in these literal forms those issues common to all of us.
"The method is to impart changes into the forms away from the expected in an often organic treatment of the wood that relies primarily on hand tools and ancient, time-tested technologies. It is critical, however, that the pieces, which have purposes indivisible from the goings on of daily life, maintain faithful ground in an essential and obvious usability to express our connection with all things and with each other not merely as spectators but also as participants. The wood is important: from the evolution of our ancestors in treetops onward, it is central to the rise of humanity. The hand tools are important because the work of the hands in combination with human ingenuity has made us, for better or worse, the dominant species on earth. Together they speak of our mooring in antiquity and of our essential oneness."