Open to the Sky and Spaces
J.B. Blunk was a pioneer of chainsaw-driven sculpture and although he worked across several mediums including clay, cast bronze, carved stone, painting and jewelry, he achieved his primary success as a woodworker. His work emerged from a counter-culture defined by a distance between where artists lived and the centers of society. The woods surrounding Blunk’s home and the materials he worked with defined his premise that art and nature should be inseparable.
The composition and scale of his creations rely heavily on the inherent characteristics of the natural material he sourced and worked with. Blunk ignored the traditional separation of furniture and sculpture and the issue of art status was irrelevant; he worked without a conception of such fixed categories. His attitude towards these classifications is reminiscent of the Japanese indifference towards the distinction between art and craft.
And this is no coincidence, as Blunk’s career began in Japan. After graduating from UCLA, where he had studied ceramics with Laura Andreson, he was drafted into the Korean War which enabled leave visits to Japan. There he hoped to meet the renowned Japanese potter, Shoji Hamada whose work he had first seen in an exhibit at UCLA. In 1952, he was rewarded with a chance encounter at a mingei (folk craft) shop with Isamu Noguchi, the prominent sculptor. On hearing of his interests, Noguchi introduced him to the famed potter Rosanjin Kitaoji, who took on Blunk as an apprentice for several months. From there, he went on to work for eighteen months in the ceramic studio of another National Treasure, Toyo Kaneshige, in Bizen. By the time he returned to California in 1954, he was thoroughly steeped in the Japanese stoneware tradition.
Noguchi and Blunk remained friends until Noguchi’s death in 1988. Over the course of several decades, the two artists exchanged letters and visited each other’s homes and studios. For an exhibition of Blunk’s work in 1981, Noguchi aptly described the artist’s creative process: “I like to think that the courage and independence J.B. has shown is typically Californian, or at least Western, with a continent between to be free from the categories that are called art. Here the links seem to me more to the open sky and spaces, and the far reaches of time from where comes the burled stumps of those great trees.”
Blunk’s deep commitment to the physical process of making and to how that process might guide the final outcome is evident in both his large-scale wood sculptures and furniture. He extracted from the material until a satisfying form was realized. Working primarily with his hands, imperfections such as wood burl or rocks were acknowledged and would often dictate the composition and character of the final piece.
I began making wood sculpture in 1962. I knew how to use a chainsaw and it was one of those things—one day you just start.