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Whispering to the Wood, a talk with Greg Klassen

It’s not always easy to have the pleasure to meet a real craftsman, someone so talented that is able to transform the material into unexpected solutions.
This is the case of Greg Klassen, a craftsman specialized in treating the wood, i would say an artist. The first time that i saw one of his works i didn’t quite understand if was a real or something manipulated with the computer.
Greg Klassen is able to take a piece of wood and transform it into a river…
Can you recall how and when you started to work as a craftsman?
– I stumbled into my craft.  I was working as a forklift driver while finishing up my theology degree in college.  My job was to recycle wood and I ended up taking some of the wood home and making furniture with it.  I didn’t know what I was doing, but my new wife and I needed furniture so I made it.  I fell in love with making my ideas in wood.  I filled our house up with my own furniture.
What would you say are your main influences when conceiving a piece of work? 
– I used to be highly influenced by other contemporary makers, when I was making more typical studio furniture.  Nowadays I look to the material itself for inspiration.  I try to marry function and natural beauty.  Cracks, holes, and textures in the wood become the voice that shapes the design.  I listen to the wood.  Not in a literal sense, but I let the material lead and inspire.
You are one man, you take care about the whole process by yourself, can you tell us which are the main challenges and pleasures?
– One of the great challenges is staying true to my vision as an artist.  I cannot make things because I think they will sell – this is a poor way to approach craft.  I have to make only the things I’m excited about and I must continue to take risks in my work.  If I have a vision for a new idea, I HAVE to see it through.  I must see where it leads.  And usually I’m rewarded when I work this way.  People can sense when the artist has put himself into his work, and people want to buy into that.  They can see the joy and pleasure he had in crafting it.
Other practical challenges of my work is balancing the many hats I must wear.  I do all the designing, I do all the woodworking, I go and find all my materials to work with, I do all the marketing, I do all the emailing, I do all the bill-paying, I make all the phone calls, I pack my van and load up my van and drive to all of my shows.  And my work must bring in money because I support my wife and three little kids.  It’s not a burden; it’s a joy and a pleasure to be an designer, craftsman and artist.  It’s a challenge to make it work, but it’s a remarkable feeling when it does.  I wouldn’t replace these challenges with comfort and predictability for anything.  The challenges and joys are what have shaped me into who I am.  I am thankful.
What comes first – the materials or the design idea?
– They come together.  I find my inspiration in the materials.  The ideas come as I read the wood and see what it has to offer, see how it might shine.  And I let ideas evolve slowly.  Just this week, I pulled out an odd piece of wood that I’ve had in my studio for the last two years.  I’ve stared at it many times, pulled it out, thinking “Now I’ve got an idea”, only to put it back when I realized my idea wasn’t any good.  And just yesterday I pulled this wood out one more time and all of the sudden, I saw it!  I would deconstruct the organic cross cut piece of wood, full of odd shapes and holes and I would reconstruct it as a wall-hung art piece.  Now that I’ve had the idea, I know it’s right and I can hardly sit still.  I just want to make this piece and chase my idea into form.  It’s an exciting thing when the right idea comes.  But I think you have to have 100 bad ideas to know when you’ve had a good one.  Failures can be a big help it knowing when you’re succeeding.
Can you describe from beginning to end how a project – let’s say a river table – is made?
– 1) Inspiration strikes and have an idea for a new table design, 2) I get the raw wood and cut it down to size. At this point the wood might be warped, twisted, cracked and so on, 3) I flatten the wood and design the glass river to highlight the natural form of the wood and its live edges, 4) The glass is cut and inlaid by hand, 5) The legs are designed and made to visually/structurally support the river top, 6) Many hours of carefully removing the loose bark from the edges and sanding the top until it’s a finally finished surface, 7) Finally, a clear protective finish is applied to the wood by hand.
You work with wood, can you share with us the characteristics that you love the most, about this materials?
– Wood is a living thing.  Even after a tree is cut down, the wood shrinks and expands with the seasons.  And no two slabs of wood are ever the same.  They are as unique as you and I are.  I love to find what’s unique about each piece of wood and to highlight it.  It might be a hole or a crack or a beautiful natural bark-edge.  I feel a responsibility not to show what I can do to the wood by manipulating it in some way, but instead to show how beautiful the wood is.  I see myself in the material.  I have unique qualities and characteristics as a person and when those things are highlighted and encouraged, I am at my best.  This is my approach to making furniture with wood.  I see what’s special in each piece of wood and I highlight it.