I have always thought of myself as a woodworker building sculptural forms, about half of which are primarily decorative, the other half functional furniture. While I respect traditional designs and use many traditional techniques, I am not interested in building reproductions. My usual approach is to design and build ‘on the fly’, trusting my intuition and using the materials on hand in my shop. My goal is to keep my work looking fresh and less ‘over-worked’. The designs show a certain balance and proportion and usually place structure at the forefront rather than hiding it.
I am intrigued with the play of light – how light can highlight a surface or slip through an opening, yet disappear when the piece is viewed from another line. I also find myself drawn by the materials used, allowing them to dictate the direction I move. I can deconstruct the frame of a table and allow the top to float – looking as if it were held down rather than held up.
My furniture designs have always pushed craft past the purely functional into a more liberated aesthetic. The purely sculptural forms move even further in this direction. If all I do is create something that piques one’s interest, causes someone to stop and appreciate the materials used and how they fit together, and to share the enjoyment I had in building it, then I feel I have succeeded.
Making Wood Dance: The Art of John Schwartzkopf
The art of John Schwartzkopf is…art. It’s just that most people don’t think about his work that way. This is due, in part, to how John came to where he is today, through woodworking and the creation of gorgeous yet functional pieces. His benches, sideboards, cabinets, and tables—while beautiful—all have a function to fulfill. This dichotomy, between function and beauty, has colored discussions about beautiful yet functional objects throughout the twentieth century. Through the labors of many important artists in the worlds of glass, metals, ceramics, and wood, there has been a return to the concept that things that are useful can also be beautiful.
John has always adhered to this concept. In fact, his benches are sometimes so beautiful that people are not sure if they are allowed to sit on them.
John has taken his origins in functional art and used them to explore the world of non-functional sculptural art. Here, in discrete three-dimensional works, John has created works which are a natural extension of his functional objects. They retain the same sense of beauty, grace, balance, and compositional harmony that one finds in all great works of art. At the same time, they are a reflection of the artist. Anyone who knows John knows that he is inextricably linked to his creations. The work reflects John and John is clearly in his work. The two are one.
Part of the reason John is at one with his work is that he listens to his materials and they tell him what he needs to know—all he needs to know. In his studio—his shop as he calls it—he lives with the materials and, over time, they reveal themselves to him. As a wood artist, he needs to listen carefully to his material. Wood, unlike other materials, is still alive. It moves, changes, expands and contracts even after the artist has finished his creation. John understands this. He works with the material, not against it. He does what it tells him, not the other way around.
But it’s not just wood. John combines natural wood with manmade materials such as PaperStone, Environ, Synskin, and aluminum to create a collage or assemblage of the natural and the fabricated. Ultimately, that’s what John is—a collage artist. In the process of creation, John seeks out a perfect harmony between the natural and the manmade—obtaining a delicate balance so that one does not overwhelm the other. In the end, he is satisfied when a graceful relationship is established.
Gracefulness is the underlying quality in all John’s work. Whether it is the graceful edge of a piece of wood, or the undulating wood grains within it, or the poetic balance between forms and materials, the result is always a piece that is harmonious. The tension he creates between the linear and the organic, with his use of arcing forms, results in a certain sense of motion. This may be why several works possess titles that bespeak of motion: tango, dance, rapids, rhythm. It’s there. The works are not static—they are moving. Or about to spring into action.
This tension is achieved through a sensitive approach to the form. His work reflects a more minimal sensibility, and possesses all the elegance and formality that comes with that. Such elegant simplicity is reminiscent of earlier artists such as Agnes Martin and Barbara Hepworth, with whom he is a kindred spirit. Also at play is his awareness of Asian culture, especially Asian aesthetics. While this is visible in his resultant works, it can also be found in his use of bamboo and titles referencing pagodas and the samurai. More than anything, the formal elegance of his work bespeaks his Asian inspirations.
At the very root of all of his work is his incredible reverence and respect of nature. Not only is his work largely created out of an element of nature—wood—but natural forces are seen in many of his works. Earth, wind, sky, waves, and the prairie are all at play in this work, and many of his titles reflect those influences. John is keenly attuned to the motions and rhythms of nature and they are ultimately the foundation of all he creates.
Although John might not call himself a great artist—modesty would prevent him—he does create great art. Whether investigating ways to reveal nature’s bounty in his functional benches, tables, and sideboards, or the forces of nature in his minimal, elegant, and graceful three-dimensional pieces, John is always true to himself which means he is also true to his muse, nature.
Sean M. Ulmer
Cedar Rapids Museum of Art