In preparation for the upcoming Virtual Artober Art Walk coming up this Friday (October 2), I had a chance to sit down with our featured artist and a great friend to us here at the gallery- none other than John Warnock!
John's work is truly a staple here at the gallery and we're proud to showcase it year round. Visitors to Ketchikan and residents alike admire his impeccable craftsmanship when they visit the gallery.
There is nothing quite like the experience of picking up one of John's wooden bowls- running your fingers along the smooth surface is an anomaly.
Mentally you know that this material should be rough. And you certainly wouldn't be wrong to expect it to be. It is wood, after all, and no one wants the dreaded splinter! But lucky for us- John gets the splinters for us! By the time he is finished, what remains is as smooth as a marble countertop, perhaps, or even a fresh stick of butter. No surface of the wood is left without consideration.
John's work is truly amazing- his craftsmanship unmatched and his precision surgical.
But what I wanted to know when I talked to him was why woodworking? And why Ketchikan? How did he end up here in Alaska as a woodworker?
An important distinction before we get to any of that is the difference between a "wood carver" and a "wood turner." John points out that a wood carver uses tools to carve and shape wood by hand. Conversely, as a wood turner, he uses a lathe. A lathe is a machine that rotates a piece of wood (or sometimes in John's case, multiple pieces of wood joined together) super fast.
While the wood is spinning super fast, the woodturner uses various tools to shape it. The result, if done correctly, is a perfectly symmetrical form.
So how exactly did a surfer from San Diego who lived on a sailboat end up as a wood turner in Alaska? John credits his earliest interest in woodworking to his middle school woodshop teacher. He quickly learned that he had a knack for the fine detail work that came with woodworking. Not only did he have a knack for it, but he even enjoyed it. Eventually this talent would lead him to a career in the aviation industry as a metal fitter.
Living on a sailboat was obviously limiting to creative woodworking pursuits (unsurprisingly, the picture of John's lathe above was NOT taken on a sailboat). So it wasn't until he relocated to Ketchikan that he really TURNED into a woodworker- get it? Turned? As in woodturning? *Pause for laughter...and resume reading*
In 2004, John visited Ketchikan on vacation, and in a tale that is not uncommon to hear, he decided after visiting that he wanted to move here.
When he returned to San Diego he started searching for homes in Ketchikan. The next year in 2005, he purchased a home and packed up his car to drive to Alaska.
For those of you who live in Ketchikan or have visited Ketchikan, you may recall that we are, in fact, on an island, and that one cannot simply drive here. At least not without first driving onto a ferry. A delightful 36 hour ferry ride from Bellingham, Washington, to be more specific. You may be asking, "Gee, what would one possibly do to keep themselves busy on a 36 hour boat ride?" If you are John Warnock circa 2005, you would purchase a book to read. And that book would be called "Basic Woodturning."
Freshly retired and looking for a new pastime, John thought he would reacquaint himself with woodworking and used the ferry ride to get started. He didn't have to get very far into the book to realize that he was well beyond "basic."
He knew he could do this and do it really well. So when he arrived in Ketchikan and got settled into his new house, he ordered a lathe, and the rest is history. It wasn't long before he was showing his work in galleries in Ketchikan. 15 years later, and his work has only gotten better.
John thrives on new challenges and is always trying to test his skills. He describes how he'll be laying in bed at night and all of a sudden have an idea like, "I wonder if I can do that?" The next day he heads to his workshop and tries it.
Sometimes it turns out exactly as he imagined it would. Other times it evolves and takes on a completely new form. And other times it just doesn't work. It's all part of the craft.
Each piece is completely different depending on the type of wood he's using, the shape of the piece, whether the wood has knots, etc. John evoked the spirit of Forest Gump when he told me, "Woodturning is like a box of chocolates..."
As he turns a piece on the lathe, it's like unpeeling layers of an onion. The unique character of the wood starts to reveal itself gradually. Though often times he uncovers beautiful aspects of the wood, there is also inherent risk in woodturning. You really do never know what you're gonna get. John describes how unseen cracks in the wood can cause the whole block to come off the lathe and hurl toward whatever is in its trajectory. Sometimes it's the ceiling- he refers to a dent in his ceiling from a rogue piece of wood. And sometimes it's him. Even if you're doing everything right and wearing all your safety gear, sometimes you're just gonna get hit with a really fast moving piece of wood.
Thankfully instances like this are the exception, and overall John doesn't feel that woodturning is unsafe as long as you know what you're doing. He offers up some wisdom that has come from his many years of woodturning:
Always wear safety goggles, don't turn the wood faster than you need to, and "If you hear a weird sound- stop."
A resourceful craftsman, John uses a wide variety of woods depending on what he has access to. As you browse his pieces either at the gallery in person or here on our website, you will notice how many different types of wood he uses. Some woods are local such as alder, cedar, and spruce. Others come from various sources. His daughter who lives in Hawaii supplies him with Hawaiian woods such as milo, koa, and monkey pod. He occasionally gets pecan from a collector of his work in Louisiana. Other exotic specialty woods come from suppliers in Seattle. Others are salvaged from people doing renovation projects.
Though he is well-versed in a myriad of woods, he does have his favorites. John pointed out monkey pod, a hardwood he sources from Hawaii, as one of them. Though he says the dense wood is very hard on his tools, he loves the actual trees themselves along with the interesting grain of the wood.
He also mentions cherry as likely his number one favorite wood to work with citing the great color and grain. He also describes it as "very stable" and nice to work with compared to alder, for example, which he said cracks often and is more difficult to work with. Another favorite of his is figured maple. To paraphrase John, a "figured" grain happens when a tree is in a windy location and the wood is constantly bending and flexing with the wind resulting in a wavy, almost holographic looking grain.
Another favorite of John's is a wood that I wasn't familiar with until seeing his work- purple heart. The South American hardwood is a rich purple color that he uses to make stunning segmented bowls. It also produces purple sawdust that looks like magical fairy dust. As you probably guessed, that last part came from me, not John.
In the piece above along with several others, you'll see a technique known as "segmenting." It's an advanced woodworking technique where instead of just one solid piece of wood, the turner will join together segments from smaller pieces of wood and turn them together to create a geometrical masterpiece. As you may imagine, this is a ton of work. In this piece, for example, John says he segmented over 300 pieces of poplar.
An even more advanced take on the segmented pieces is what he describes as an "open segmented" technique. In this bowl, made with maple and bloodwood, he remembers somewhere along the lines of 198 holes. Now that's one holey bowl!
We are so excited and proud to showcase John's work not only for Artober but also every day! If you're in Ketchikan, we invite you to stop in the gallery and admire his work in person. There truly is nothing like handling them in person to really get a FEEL for them. (See what I did there?)
If you're not in Ketchikan, worry not! We also have John's work available on our website and update it regularly with the newest pieces. You can find it here!
And don't forget that starting Friday 10/2 through Sunday 10/4, you'll be able to snag John's pieces for 10% off! The gallery will be open our regular hours 10-5PM on Friday and Saturday and as always, open 24/7 online!
Thanks so much for reading and we hope that you've gained some wood-spiration, if you will, from learning a bit more about John and his lovely woodturnings. Feel free to let us know if you have any questions or comments about John's work!
Maria at Scanlon's