August 17, 2006
by KATHERINE ALMY
John McAbery lives in a rustic cabin that he built himself on the Lost Coast, with no electricity and no phone. His life is simple, but his work is complex — inspired by the wild beaches he spends much of his time on. His first piece was a spoon carved from a piece of driftwood mahogany. He kept working on spoons, refining the process until they were so thin you could see light through them. The degree of thinness he could render intrigued him, and his sculptures today are characterized by thin, curved forms, flowing like ribbons in the wind.
When I heard about McAbery and his sculpture exhibit at the Morris Graves Museum, I was as intrigued with his lifestyle as I was with his work. After talking with him, it seems to me that his work is dependent on his environment; without the solitude, the one-room cabin and the ocean, there wouldn't be any sculpture.
Left: 'Centuri,' wood sculpture by John McAbery.
My husband is a woodworker and when he wants to bend a piece of wood, he might glue very thin laminations in a curved clamping jig, or steam a thin piece. But one look at McAbery's work and you will see they are far too complicated for that. His sculptures instead start out as 100-pound blocks of wood and, using keyhole saws, gouges and rasps (no power tools — remember he doesn't have electricity), he reduces the blocks to works so delicate they shiver from the vibrations of a footstep on the floor.
Some of his pieces are abstract formations of ribbon, others are gestural: describing a human figure and an egret. Renderings of bits of seaweed or shells are more representational. All of the pieces are light and airy, meticulously carved, sanded and polished until they glow.
There's something I like about talking to artists who don't think of themselves as artists. In a 2005 article in Woodcraft magazine, McAbery is quoted as saying, "Because I'm not a natural artist, I tend to find things that inspire me." That leads me to wonder just what a "natural" artist might be and where her or his inspiration comes from. Do people think that true artists are inspired only by the mystical goings on of their own fevered brains? My own definition of art includes (but is not limited to) the human response to personal experience — making John's work, inspired by a ribbon, a bit of seaweed or a shell that he finds, about as natural as you can get.
It may be that McAbery doesn't think of himself as an artist because he has no formal training in art. He didn't come to his artwork until later in life, after his kids were grown and on their own and he had the luxury of time on his hands. Many people faced with the kind of time one has living alone in an isolated cabin might get a little crazy — I'm not sure, but I may be one of those people. But the solitude doesn't bother John. He says he always has something to do around his property and the carving takes up most of his time. He says he feels fortunate that he has the opportunity to be an artist, but I don't think it was just luck. He actively created his opportunity, and he manages the drawbacks that many of us couldn't. It's a good reminder that initiative and dedication might be more important than formal training.
John doesn't shun technology; he just chooses it very carefully. With the help of his partner, Gretchen (who lives in Petrolia — the big city — and has electricity), he maintains a very nice website (www.johnmcaberywoodsculptures.com) where you can view much of his work, see how he does it and where he lives. But don't let that substitute for seeing the show. Being up close to it is the only way to really appreciate the work. The Morris Graves Museum is located at 636 F Street in Eureka and is open Wednesday through Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
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