Jon Brooks – Wood, Whimsy and Re-birth
A man who carved a career out of wood now rises from the ashes of disaster with an important show of his work, beginning this month at the Currier Museum of Art.When a fire destroyed New Hampshire native Jon Brooks’ studio last winter, it robbed him of his tools, many of his works of art and, for a few desperate moments, his sense of purpose. Now the artist’s first museum retrospective this month looks back on his long career and highlights his courageous comeback.Just over a year ago, on a snowy night in mid-January, Jon Brooks finished putting the last coat of paint on a piece for a new client, but before he left it to dry overnight he shut off his air compressor and turned down the wood stove. The New Boston-based wood sculptor and art furniture maker’s workspace was basically a tinderbox and a fire was his darkest fear. He checked both safety measures again and trudged through fresh snow up the hill to his home just a few hundred yards away.In the middle of that night his wife Jami woke up to a strange noise that Brooks soon realized was the sound of double-paned windows exploding. They looked down from their loft and the living room was bathed in an orange glow. By the time Brooks got to a window and saw the huge fire all that was left of his studio was its charred frame.”I knew it was gone, and I just lost it,” he remembers. Brooks was outside when fire trucks arrived from four surrounding towns. “I was out of control, this mad guy in a field beating the ground and screaming at the top of my lungs, no, no don’t take this away from me!”Investigators believe the fire started when electrical wires snapped off the side of the studio under the weight of new snow, spraying sparks onto the building’s hand-made wooden shingles. Volunteer firemen saved part of a small shed but Brooks lost everything else – his studio, an adjacent guesthouse and all of their uninsured contents.The flames devoured 20 finished pieces of his art, including four that were selected for the first-ever museum retrospective exhibition of Brooks’ work. That show opens this month and runs through mid-June at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, a major milestone in his career of more than 40 years and a sort of celebration of his comeback from unimaginable tragedy.He Gets ItJon Brooks knew from childhood that he wanted to be an artist. He confesses that he lost his way for a while when he was a teenager, but a few years later he was a student in the School for American Craftsmen at the Rochester Institute of Technology and he stood out to one of his teachers from the start.”It’s pretty easy to see who’s going to make it and who’s not,” says Wendell Castle, a well-known, award-winning sculptor who taught Brooks in RIT’s woodworking and furniture design program. Castle remembers that the young artist could already envision his work in three dimensions. “That was something I recognized right off that made him different. There are people who see a front view, a side view and a top view, but they can’t put those all together in their mind and see a full 3-D object. I don’t know how you’d ever teach somebody that. You either have it or you don’t, and he was very good at that.”Brooks became Castle’s first-ever studio assistant and he stayed on in that position through his undergraduate studies until he earned his masters in fine arts in wood furniture design and sculpture. “It wasn’t until he had more freedom towards the end of his schooling that he began to find his own way – carving from logs, tree stumps and branches – which wasn’t very common at that time. Hardly anyone was doing that,” says Castle. “I thought he went in a great direction, which is the most important thing, to find something that’s yours, then stay with it.”Despite having discovered his niche so early in his career, after graduation in 1967 Brooks relocated to California and tried getting a day job, but he wasn’t happy working for someone else and says he didn’t last long in the position. Brooks soon moved back to his native New Hampshire to put down some roots. During the past 20 years he designed and built his studio here and at the time of the fire he was in the process of expanding it.The building, like his nearby home, looked like a cross between the dwelling of one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbits and something out of a children’s book by Dr. Seuss. It had panache and patina, with walls full of colorful photos and inspirational aphorisms, and shelf after shelf full of rare, expensive tools. “Everything in there was incredibly personal, oriented towards me and the way I do things.”Brooks is known among his colleagues and collectors for his first-rate technique. “The craftsmanship it takes to create what Jon does is extraordinary,” says David Lamb, a friend and furniture builder who specializes in the Shaker tradition and is New Hampshire’s current Artist Laureate. “He does things that kind of baffle you. You’re not aware of the joinery involved and the way things are fitting together. It’s just not as apparent as if you’re looking at an 18th-century set of drawers and you see the dovetails and moldings.”Brooks collects much of the wood for his art from his own land, 188 acres that he explores some part of nearly every day. “My work is informed by my love of the forest, my desire to work directly with things I’ve found versus going to the lumberyard.” On his long walks he harvests maple, beech, pine and birch with exquisite grain, and collects bunches of knobby, squiggly stems and branches that might become the arms and legs of his furniture pieces. “A lot of what I do is collaborate with nature by cooperating with chaos,” Brooks says in an artist’s statement on his website. “I enjoy making furniture and sculpture that you can dance with, that is participatory, playful and suggestive. Function is often a chosen limitation.”As a result his art is often described as whimsical, even eccentric. “I view his design work as aboriginal, and I say that with total respect,” says Lamb. “He’s a very grounded person. He feels totally in touch with the earth and his medium. It comes from a very deep level, what he does, and probably very few people understand it as intimately as he’s trying to express it.”Brooks studied actual aboriginal art during a teaching stint in Australia at the University of Tasmania, a formative experience that he says had a profound and lasting influence on his work. Throughout his career Brooks has taught, lectured or completed residencies at several universities and other institutions around the United States and abroad.After the fire he got postal deliveries from all of those places and then some heavy boxes full of drill bits, clamps, a shipwright’s draw knife and chisel tools and accoutrêments of his trade sent by friends, former students and strangers who wanted to help him replace some of what he lost and get back to work. “It brought me to the realization that I’ve got a big audience out there,” Brooks says. “I didn’t realize how big it was and how much all those people want to see me continue working.”His long comeback process started the morning after the fire as he began to clear the charred remains of his studio and sift through the ashes for anything that could be salvaged. As he worked, his shock wore off and he faced the reality of his situation. “If I don’t pull myself out of this, I realized, I could go down. This is a great opportunity for the ship to go down.”But right away people started showing up to help. Neighbors stopped by with condolences and casseroles. His brother, a post-and-beam builder, immediately drew up plans for a temporary studio and the New Hampshire Furniture Masters Association (Brooks is a founding member) organized a benefit concert to raise money for the project.Within a week checks started coming in the mail, some generous donations from foundations and patrons, and other more modest amounts from people who gave whatever they could. Someone from the nearby town of Milford sent a wrinkly $5 bill, saying he’d heard about Brooks’ loss and “just wanted to help.” Another stranger donated his late father’s woodworking tools, and a man in town who had sharpening equipment offered Brooks his services any time, no charge.”The local plumber came by, electricians, they got involved in the rebuilding, and come time for a bill it never showed up,” Brooks says. “I’ve got a lot of gratitude for all that has come my way as a result of this huge loss.”Just one month and two days after the fire, Brooks had a new studio. Dozens of friends and neighbors helped build it over the course of a weekend in the old barn-raising tradition. The charismatic structure stands out in a rural area of New Boston that’s otherwise dotted with traditional New England farmsteads and saltbox homes. It’s a pert, square building with purple trim around the roof, windows built askew in bright yellow frames and siding of fresh unfinished shingles. It was erected on the site of the old studio just a few feet away from the charred shed that survived the fire.Inside the workspace, white walls rise 18 feet to a slanted ceiling and several high windows let in more light than Brooks is used to, though he says that’s growing on him. Near his workbench there are a few photographs on the wall, along with a handmade construction paper card with a poem inside about loss, hope and renewal that a local sixth grade student wrote for him.Brooks has been working in his new space since early last summer and he says he’s still just shy of his pre-fire productivity. The studio was supposed to be a temporary building but over the past few months he’s come to like it so much that he’s fairly certain he’ll keep it for good – one of the ways the fire has allowed him to reinvent himself a little.The Exhibition”Jon is one of the most important contemporary artists who calls New Hampshire home,” says Andrew Spahr, the director of collections and exhibitions at the Currier Museum of Art. It was Spahr’s suggestion in 2009 that his institution feature Brooks in a retrospective. “There was immediate agreement that the work was fabulous, his reputation warranted it and it was the perfect time to take a look back at his career.”Brooks already has some work on display in the Currier and other museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Queen Victoria Museum in Tasmania, Australia, but this will be the first time that pieces from throughout his career will be shown to the public together. “It’s an opportunity to go back and borrow things from private collections and other institutions, in this case over several decades, so you can show a full representation of the artist’s aesthetic output,” says Spahr.The exhibition includes three pieces that Brooks made during the past year. He channeled some of his grief into his art but says he did most of his healing during long walks through his old growth forests. In his new studio he has an electric heater he can shut off, instead of a wood stove, and one of the first things he did after the fire was bury the electrical lines leading to the building.He still has trouble sleeping sometimes around the time of night when the blaze broke out, but otherwise he feels like his life is almost back to normal. “I make stuff, I try to find homes for it,” he says. “I’ve been fortunate that I’ve got people that care about me and like my work. Right at the time when you feel, how am I going to pay the taxes this year, the phone rings.” NHJon Brooks RetrospectiveOne of the newest pieces in this month’s retrospective exhibition of Jon Brooks’ work at the Currier Museum of Art is titled “Morning After the Fire” (pictured above). He created the sculpture during a residency he was offered at Purchase College in New York two months after his studio was destroyed. “It represented the first time since the devastation where I was able to concentrate solely on my artwork,” says Brooks.During the short residency Brooks carved the main part of the piece – its long, spiral form – from a single pine log using only a chainsaw. He says it had been years since he worked in this subtractive way, removing portions of wood in his art as opposed to techniques he’s better known for, such as complex joinery and his use of colorful paint.”Morning After the Fire” also marks the first time in his career that Brooks used flame to give his work a charred look. “My work is allegory, just telling my story, and I had a fire so there is that influence,” he says. “Before it was same ol’, I’ve got this studio with all its tools and suddenly it’s been snatched away from me. This represents healing, I guess, personal healing I needed to go through.”March 19 through June 12, 2011A Collaboration with Nature will include more than 30 of Brooks’ key pieces from the late 1960s to the present, borrowed from both private and public collections.The Currier owns four works by Brooks, and his furniture is in major museum collections including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Art and Design, N.Y.The Currier Museum of Art is located at 150 Ash St. in Manchester, Museum hours are Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.. Closed Tuesday. Open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. the first Thursday of each month. Museum admission: adults $10, seniors $9, students $8 and children under 18 free. Free to all on Saturdays from 10 a.m. -12 p.m.