One Medium to AnotherJB Blunk, A Monograph
Blunk’s home and studio became what many consider to be his masterwork, reflecting his reverence for ancient art and place, and the synergy between his art practice and lifestyle.
In 1955, the artist JB Blunk (1926-2002) was introduced to the surrealist painter Gordon Onslow Ford by their mutual friend Isamu Noguchi. The two artists bonded over their shared interest in Japanese aesthetics, especially the collections of haiku poetry compiled by R.H. Blyth in 1950. Blunk had recently returned to northern California from his 14-month apprenticeship in Inbe under Toyo Kaneshige, one of Japan’s first Living National Treasures, and a master of Bizen ware – an unglazed, woodfired stoneware. Blunk, who arrived at Kaneshige’s house unannounced two years previously, was perhaps the first American to gain such a deep understanding of this tradition.
The same year he met Blunk, Onslow Ford bought land on a wooded rise near Inverness, California, overlooking Point Reyes National Seashore, on a small peninsula to the north of San Francisco. He engaged Blunk to help him build his home there, and upon its completion three years later, invited Blunk and his wife, Nancy Waite, to choose a plot on the ridge for their own home. Hand-built over the course of the next three years, and gradually expanded over the ensuing decades, Blunk’s home and studio became what many consider to be his masterwork, reflecting his reverence for ancient art and place, and the synergy between his art practice and lifestyle. Salvaged materials from nearby beaches, forests and scrapyards combine in a series of functional solutions that constitute artworks in their own right: a scrap wall assembled from a geometric puzzle of irregular pieces of wood; a kitchen table, designed by Waite, from a vast piece of Bishop pine, and in the outlying bathroom, a curving sink, hewn by Blunk from a single piece of cypress.
Spanning the mediums of ceramics, sculpture, jewellery-making, painting, and furniture design, much of Blunk’s prodigious output was created here, in his Inverness home and studio, where he lived and worked until his death in 2002. The surrounding forests and coastlines were instrumental to his ongoing use of salvaged wood, especially the immense, gnarled burls of redwood found on the shores of Mendocino County, which, under his hands, became wonderfully organic, abstract sculptures. Reproduced in a new monograph of Blunk’s work, published in May 2020, a statement written by Isamu Noguchi praises Blunk’s connection with, ‘the open sky and spaces, and the far reaches of time from where comes the burled stumps of those great trees. JB does them honour in carving them as he does … waking them from their long sleep to become part of our own life and times, sharing with us the afterglow of a land that was once here.’
Writing in the new monograph, Mariah Nielson – JB Blunk’s daughter with his second wife, Christine Nielson – describes the house she grew up in as, ‘a living sculpture, a masterpiece, a home,’ and a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk, in that JB and his first wife, Nancy Waite, made every single thing – from the doors to the furniture to the ceramic tableware.’ Nielson edited the monograph alongside graphic designer Kajsa Stahl of design collective Åbäke, and currently serves as director of the JB Blunk Estate; she is also a curator, design historian, and cofounder of the design brand Permanent Collection. “My feelings for the home have shifted from delight, as a child, to embarrassment as a teenager, and now, as an adult, back to delight,” she says. “I’m so grateful to have been raised in such a distinct environment. It has informed much of my work, and I have so much respect for my father’s courage and creativity.”
Her journey to becoming director of the estate was a gradual and natural one. “When my father died in 2002, I was in the midst of architecture school,” says Nielson. “After graduating, I worked as an architect, and on the weekends my boyfriend and I used to drive up to the house in Inverness. He was an artist himself and encouraged me to renovate the home. We started clearing out my father’s studio, which led me onto the task of organising his archive. My father didn’t have a system in place for his many photographs, documents and slides, so I established a cataloguing system, and scanned each piece of ephemera until the entire archive was digitised. This will probably be a lifelong project as we continue to track down and discover more artworks.”
Among her ongoing curatorial work for the estate, Nielson founded the JB Blunk Residency in 2007, in collaboration with the Lucid Art Foundation. “The residency hosted 22 artists, who in turn came to live and work in the home and studio,” she says. “We ended the programme in 2011 when I moved to London, and at that time, Rick Yoshimoto – a long-term collaborator, assistant and friend of my father’s – came to work in the studio. When Rick moved to New Mexico, we invited his son, Ido, to take over the workshop. I still spend half the year in the home, and my husband, Max Frommeld, and Ido, continue to work in the studio.”
The idea to create the first comprehensive publication of Blunk’s work came about six years ago, Nielson explains, when she was reviewing the newly digitised archive. “My father was an independent and resourceful artist, and I wanted the book’s content to reflect that,” she says. “We commissioned formal essays, short statements, and an intimate interview with Rick Yoshimoto. There is also one with JB himself from the 1970s. Almost all of the book’s visual content is from my father’s archive. I hope after reading the book, people will appreciate the diversity and fluidity of my father’s creative process and lifestyle. In one day, he might carve a sculpture, work on a painting, make ceramics and even finish a pair of earrings for my mother. It’s my hope that a reader will begin to see how these techniques and motifs translate from one medium to another.”