BY TERRY MARTIN
Despite the notion that the woodworking life is very romantic, full of sweet-smelling plane shavings in a peaceful workshop, for many the reality is dusty, noisy and sometimes tedious work. Yet many of us became woodworkers in pursuit of an idealized lifestyle. When I recently visited Grant Vaughan, I was impressed to see just how close he has come to the kind of life many dream of.
To reach Grant’s home I travelled along back roads through peaceful green valleys in the northern border country of New South Wales, Australia. The roads became narrower and steeper as I reached Grant’s valley. Just before the turning to Grant’s house I discovered Rock Valley Post Office, the smallest in the Southern Hemisphere (1). I stopped to talk to the volunteer Postmaster, Ian, who told me the valley is populated by a mix of traditional farmers and relative newcomers who came in pursuit of an alternative lifestyle. Ian used to be a fireman in Sydney; now he grows native limes in the next valley over. I mentioned Grant’s name and Ian looked at me with increased interest. “Grant’s famous around here,” he told me.
I first became aware of Grant’s work in the late 80s when the Sydney Opera House hosted a landmark exhibition of work by members of the New South Wales Woodworkers Guild. It was the first time woodwork had been shown in that prestigious venue, and it raised the public profile of many of the exhibitors. Grant showed a bowl of carved Red Cedar (4). The piece was completely different from the turned wooden bowls that were flooding the Australian market at the time, and I remember thinking that I’d like to meet the artist. Twenty years later I finally did.
Grant’s house is hidden in subtropical rainforest at the end of a long, rough driveway that meanders across green fields. I emerged into a large clearing between his workshop and the house and Grant came out onto the wide veranda of his workshop (2) to greet me. We settled in the shade with a cold drink. The valley echoed with bird-song and as the shadows lengthened, wallabies came down to eat the grass within a few yards of us (3). Grant’s life is in many ways a typically Australian story: “I was born in the country in 1954. We lived in different towns and I had a lot of experiences that prepared me for life here. When I finished high school I did a year of engineering at university, but I soon decided I didn’t like that. I switched to architecture and nearly finished two years, but like a lot of people at that time, I dropped out of school. In 1973 a big Aquarius Festival was held not far from here and I came up for it. Eventually I joined others who were dropping out and moving here to start a new life on the land.”
Soon Grant bought 85 acres of that land. “It was pretty bare with only a few of the original forest trees left,” he said. “The land was pretty degraded. We were talking about global warming and things like that thirty years ago! The problem was that nobody was listening, so we got tired of talking about it. I thought it would be good to let at least this bit of land go back to forest. The neighbors thought I was nuts. Even when I planted a few trees they thought I was crazy as they’d spent their lives cutting down trees. Funny, but now it’s probably worth more as forested land than when it was cattle property.”
A lot of the new arrivals didn’t know anything about living on the land, but Grant, having had some experience in the country, knew more than most. “I knew we couldn’t all grow lentils and survive on that. I always wanted to do something creative with my hands. Wood was the only accessible material, so I started experimenting. I bought a few tools and tried making coffee tables and cabinets. I didn’t realize that you have to allow for the expansion and contraction of the wood, so I glued the tops of my coffee tables to the frame with epoxy and of course they pulled themselves apart!” Gradually he mastered the tools, often by trial and error. “It was very frustrating, but I got help from a local craftsman who is a whiz with machinery. I picked it up really fast. It was simple: I asked, he showed me, and that was it.”
By the early 80s Grant had started to have success selling his furniture locally, making kitchens, dining tables and chairs. He began taking pieces to big craft shows in Sydney and soon had more orders than he could cope with. Grant started incorporating carving into his furniture to make it more interesting, and around this time he found a new direction. “I was sitting on the beach one day and thinking about carving something, so I took some clay from a headland and tried making a bowl. I remember a friend saying, ‘Grant, I like your furniture, but that looks terrible!’ I’m pleased to say that the Opera House bowl that got so much publicity was the same as that first clay bowl. I think I sold it for around $500, which doesn’t seem much now, but it was quite a lot in those days. Everybody loved it, particularly because it was so different from the huge number of turned bowls that were being made at that time. I carved it all the old-fashioned way with gouges and mallet. I thought it took too much time and I would never be able to make any money that way. I had a young child and I was the only earner in the family. So, to be practical, I started doing carved mirrors (5). I took deposits for fourteen mirrors at one show alone. In the end I got sick of them.”
In 1988, the Australian government was commissioning Australian artists to make furniture using indigenous woods for the new Federal Parliament House in Canberra. Grant’s solid reputation led to a commission for two document cases for the entrance to the Senate offices (6 and 7). They had to be sealed to control the interior environment for archival material. It was heady success, but not everybody appreciated the importance of such work, as Grant explains: “The day I delivered the tables, I was standing back looking at them with one of the architects. He was just saying how great they looked when a janitor came by with a huge ring of keys. Without even looking up from his clipboard, he threw the keys onto one of the tables and scratched the top! You’ve got to get used to what will happen to furniture in public places.”
Grant continued to get prestigious commissions from the government. On behalf of the Department of Foreign Affairs he did a wall mural 6 meters long and 2 meters high for the United Nations Conference Center in Bangkok. This led to a commission for a mirror for the Australian Prime Minister’s residence, the Lodge (8).
The mirror was not used as expected. “When it was delivered we had just had a change of prime ministers. Apparently the mirror ended up in the basement. It stayed there for the next two prime ministers’ terms and I heard nothing more about it. Recently, however, we saw an article in the newspaper about a carved mirror that had been discovered in the basement at the Lodge. Nobody seemed to know what it was, so I wrote and asked about it. I got a letter from the office of the current prime minister informing me that it is my mirror and that it is now finally hanging on the wall in the Lodge. That felt good.”
1. Postmaster Ian proudly poses in front of the Rock Valley Post Office, the smallest in the southern hemisphere.
2. Grant’s workshop, nestled among the trees that he has regrown on his previously denuded property.
3. “…as the shadows lengthened, wallabies came down to eat the grass within a few yards of us.”
Toward the end of the 1980s Grant had become so successful as a furnituremaker that he says he “could have started mechanizing and taking on employees, but I didn’t want to spend my life as a machinist pushing wood through spindle molders. On top of that we had a recession and for the first time I did shows where nothing sold.” Surviving into the 90s on sales at a few Australian galleries and commissions from clients who kept coming back over the years, he devoted much of his time and energy to maintaining a professional approach, concentrating on good photography and clear presentation, and producing owner’s manuals for the proper care of his work.
4. Bowl (1983); Australian red cedar; 7″ × 15″ × 12″; collection of Forestry Commission of NSW.
5. Carved Mirror (1983); Australian red cedar; 31″ × 21″.
6. Senate Office Entry Display Cabinets (1988); Australian red cedar and red bean; 43″ × 55″ × 31-1/4″; Parliament House, Canberra.
7. The display cabinets in place in Parliament House.
8. Carved Mirror (1992); Queensland maple; 39″ dia.; the Prime Minister’s Residence.
9. Side Table [detail] (1987); bleached silky oak; 30″ × 70″ × 20″.
10. Desk [detail] (1992).
11. “Obovoid Form” (2002); Australian white beech; 17″ × 9″; collection of Roger Ford.
12. “Gesture of Balance #2” (2002); Australian white beech; 14-1/2″ × 14-1/2″.
13. Carved Form [detail] (2001).
14. “Ovoid Form” (2004); Australian white beech; 10″ × 16″ × 11-1/2″; National Gallery of Australia.
PHOTOS 1, 3, 4, 25, 26, 27 BY TERRY MARTIN. OTHER PHOTOS BY DAVID YOUNG, EXCEPT #6 & #7 BY MATT KELSO, #5 BY NICK POUTSMA, AND #2 BY PETER DERRETT.
Grant exhibited at SOFA (Sculptural Objects and Functional Art Fair) Chicago from 1999 to 2005, showing more carved work than furniture: “I took a table one year, but it was mostly my carved bowls. Furniture is never so easy to sell because people worry if it will fit in their home. They want to go home and measure, but the show only runs for a few days—and I live in Australia. Bowls are easier. I used to take around eight pieces. I kept going till ’05 and always had success, but since then I’ve backed off because it is such hard work selling so far from home and the costs are high. I still sell through some American galleries.” He goes on to say that “I want to do it on my own terms. I don’t want to chase my tail trying to get sales, so I don’t make many pieces per year. They all sell. It seems everything I make now is already promised to somebody. Recently I started selling into China and they want more.”
When you look at Grant’s entire body of work, it is possible to see how his furniture evolved into his carved bowls. Many of the legs on his furniture had delicately carved details (9) that evolved into folded, or rather unfolding naturalistic details that brought to mind the curling leaves of his forest, or the curl of the waves that he loves to surf (10). These ideas have often been reinterpreted in his bowls that appear to unfold in an almost erotic display of a secret interior (11).
15. Carved Form [detail] (2002).
16. “Continuity” (2005); Australian red cedar; 11″ × 22″ × 11″.
17. “Split Form #2” (2006); Australian white beech; 16″ × 16″ × 5″.
18. “Split Form #3” (2006); Australian red cedar, 13-1/2″ × 25″ × 5-1/2″; Collection of Raymond Wong.
19. Enfolded Form (2004); Australian rosewood, 24-1/2″ × 8″; Madhavi – Hong Kong.
20. Enfolded Form (2004).
21. “Reflection” (2005); Australian red cedar; 14″ × 26″ × 8″; Ron & Anita Wornick Collection, Boston Museum.
22. Crescent Form (2005); Australian rosewood; 13″ × 24″ × 5″.
23. “Split Form #6” (2008); Australian red cedar; 12″ × 12″ × 7″.
24. Grant’s templates showing the meticulous measurements and holes for depth drilling.
25. Grant Vaughan in his secluded valley surrounded by the forest he has regenerated.
Grant says, “In the early 80s buyers knew they just wanted something beautiful to look at, but they felt they had to ask, ‘What do we do with it? Do we put fruit in it?’ I had to meet their expectations to some extent.” His bowls and vase-like pieces often met this need for pseudofunction, but as he says, “In my mind, they were never functional.”
His work is always sensuous, delicate and evocative in a way that placed it in the category of unique art (12). Several of his pieces are in the collections of the most prestigious museums in Australia, including the National Gallery (13 and 14)
From the start, Grant says, “I wanted to be different. I recognized early that there is no way you can mass-produce this stuff if you want to stand out from the crowd. It’s very slow with lots of hand carving and sanding. With some pieces I have really created nightmares for myself.”
Grant continued to carve ever-finer bowls, emphasizing and enhancing the inner curves that complement the outer line (15 and 16). It was a foray into the inner world of the vessel and it soon led him into previously unexplored territory: “I cut away so much that it seemed logical to separate the two halves and work on them that way.” By working on the two halves separately and then rejoining them, Grant was able to make vessels that were clearly impossible to put things in. In a word, they were sculpture (17). There is a kind of wrapped effect when you look at these vessels, as if there is a vase contained inside delicately carved wings of wood (18).
The final step, one that in retrospect seems inevitable, was to leave the two halves separate, allowing them to stand together as pure sculpture, mated by their obvious fit, almost their need to interact (19 and 20).
Grant continues to call his sculptures “bowls,” a humble word to describe pieces that evoke a sense of exploration, a discovery of secret places both hidden and yet revealed (21). Each of these pieces is the result of a lifetime of careful development of design, technique, and thoughtful interpretation of nature (22 and 23).
It would be easy to imagine that Grant works as an intuitive artist, the pieces spontaneously springing from his mind and evolving as he carves. While there is no doubt that he is inspired, he is one of the most methodical woodworkers I have met. He draws each piece in detail before he makes it and then creates plywood templates that allow him to predetermine the cuts by drilling to depths indicated on the templates (24). “Doing it this way takes a lot of planning,” he says, “but it saves time later because I can cut at speed.”
When Grant had finished showing me how he works, we went for a walk in his forest. We stopped at a few giant trees and he explained how they were the sole survivors of the original bush. Not so long ago they would have been isolated, condemned to a slow death on increasingly leached and eroded land. Now they are surrounded by new forest and will probably live for hundreds of years. Later we sat on the veranda again (25) and as the light faded the forest came to life with the sounds of frogs and night birds. Grant proudly told me how he feels about his personal contribution to nature: “I think I was an advocate for the environment before most people got involved in all this. I can remember right back at school having roaring arguments with my father about the environment and supporting the development of national parks. I’ve always loved pristine places that haven’t been ruined by mankind. Also, I’ve always been conscious of where the wood I use comes from–whether it is sustainable or not. For a long time I’ve been using salvaged timber, wood that’s been left on the forest floor. Anyway, I use so little timber that it’s insignificant.”
The next day I drove home thinking about Grant’s life. As the traffic built up, the noise increased and the city soon loomed on the horizon. I couldn’t help feeling that Grant had achieved something really amazing. He is known and respected both at home and internationally for his wood art, but I think his greatest achievement is that he hasn’t had to give up his dream. My respect for that is enormous.
Grant Vaughan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org