This article is part of issue N° 4 – The Sink

2.

The House

My Father Built

The Korean War brought artist J.B. Blunk to Japan, where he mastered the art of stoneware and woodwork, crafts reflected throughout the house he built in San Francisco. His daughter Mariah Nielson shares her fondness of the objects in her fathers house.
Text by Mariah Nielson
Photography by Daniel Dent

California-based artist J.B. Blunk created an extensive body of work in carved wood and stone, cast bronze, painting, jewellery and clay. Ignoring the traditional separation of sculpture and furniture, he worked without a conception of fixed categories, and his attitude towards these classifications suggests a Japanese disregard of the distinction between art and craft.

Coincidentally, Blunk’s career as an artist began in Japan. After graduating from UCLA, Los Angeles, where he studied ceramics with Laura Andreson, he was drafted into the Korean War, enabling him to visit Japan when he had leave. Once there, he was hoping to meet the renowned Japanese potter Shoji Hamada, whose work he had seen in an exhibition at UCLA. In 1952, he was rewarded with a chance encounter at a mingei (folk craft) shop with the acclaimed sculptor Isamu Noguchi. On hearing of his interests, Noguchi introduced him to the famed potter Rosanjin Kitaoji, who engaged Blunk as an apprentice for several months. From Kitaoji’s studio he went to Bizen for eighteen months to work in the ceramic studio of another national treasure, Toyo Kaneshige.

By the time Blunk returned to California in 1954 he was thoroughly immersed in the Japanese stoneware tradition. His commitment to the physical process of making and how that process might guide the creative outcome is evident in both his ceramics and sculpture. This holistic attitude drove Blunk’s approach to the construction of his home, which, over the course of decades of work, became his most important creation. Blunk’s home in Inverness, a small town fifty miles north of San Francisco, was built between 1957 and 1962 with materials salvaged from nearby beaches, forests and scrapyards. The house is a Gesamtkunstwerk, in that everything from the doors to the furniture and the ceramic tableware was made by the artist. In a conversation with Olivia H. Emery for her book, Gentle Revolution (1977), Blunk said: ‘I consider this whole place — house, studio, fruit trees, vegetable garden and chickens — one big sculpture.’

Cypres sink

Cypres sink

The sink, carved from a single piece of Cypress, was roughly cut with a chainsaw and finished with a chisel and sandpaper. Like the Redwood stool, my father carved deep, long grooves into the sink’s sides that resemble the surface of a racked Japanese garden. The entire sink is wood and over the years several repairs have been made in the basin as cracks would open because of the sink’s swelling and contracting, due to temperature variations of water and weather. New slivers of Cypress would be glued in place and the whole sink sealed with high-performance marine varnish. My father built small shelves to the right of the sink for storing personal care products and he drilled three holes into a beam for toothbrushes. Ceramics have been arranged around the sink over the years for jewellery, clippers and Q-tips. The sink is a functional sculpture — a hand-carved voluptuous form that serves a specific purpose.

Idos stool

Ido’s stool

Ido Yoshimoto is the son of artist Rick Yoshimoto who worked as J.B.’s assistant for over twenty-five years. Ido and I grew up together and are still extremely close and although he was always creative and curious it wasn’t until he was thirty that he fully committed to his art practice. He was deeply inspired by J.B.’s work and influenced by his natural surroundings. Ido’s work reflects an intimacy with the coastal landscape of Northern California and the archetypal and abstract forms primary to J.B.’s sculptures, ceramics and paintings. For the past seventeen years, he has applied his innate understanding of trees and wood to creating artwork that expresses his reverence for the natural material. In 2007 when I renovated our home and replaced the antique franklin fireplace we had lived with for many years Ido asked if he could salvage the fireplace legs. For my thirtieth birthday he gave me the stool made from three of the Franklin legs and an oak seat. The stool provides a place to sit while building the fire and the seat is perfectly contoured for two small buns.

Ad hoc sculpture

Ad hoc sculpture

This ad hoc assemblage combines a stone collected from the Russian River in Northern California and a wooden stool my brother Rufus brought back from Africa. By turning the stool upside down and combining the two objects, one formed in nature and one manmade, J.B. created an artwork that has lived under our ladder for the past twenty years. The effortless combination is a prime example of J.B.’s creative ease and willingness to explore the absurd.

Light pull

Light pull

Whittled from two pieces of balsa wood, this light pull is both artwork and utilitarian object. The height of the pull on the wall and its general composition suggest an artwork, not a switch you would pull to turn on a light. The erotic connotations of the curves and crevices are quintessentially J.B. and its placement next to the bed is also relevant. The balsa wood is a perfect choice for a light pull because the material is almost weightless. With one gentle tug up and then down the pull turns on the overhead light.

Wood salad bowl

Wood salad bowl

Carved from a single piece of bay wood, the salad bowl has been used since the 1970s and has developed a distinct patina — silky smooth and surprisingly durable. The bowl’s oval shape with carved handles on each side resembles a body — head on one end, feet at the other and the belly is where the salad is placed.

Upstairs door handle

Upstairs door handle

These door knobs were forged from iron wine bottle cork wrappers that J.B. collected over a fifteen-year period. He kept a basket for the discarded wrappers in the food pantry and slowly amassed enough material to make something substantial. He melted the wrappers down and pounded out the handles in his studio. The exterior knob has a flat side on the surface that allows someone with their hands full to simply lean an elbow on the angled surface of the knob and easily open the door. The interior handle is perfectly round with a finely ballpane-hammered surface that invites a solid grip. The lock and levers are made from solid brass and brass lock lives in a little slot adjacent to the interior handle.

Soy sauce pitcher

Soy sauce pitcher

J.B. made this ceramic soy sauce pitcher in 1975. It epitomizes his playful approach to ceramics by obfuscating the boundary between art and design. The handmade ceramic with a smooth glazed base, supple body, hand-pinched nozzle, navy blue glazed neck and well-worn cork stopper does not suggest an object for everyday use. First time users apprehensively handle the pitcher, afraid that one wrong move will shatter the handcrafted ceramic. But the sturdy object has been in constant use for over thirty years and is a Blunk original — a piece that embodies the humor and considerate craft of the artist’s best work.

Ceramic vessel

Ceramic vessel

J.B. made this ceramic vessel in the early 1970s. He had just returned from a trip to Peru with my mom, Christine, and produced a series of almost childlike ceramics. The chunky form and the painterly slip merge his painting and ceramic practices and include some of his signature motifs: voids and folds. The vessel currently lives in our tokonoma, a wooden recessed shelf that J.B. built to display objects and paintings. The ceramic has been used in many ways over the years — flower vase, flower pot, popcorn bowl and money stash.

Christine’s mirror

Christine’s mirror

My mom made this mirror in 1973. When she and J.B. got together he encouraged her creative interests by teaching her how to work with clay. She made the mirror while in graduate school for arts education at San Francisco State. The class she was in required the students to developed projects that demonstrated their artistic skills. After proving her creative abilities with a Niçoise salad, she decided to challenge herself and work with clay. The mirror combines ceramic, wood and glass and was intended to be a flower planter but was never used as such, rather the mirror has hung on our wall for years as an art object.

Max’s sofa

Max’s sofa

My husband, Max Frommeld, built our sofa from wood found in J.B.’s studio. The bench is made from a giant slab of redwood that was intended for a headboard but the commission was never realized. The headboard was used as a desk in the master bedroom for six years and then appropriated by Max for the sofa. The back of the sofa was a small redwood headboard that J.B. made for my bed when I was twelve. The legs are compiled from wood scraps stacked on top of stones and collected from J.B.’s studio. I had the sofa cushion made by our local upholsters, Cover Girls, in Point Reyes Station and my mother made the pillows. The sofa was a collaborative, family project that resulted in a unique piece of furniture that seamlessly integrates into the Blunk House.

Redwood stool

Redwood stool

The stool was carved from a single piece of redwood in 1979. J.B. chiseled deep groves into the surface of the stool, creating a pattern that resembles a raked Japanese garden. It served a secondary purpose too: he would press clay slabs onto this surface, transferring the deep curves of the stool onto the body of malleable clay which would then become plates. As a child I played in and around this stool, using the piece as part of elaborate interior obstacle courses. The seat of the stool is polished from years of use whereas the base retains its natural, dusty-looking redwood finish.

Wood column

Wood column

This wood column was sourced from the land when my father and his first wife, Nancy Waite Harlow, built their house in 1957. Working for six months to clear the site, they salvaged wood and stones from the land and incorporated these into the house and the garden’s retaining walls.

My father left the naturally occurring knot of the Bishop Pine tree trunk and placed the column in such a position that it is a central structural and decorative feature of the house. From the many years of being caressed by visitors hands, the column and it’s protruding knot have developed a shiny patina like that of a religious relic.

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