about Gary, p.2
During wood shop classes at school, Gary “fell in love with wood. I did some turning and furniture making, and just loved it.” After a year of college, Gary joined the carpenters union and went to work in commercial construction. He is justly proud of his eventual rise to a position of great responsibility: “I worked my way up through the ranks to Job Superintendent in charge of projects valued up to 50 or 60 million dollars.”
While thriving on the challenges and rewards of orchestrating the creation of large public buildings, Gary realized that some part of his need to express himself creatively was not being fulfilled. “I never forgot my first love,” he says, “which was the wood.” He built his first home for his family and filled it with his own furniture, but it was not enough. In the early 90s, after years of searching, they found their dream property in the hills north of Santa Cruz, six miles from Monterey Bay. “Almost immediately,” he says, “I discovered a treasure trove of wood on it. I was off and running! I started spending every free moment out in the woods or in the shop.”
It is now difficult to separate Gary the artist from the land he lives on, which both provides his materials and inspires his art. The woods grow right up to his house and from any direction in his studio he can almost reach out and touch them. “Where I live has a huge influence on me and my work,” he says. “I am humbled by God’s creations in nature. I like picking up shells on the beach, getting up close and examining moss growing on a tree trunk, watching the flowers bloom. I see how a creek has carved its way through the canyons, or how the ocean waves contour the coast lines.”
Because he is very aware of the need to protect the environment, Gary harvests only fallen wood, or tree stumps left by earlier logging. Within a few hundred yards of his home, he finds gnarled burls more than a thousand years old, often weighing more than a ton. “I’ll look at a piece of wood for months or even years before I decide what to do,” he says. “I’ve got a 3000lb burl waiting outside, but I still haven’t decided what to do with it. It’ll hit me eventually.”
When he does decide, it can be a daunting task, but Gary’s years of construction experience are invaluable. After rough cutting with a chainsaw, he transports these enormous pieces of wood to his studio using tractors and cranes. When he is ready to start working on a piece, he first refines the shape with a chainsaw, his primary tool. “Ninety percent of my work is done with the chainsaw. I’ve got seven chainsaws hanging on the wall in the studio and another four or five outside.” For anybody who has never used a large chainsaw, it is difficult to describe what a brutal tool it can be and the toll it can take. Gary casually describes what it is like: “Sure, it’s hard work and it can damage your body. I’ve had surgery on my neck three times and I’ve got plates and screws in there that let me know if it’s going to rain.” He explains this body damage by saying,”I suppose I’m very determined. It’s all on or all off.” Working his way from large chainsaw to the lathe, he uses smaller chainsaws for fine carving, then finishes with powered carving tools and sanding disks. To watch Gary work is exhausting in itself. With his face masked and bent forward up to his waist inside an enormous vessel, he almost disappears in a cascade of wood chips.
The pieces that emerge partly pay homage to the trees from which they are made. “I wouldn’t say the wood tells me what to do,” says Gary, “but it has a big influence.” He incorporates the many imperfections in the wood into his designs, valuing these flaws as a real record of the life of the tree—drought, fire, disease, and damage from insects and humans alike.
Like many others of a generation before, Gary developed his work in relative isolation. He had already been working with wood for more than twenty years, and selling his turnings and sculpted vessels for several years when he met Mel and Mark Lindquist. They were brought together by their love of wood and their interest in technical innovation, and worked together periodically over several years. “I first met Mel in 1996 when he was in his mid-80s,” Gary explains. “We hit it off right off the bat. I had tremendous respect for him, not only for what he had accomplished, but also as a person.” Because we know how much his own grandfather meant to Gary, it is a measure of profound respect when he says,”Mel was like another grandfather to me. When we were working together in the studio he could be a little rough around the edges. He would use some old-time saying to convey a thought or an idea. It would usually make me laugh, but I know exactly what he meant. He would smile and nod his head. I cherish the time we got to spend together.”
Gary also acknowledges that Mark has a had a strong influence on his later work. “Mark really worked with me on sculpture. He made me go to the library and study artists like Jean Arp, Max Bill, Brancusi, and others. Then we would have discussions about the artists and their work. This dialogue really helped me focus on my sculptural forms and the direction that I have taken.”
Gary Stevens has found a remarkable balance in his life. He makes it clear that what he calls his “day job” is as much a part of who he is as anything else, but it is made even more meaningful when it is measured against his other life as an artist. “For me working in the studio is a safe refuge from high stress. I’m still excited every time I start a new piece—the possibilities seem endless to me.”