For more than thirty years, Gary Stevens has been working with wood. Since his days sitting at the lathe in his high school’s wood shop, Stevens has endeavored to create works of art that are themselves as moving and ruggedly striking as the wood from which they are made. In the Spark episode “By Hand,” Stevens takes viewers through his creative process, beginning with harvesting unusual pieces of wood from ancient redwood forests and continuing through the painstaking work that produces his uniquely beautiful wood vessels.
Stevens’s wood art begins with a careful selection of material carried out no farther away than the towering redwood forests that surround his Soquel, California, studio. As an artist who is sensitive to environmental issues, Stevens looks for fallen wood and tree stumps left by loggers. Mostly, Stevens searches out rare and unusual knotted and twisted burls often found at the base of trees. Many of these are more than a thousand years old, and their sinewy grain displays a patina that can only be produced by centuries of exposure to the elements. Removing these stumps, which can weigh well over a ton, is no small task. Stevens uses chainsaws, tractors and industrial cranes to get these rare pieces of wood to his studio, where he then faces the daunting undertaking of hoisting them and mounting them onto lathes.
It is the pieces of wood themselves that suggest to Stevens the forms that the finished work will take. Many woodworkers look for even, flawless material for their pieces to facilitate their crafting works that boast smooth, regular forms. Stevens values the eccentricities of his material, working his designs out of imperfections and unique growth patterns. Turning his pieces on the lathe and using chainsaws as well as finer planing and sanding tools, Stevens accentuates his material’s idiosyncrasies to produce challenging and hauntingly beautiful forms.
Stevens got his professional start in carpentry, and even though he has enjoyed a great deal of commercial success as an artist, he has never been tempted to quit his day job. Spark follows Stevens to a construction site in Alabama, where he has been called in to install some very rare antique white oak beams. In maintaining a career as a carpenter, Stevens has never had to rely on his art for his income, which has in turn afforded him a great deal of artistic freedom. Liberated from concerns about public taste and commercial viability, Stevens has been free to create challenging works that are helping to shape the future of wood art.