Profiles in Conservation
Artist Collaborates With Nature
Famed wood artist finds creative inspiration in the woods
The path to every creation begins with a walk through the woods for New Hampshire-based master wood artist and furniture maker Jon Brooks. There, he finds the solitude and serenity he needs, along with materials for future projects.
“It’s a spiritual thing, being in the forest,” he said. “That’s my church. It’s my place for contemplation. It’s like being in the Garden of Eden. It’s a very strong, spiritual connection. I feel very calm there. It’s very soothing and comforting, which it is for a lot of people.”
After many years, he still makes a daily routine of strolling through his woods, weather and schedule permitting. His loyal and ever-exuberant black lab, Maggie, always accompanies his forays into the sun‑dappled wilderness. She is his favorite dog of all time, he said. One by one, each of his dogs through the years has become his favorite.
He added, “When I’m out there, I see all of these tree shapes, and they make me think of things. If I’m looking for a particular shape, there are certain groves where trees will express that shape. Nature has its own way of making things.”
“From my childhood, I know every square foot of this land. The majority of my life has been right here. I’ll take a walk around sometimes, and I’ll see a particular shape that I like. I’ll mark the tree or branch with flagging tape and come back to retrieve it later.”
Just out the door of his New Boston studio, they have land that’s been in the family since the early 1940s.
“I feel very fortunate to live in an area like this,” he said. “It’s 183 acres in conservation--an easement with the Piscatequa Land Conservancy, with parcels of land as far north as Henniker. The organization has more than 5,000 acres protected in this area. I also have a long relationship with the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests.” He has a large sculpture in their office lobby.
Describing his woods he said, “It’s all forested for the most part. We have some set-aside areas that are designated as old growth. There are trees there that have never been cut. It will be turned over to the land trust or to the forest society.”
A wide variety of hardwoods and softwoods grow on his land. He said his favorites are maple saplings, adding “My favorite woods are the pieces that I work with.”
He reflected on his current residence as he found it many years ago as a child.
“My father did pathology work in Manchester, and he and my mother looked for a retreat house. They found this place in the woods, listed as a hunting lodge. There was no electricity or running water. We used to go out here as children and roam the woods. My mother would open the door and tell us to get lost. This was where I developed a sense of place,” he added.
In later years he purchased an adjacent parcel of land.
“The former landowner left trash all over the land. It was like he never threw anything out,” he said. Cleaning up the trash and recycling some of the materials took a long time, Brooks said.
His journey to his current state of creative brilliance, like his fondness for the outdoors, began when he was very young.
“I had a propensity for art at a young age,” he said. “In an art class at school in second grade the teacher handed out these mimeograph sheets and they were color by numbers. It ticked me off. So I scribbled all over it. The teacher was irate with my behavior, and later my parents talked with her,” he said. After an impromptu parent-teacher conference, his parents signed him up for classes at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, where they have a children’s art program.
“That’s where I got my start in art,” he added. “I just started drawing and painting, copying things that I saw, getting ideas from other artists.”
In his seventh grade shop class, he enjoyed working with the tools, he said. “The teacher gave us a copy from a plan, and I didn’t like working with a copy for the plan. I got an award for my piece, though.”
“My parents early on gave me a space in the basement, a room with a bench in it so that I could make stuff. I didn’t get any instruction in wood except for that shop class. The Currier Museum only gave instruction with 2-D art and ceramic work, as well as some plaster. I had to learn to work with wood on my own.”
“A light went off in my head. I said, ‘this is great.’ Still have a photo somewhere,” he said of the whittlings and carvings he did, starting when he was very young. “But I didn’t have any instruction,” he added. “I didn’t have any good technique.”
He was in a college prep program in Central High School in Manchester when a difference of opinion arose between Brooks and a school administrator.
“My guidance counselor--I told him I wanted to be an artist. He said, ‘You’re crazy. Don’t do that. You can’t make any money as an artist.’” But Brooks was determined to pursue his own career path, despite opportunities to follow a more practical course of profession.
“I received some counseling at Boston University. I went there for 3 weeks in the early 1960s and took all kinds of tests. When they were done, they sat down with us. They said I should either go to the Rhode Island School of Design or the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York--and I should work with wood.” They had him all figured out.
“It’s good that my parents brought me there. They were supportive,” he said. “Once I had the test results, that evaluation even shut the guidance counselor up.”
Brooks did go to college at Rochester, under the tutelage of two people that turned out to be important to him.
“The instructor there, Wendell Castle, was doing very sculptural furniture. Castle was more of a designer. His work is very different from mine, but he helped me to move forward. The other instructor, Bill Keyser, was very technical. He knew wood joinery and finishes.”
“Being around artists--these are my people. I didn’t have that opportunity much beyond the Currier Museum. In Rochester, everybody was an artist. It was a much larger school, and they had a very good fine arts program. They had a major in woodworking that I signed up for. It was called the furniture design program. That program still exists. It started at Dartmouth College and eventually went to Rochester.”
“I could have learned through an apprenticeship program, but there wasn’t anyone around who did that. I’m so grateful that I have a fine arts background,” he said. “I have apprentices who come to work with me today, because I was so desperate as a child for a mentor with wood,” he added.
He also goes to various schools that have woodworking programs, and teaches for 2 to 3 weeks at a time. He’ll do one or two courses a year and conduct lecture programs in tree identification.
“I teach what I know and do,” Brooks added. “We go into the forest and collect saplings. We go back to the studio and put things together. The students are the designers; I help them with the process.”
“I didn’t have a mentor of my own,” he added. “I felt this hole in the beginning, not having a mentor. I did amazingly well, though, and received a Master of Fine Arts degree.”
He briefly taught sculpture at St. Anselms College in Manchester.
“I’m more interested in sculpture than in furniture, but it does have its limitations. The type of furniture that I make is more about form than function. I do make a lot of sculptures, which have nothing to do with furniture whatsoever.”
Brooks said he was influenced and inspired by other artists before him.
“Alberto Giacometti was one of my influencers, and Constantin Brancusi was my biggest inspiration. He died in 1954. He did the most amazing sculptures. He was a total turn-on. I liked the work of Henry Moore as well.”
Looking back on his life’s work, Brooks said he has no regrets about his career choices.
“All of my siblings went into some form of medical profession or another. I was the black sheep. My father would worry about how he was going to pay for me. If you want to make money, don’t go into art. I have to do a fair amount of marketing today, but I made it work. I can still pay my taxes.”
He lives with his wife, Jami Boyle, a minister. Brooks also has a daughter and two grandchildren from a former marriage.
“Most of my life I’ve been alone,” he added. “I’m married and have a family. I have apprentices. But to be creative I have to be alone. I like being alone.”
“I’m 72, and I’ve been working with wood since I was 5 or 7 years old,” he added.
Clearly, Brooks and his land were made for each other. The woods provide his solitude, inspiration, and material. He in turn creates art that reflects the beauty of his natural surroundings.
You can visit Jon Brooks’ site on the Web at www.jonbrooks.org.
by Glenn Rosenholm
"My artwork is about collaboration with nature, using naturally formed hardwood, which is found and harvested in the local forests that surround my home and studio in southern New Hampshire. This wood presents itself in an array of shapes and forms suggesting possibilities for furniture and sculpture. I am attracted to the architecture of nature as a compelling dance of control and chaos. My art is about cooperating with the tree shapes I find to create a balance of form, function, and craftsmanship. Color and surface design play an important part of my expression."