INTERVIEW: MARIAH NIELSON ON JB BLUNK, A MASTER OF FUNCTIONAL ART
JB (James Blain) Blunk is remembered as a sculptor and an artist but — most of all — he is remembered as a pioneer whose designs were intended to be incorporated and folded into the threads of everyday life. The Californian master of functional art always sought to blur the lines between art and craft which consistently resulted in diverse and original designs. Mariah Nielson is the late artist’s daughter and director of the Blunk Estate. We sat down with her to learn more about her father’s legacy and how his creative philosophy endures today. Blunk’s work is said to be an expression of a life lived off the grid. What does this mean in the context of his work?
My father lived and worked on his own terms. He was a pioneer and created a life and body of work that was a totally unique and authentic expression of his values as an artist and man. Sustainability, a connection to nature, humility, and distilled forms and actions are some things that come to mind when I think of his lifestyle and work. My father studied ceramics at UCLA in the late 1940s with Laura Andresen. He was then drafted into the Korean War and was discharged in Japan where he spent three years apprenticing with master potters Rosanjin Kitaoji and Toyo Kaneshige in Bizen. My father learned to speak Japanese and lived in Kaneshige’s 500-year-old very rustic and traditional home. The landscape and connection to nature, the Shinto religion and the very simple, sustainable life of the Kaneshige family had an enormous influence on him. He talked about it all the time. His time living and working in Japan set the course of his art practice and influenced the way he would live for the rest of his life.
We know JB’s studies in Japan influenced his pursuit of blurring the lines between art and craft. How did he apply this school of thought to his work? And how is it represented in his smaller works?
The Shinto religion that his masters practised underscored all of his endeavours, his connection to nature, and his appreciation for the latent spirit in all things. Interestingly, he approached working with wood in the same way that he was taught to work with clay in Japan. He locally sourced wood and left naturally occurring details (like an especially beautiful burl detail or a unique shape in the wood) within the piece. He hand built all of his ceramics. I love how you can see and feel his fingerprints in the Blunk Cups and that the quirky edges of the vessels are still present. Blunk is known as the “master of the chainsaw”, but we know his house in Inverness contains his own handicrafts. Were these cups, boards and servers originally in the house?
JB’s reputation was established as a “master of the chainsaw” in the 1960s after the Objects USA exhibition and accompanying 1968 film, With These Hands. Not many people were aware of his ceramics, paintings or jewellery until I published the book JB Blunk. The breadth of his practice is remarkable, and our home was, and is, full of things made by him. From cups to cutting boards, sculptures and paintings. He loved tea and always stopped for a tea break around 4pm. He would buy cookies and other pastries to accompany his tea and cut them into squares or rectangles and place the shapes on one of his cutting boards or trays.
What did you learn growing up in the house that your father built in Inverness Ridge? How was this experience? And how do you hope to share that unique experience with the world?
I’ve learned that there’s a special value to all things handmade. There’s a latent quality and uniqueness to handmade objects and they exude a sense of time and care that mass produced objects don’t have. This quality can be scaled up to a home or down to a cup.How would you describe the spirit of a Blunk design and how does that translate to these smaller pieces?
There’s something familiar about his forms whether a cup or a sculpture. The designs are inviting and playful…Not everything you make has to be precious. JB lived with everything he made. His sculptures were in our home, we drank from his ceramic cups and used his wood plates and bowls for all our meals, we sat on his stools around the kitchen table. There was no separation between art and life, no distinction between art, craft, and design in JB’s world. Most of what he created was functional art and he enjoyed the slippage between these categories.
How did the collaboration with Commune and the other artists, Jack Sasaki, Tyler Cross and Kyle Lypka eventuate?
I’m always thinking about how to share my father’s work. Not everyone can afford an original Blunk ceramic or redwood tray, so the new editions are ways of making versions of his work available to a broader audience. I love collaborations and when I met Roman Alonso from Commune (I think it was 2008) we hit it off and immediately started talking about how we could work together. Commune designed the packaging for the Blunk Cups which I had been producing since 2011 and that led to producing the boards and servers with Jack. Commune has worked with Jack for several years and they have a phenomenal network of craftspeople. Tyler Cross worked with me for a few years helping digitise the Blunk archive and I love his work (paintings) and the art he makes with his partner, Kyle Lypka. They proposed a second edition of the Blunk Cups in two new glazes, sage and cream, and we’re now developing a third edition in black and blue!
Can you tell us a bit about the creative process for these collaborations?
With Roman, we’ll select an original object from the archive that we hope will translate well into a new edition. Then we’ll look for the right craftsperson to make the edition. It’s a similar process with Tyler and Kyle – we’ll go through the database and pick out ceramics we think can tolerate the mould-making process. We then make some tests and see which pieces translate most successfully. Then they develop the glazes.
How have the artists preserved his style?
Both Commune and Tyler and Kyle are deeply connected to and inspired by JB’s work. They’ve all spent time at the Blunk house and Tyler and Kyle have exhibited at the gallery. They’re preserving Blunk’s style by creating beautiful handmade editions that retain the unique forms and textures of Blunk’s original works.When was the JB Blunk estate formed? Did JB ever discuss the future of his works with you or have a vision for his legacy?
I started managing my father’s estate in 2007 but at that time there was no “estate” — there was just his house, his studio, a cabinet full of photographs and letters, a lot of artworks in cardboard boxes, and sculptures strewn about the property. I slowly started organising all his materials and ephemera and worked with galleries to establish a market for his work. I was also cleaning out his studio, renovating the home, and tending to the property which are endless tasks. I established the JB Blunk Estate LLC in 2019 and opened the Blunk Space gallery and research centre in 2021.
What inspires you and your work right now, Mariah?
Stones are a huge source of inspiration. I’ve been spending a lot of time in stone yards and I’m starting to make a series of tables using scraps from the yards and scraps from my father’s wood stash. Making time for my own creative pursuits allows me to continue promoting my father’s legacy and the work of other artists… I would like to continue to have artists spend time at the home and make work here which is something we’ve been doing formally and informally since 2007. We’re currently inviting the artists who exhibit at Blunk Space to spend time in the home and work in the studio prior to their exhibitions. Our program is dedicated to JB’s legacy, artists from his circle, and artists with links to his practice so it’s important that contemporary practitioners spend time here to directly engage with JB’s home and work.
Finally, what’s your favourite JB Blunk piece, new or old?
This is something that is constantly changing but currently, my favourite piece of JB’s is Greens at Greens Restaurant in San Francisco. I love the scale — it’s one giant redwood burl and a trunk that JB carved into a sculpture and a series of tables. It incorporates so many of his signature motifs and techniques and it exemplifies his love of functional art.
Discover the collection of JB Blunk’s cups, boards and servers in store and online at Pan After. Mariah Nielson’s background as an architect has informed her work as a curator and design historian. She worked as curator at the Museum of Craft and Design, San Francisco, (2009–2011) and is the director of the JB Blunk Estate & Blunk Space. (Photo Leslie Williamson)