Art or Craft?: The Makers Chime In! Featured Maker: Joe von Heideken

(Heideken’s Display at Red Chair Gallery | Photo by Kenneth Marunowski )

The economic, social and cultural history of Oregon is intimately connected to its landscape and specifically to one of its primary resources: wood. In the early 1900’s, lumber mills were key to establishing what is now the city of Bend. Logging persists throughout many areas of the state as a key industry, and our National Forests support this industry through selective logging and the replanting of trees to maintain both the economy and the splendor of the land. It is thus no surprise that woodworking figures importantly in the livelihood of many to this very day.

Woodworking can mean a variety of things to a variety of people, with associations that range from carpentry and crafts to architecture and fine arts, particularly sculpture and woodblock prints. Its history is an ancient one, and the objects created from wood can be both utilitarian and ornamental. Because wood is an organic medium, it is subject to deterioration over time, which necessitates preservation techniques so that it may endure. Due to the diversity of wood types, both hard and soft, artists and artisans alike select varietals most suitable to their practice, choosing according to factors like grain, color, strength and durability (arthistory.net/wood).

Joe von Heideken is a Central Oregon maker who specializes in creating both functional and decorative objects made of wood. A member of the Red Chair Gallery in downtown Bend, Joe’s foray into woodworking began many years ago on a cold, rainy afternoon in Northern California as he scouted an out-of-the-way beach riddled with shells, rocks and driftwood. Captivated by a particularly appealing chunk of redwood, the inquisitive man cut into it and revealed a dazzling interior just waiting to be rediscovered. Such began a now over thirty year investigation into various types of wood and the creative possibilities they offer (redchairgallerybend.com/joe-von-heideken). 

The following interview reveals Heideken’s thoughts about his practice in relation to the arts and crafts dyad.

ME: Describe your art/craft. 

JOE: By using properly sourced pieces of wood such as maple burls, aged juniper or redwood, I have learned to carve these pieces into bowls that can be used functionally or simply be displayed as decorative pieces. I use a chainsaw to remove any odd limbs around the chunk of wood and then employ an angle grinder with a circular chainsaw device to hollow out the bowl. Once the bowl is roughed out, I begin using coarse sanding discs to smooth out the rough areas, progressively using finer abrasives. Over time, I’ve learned that whenever I think I’ve sanded enough, I should keep sanding. This is probably the most tedious but the most important part of the process. To complete the piece I use either an oil finish for food-safe use or multiple coats of lacquer for decorative display. It usually takes five to ten hours to finish a piece. 

In addition to the bowls, I also enjoy making small inlaid wood boxes, usually out of oak and walnut, that can serve a variety of purposes. I chose oak and walnut because both hardwoods have a quite special, distinctive color. To create the inlays I use a kerf blade on my table saw to make the groove and then inlay a strip of differing material, for example, walnut on oak or oak on walnut to create a contrast.

ME: Do you consider your work as art or craft? 

JOE: I characterize my work as a little of each. When I think of an artist I envision someone creating something from nothing, for example, a painter who creates something on a blank canvas or a potter who turns a chunk of clay into a vase. In my case, in carving a bowl from a charred piece of redwood or a maple burl, I simply bring out the hidden beauty within its core. The beauty has always been there; I just expose it.

ME: Your description sounds akin to what Michaelangelo described when he brings to life a figure out of marble. The form is already in there, he explained. He just releases it from the material.

I notice you mention “artist” in the above explanation but do not mention “craftsperson.” Is there a distinction in your mind?

JOE: I think it’s pretty tough to separate the two: a craftperson’s work can also be viewed as a work of art. On the one hand, I can think of a cabinet maker whose work, in and of itself, is an art. On the other hand, an artist may be able to create something mentally but must be able to bring it to life. Perhaps that’s the “craftsperson” side of the individual. In essence, I think the art form is the ability to see the potential of the raw material, and transforming it into something of personal value and beauty is the craft element. 

ME: I see. So, for you, the imaginative or visionary component of creating something is the art, and the realization of it, the labor involved, is the craft. That’s an interesting and viable distinction. I hadn’t thought about it in that way before.

 How does your work address artistic concerns, like those a painter or sculptor must consider regarding form, composition, texture, etc.? 

JOE: The size, shape and type of wood dictates what the finished product will look like more than the effort I put into it. At first glance a piece may look promising but turns out to be a dud once I dig into it. Sometimes a knobby, charred piece of redwood may have a rich color once exposed, or a maple burl may be filled with “bird eyes.” Again, the wood speaks to me, and I give it a voice so others can hear it. The “artistic concerns” you mention are inherent in the piece from the very beginning.

ME: What is your opinion on the arts craft distinction? 

JOE: Whether art or craft, I have a tremendous respect for anyone who develops a passion for what they do. I think the important thing to remember is that whatever medium one chooses, a sense of self-satisfaction derives from both the process and the product. If others enjoy my efforts, it reinforces my commitment to continually improve.

ME: That makes sense to me. Personal growth, satisfaction with the making — these are what matter! Cheers, Joe!

To view the beautiful woodworks of Joe von Heideken, visit the Red Chair gallery in downtown Bend. You may also check out Joe’s page on Red Chair’s website at redchairgallerybend.com/joe-von-heideken.

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