If you were to see Jonathan Cohen making his daily trek to the Wallingford QFC with his four-legged canine pal, you might mistake him for an ordinary guy. Having lived in Wallingford for 36 years, he is perfectly at home in this demographic, right down to the khaki work pants and sensible shoes. After a few minutes of conversation, you would piece together that he is a devoted dad who is unabashedly proud of his two children. That he has a sharp intellect. That he has lovingly restored an iconic hundred year old Wallingford home. He could be Wallingford’s Everyman.
But to step into his studio, you begin to understand that you are in the presence of an artist, a woodworking genius who visualizes his pieces without sketching and works without plans. Half-finished pieces hint at future majesty. Finished pieces beg to be touched – their light and luster drawing the eye and the hand. Racks of neatly stacked wood and a shop of well-organized tools suggest ownership by a master craftsman who values order and simplicity. The woodshop, like its craftsman, is full of complexity.
Jonathan invited me to sit in his woodshop one drizzly morning so that we could talk shop – the art and business of fine woodworking. We managed to cover raising children, literature and a lot of life during our conversation. It’s clear that working with his hands frees Jonathan’s mind to roam and tackle the deep subjects.
His shop is located in his custom-built garage studio on Thackeray. You might know the house by the “Word of the Day” posted out front. The surrounding houses are largely populated by techie neighbors. In a different world Jonathan might have been one of them. He graduated from Cornell with a degree in graphic design and was set to begin a career that would have required spending the bulk of his days in a virtual world. Then he decided to travel the world on a Norwegian cruise ship, and when he was finished with that adventure, he knew he couldn’t “sell out.”
“A lot of my friends went on to become lawyers and legislators,” Jonathan told me. “But I don’t think they’re happy, and I know I wouldn’t be. I didn’t want to be stuck in the intellectual world. I wanted to be dirty, sweaty and tired, and to have something to show for my labor at the end of the day.”
Despite his hands-on tendencies, Jonathan is plenty intellectual. He boasts a photographic memory. He reports experiences akin to Michelangelo’s – of seeing the wood and knowing what he must do to free the object hidden within. He seems capable of both merging his mind and muscles with his tools, and using the repetitive motions of planning and sanding as a meditation, freeing his mind to wander. With such a person creating the furniture, it’s no wonder the pieces themselves are complex.
Jonathan prizes his attention to detail. For each piece, he strives to balance the form (he is given to curves) with luster, sheen, color, angles, planes and density. In describing his creative process to me, it seems as though he applies knowledge of physics and anatomy to each creation, alongside his understanding of wood. He confessed that often a visualization of the final piece springs into his head after a single conversation with the person who is commissioning it. He’s like a mad scientist with a woodshop instead of a laboratory.
“Creativity takes an enormous amount out of you,” said Jonathan. “I think creativity is this combination of synapses, and blood, and hormones mixed together like a cocktail. I can be up all night planning or working but at the end of that burst of creativity, I’m exhausted. I think that explains the artistic temperament – moody and difficult . You’ve just had the energy sucked right out of you.”
For all that he pours into each piece, Jonathan is remarkably adept at sending them off into the world once they are complete. He compared delivering a finished piece to one of his customers to parenting. If he has done his job well, taken care at every step along the way and approached the whole venture with the mindset that one day his work will have a life outside of him, then by the time he is finished working, he is ready to let go of them.
“It feels good to move them out,” he said. “It opens up space in the shop and in my mind so that I can move onto the next thing. I feel euphoric when they are gone. But I do like to visit them again when I can, maybe a year or more after I have delivered them. I feel giddy when I see them. I’ve forgotten the hours and the process that went into making them, so I can view them from a distance and appreciate them in a different way.”
Jonathan has many opportunities to view his work as he has several longtime clients who have commissioned multiple pieces of his work. They serve almost as patrons for him, customers who allow him broad creative freedom and are so pleased with his previous efforts that they will buy new works, sight unseen. Jonathan, who both works on commission and creates pieces to be sold in galleries, recognizes his good fortune to have clients that will essentially commission him to create whatever he thinks will work for them.
“It’s really the best of both worlds,” he told me. “It’s like creating gallery pieces for known buyers. And a huge validation for my work, that they like it so much.”
It’s hard to imagine that an artist with a piece in the Smithsonian, his name in fine art books, and a history that includes running his own production studio would need validation, but the way Jonathan tells it, woodworking is full of contradictions.
“Those glassblowers, they are the rockstars of the art world,” he said. “Pilchuk and others figured out how to create modern cultural interest in blown glass. Woodworkers, well most days we are just carpenters.”
I tried to imagine Jonathan out on the back porch strumming a banjo while Chihuly was playing electric bass before a sold-out audience, but after looking at his work it’s easy to see that he is every bit as much an artist as someone who works in glass. And who else but a carpenter could take a diseased tree and make art?
“There was a bigleaf maple tree near here (in Wallingford) that came down in 1993,” Jonathan told me. “The owners contacted me to see if I wanted the wood. At first I didn’t…but later I walked past it and realized that it was amazing wood.”
He explained that sometimes maple trees get a disease that causes black lines to appear throughout the wood. If the disease hasn’t progressed very far, the wood isn’t anything special. If it progresses too far, the wood is too damaged to be workable. However if the disease is halted at just the right point, the wood has lines running through it, creating patterns and shapes that are highly unusual. This type of wood is called “spalted maple.” The felled tree was a gorgeous example of spalted maple.
Jonathan negotiated with the tree’s owners to reclaim the lumber, and crafted enough furniture from it to create a one man show called, “One Tree.” He still has thick pieces of veneer from that Wallingford tree in his studio – waiting for the right client or piece to inspire its use.
Hearing Jonathan talk about his passion for wood and art, I have to agree with him that a life spent in front of a computer screen would not have been fulfilling for him. He’s chosen a lifestyle that lets him balance his creative needs with being present to his kids. That allows him to drive less than 800 miles a year. That gives him the skills to renovate his own home and to go to sleep each night because he is physically tired from a day of labor.
The word of the day is “vocation.”
Note: If you are interested in learning more about Jonathan and his work, you can visit his website here.