Tag Archives: woodworking

Trevor Amery

March 10, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts resident Trevor Amery is a well-traveled maker. The artist, whose Bemis stay began January 11 and runs through mid-March, has done residencies in Mexico, Hungary, and Finland. He’s completed projects in Alaska, Florida, and many points in between.

After years on the East Coast, he now makes California home, though he’s often just returning from or embarking on a new art-life adventure. This summer he expects to go to China.

Some journeys have proved transformative. In the course of a 2011 Finland sojourn, fate or circumstance intervened to change his practice from painting to sculpture.

He had just left his former risk-adverse life as an admissions counselor at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore to heed the very advice he gave students—to live freely and fearlessly. He’d no sooner broken away from his higher education rut to go to far-off Finland when, en route, all his oil paints were confiscated by airport security.

There he was, adrift in a strange country, unequipped to create in the manner he’d come all that way to do.

“I didn’t have a lot of money to go and buy all new oil paints in one of the most expensive countries in the European Union,” Amery says. “I just had to figure out how to start making.”

Enraptured by the dense forests of the residency’s idyllic rural setting and the ubiquitous, large firewood piles he saw outside every home, he surrendered the idea of painting to create instead in wood. It helped that he had an extensive woodworking background.

“I started splitting wood to understand it as a material. I’d wake up and split as much wood as I could handle, and I learned so much more about it than I ever did working in a wood shop,” he says.

“I started doing these stacked firewood piles. I made a 12-foot tall spinning wood pile on a children’s merry-go-round as a kinetic permanent sculpture. I did a 6-foot by 6-foot by 6-foot cube of firewood on a floating dock in the middle of the lake outside the old schoolhouse I stayed in. I went into town to do woodpiles in urban niches–between buildings and mailboxes–and left them to be reclaimed.”

His “big epiphany” happened paddling wood out to the floating dock in the lake.

“I had this eureka moment of, ‘Wow, this could be my work. I don’t have to sit in a studio illustrating an idea with oil paint. I can actually be out in the world engaging nature and people, having the social aspects I crave.’”

For Amery, the journey in the making is everything.

“I just like process–problem-solving, engineering new solutions, and stuff like that. I do have an interest in DIY culture, which also informs my practice.”

Since Finland, Amery’s gone on to cast pieces of firewood in porcelain stoneware. This summer in Wyoming he taught himself how to make his own charcoal using wood.

While assisting with the setup of a towering geodesic installation there, he salvaged a broken sledgehammer handle made of ash and converted it into a 30-inch, hand-hewn spoon sculpture. He carved a tiny geodesic dome in the bottom of the spoon.

“Function plays a role in the work,” he says. “But this object also now has a really important history to it. I love the kind of shift in value that comes with provenance of objects and materials that I use. Because of a personal story with it, it has this new significance.”

In 2012 he came back from a residency in Hungary only to find himself “back to square one” in his work. Absent a project, he thought long and hard about finally realizing something he always wanted to make: a boat. Made of wood, of course.

“After some research, I set out to build my own Aleutian- style kayak, and I did. I made all the ribs out of green bent branches I cut in the woods in Maine.”

The design for the 17-foot vessel came from a downloaded PDF.

“The first year after I built it, I kind of denied its function. I was more interested in its making, its coming into being, the history of it. I built part of the frame in Maine and then drove it to Michigan, where it spent a year with me as this omnipresent, dope object I couldn’t finish because I didn’t have the space to do it.” he says.

“It hung above me in the apartment making me feel bad for not working on it. I eventually brought it back to the East Coast and then came to California with it, where I finished it. But I was still using it as this studio-exhibition object and skirting its function. Then I decided I have to put it in the water.”

He secured a grant for a performative project whereby he drove the kayak to Alaska to make its inaugural launch off the Homer Spit. He documented the experience with his Mamiya C330 camera.

On-site, he split a log to make his own paddle from tree branches. When the moment arrived to place the kayak in its heritage waters, he was overjoyed this object that traveled so far with him “actually worked great.”

The kayak trekked with him again when he took part in the Performance is Alive satellite art show in Miami.

“I kayaked through the different waterways of Miami to document the coastline and the relationship of these important spaces to water recreation and the city’s economy and looking at how this essentially sea-level city will eventually be underwater.”

He successfully negotiated the voyage only to have curator Quinn Dukes ask him go out again and finish in South Beach.

Tempting fate, Amery recalls, “I went across the channel out into the ocean like a fool. Everything was going fine actually, and then the ocean floor dropped off at this one place that turned the ocean into a washing machine. This wave came from behind and capsized me many football fields away from the coastline.”

He says he thought he was “done for” but was eventually rescued by a jet skier. His kayak and camera both survived the mishap.

“Out of all that came a whole new body of work of wooden wave sculptures I call ‘Capsized.’”

The artist is approaching Omaha the way he does all his residency stops (by ”keeping that opportunity for discovery”).

“A huge part of it is what comes out of the relationships in a place,” he says. “Yes, the landscapes inspire me, but also the people and the conversations.”

This article appears in the March/April 2018 edition of Encounter

John Hargiss

August 3, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Master craftsman and stringed instrument maker John Hargiss learned the luthier skills he plies at his North Omaha shop from his late father, Verl. In the hardscrabble DIY culture coming from their roots in the southern Missouri hills and river bottoms, people made things by hand.

“I think the lower on the food chain you are, the more creative you become. I think you have to,” Hargiss says.

He observed his late father fashion tables and ax handles with ancestral tools and convert station wagons into El Caminos with nothing more than a lawnmower blade and a glue pot. Father and son once forged a guitar from a tree they felled, cut, and shaped together.

These days, the son’s hands are sure and nimble enough to earn him a tidy living at his own business, Hargiss Stringed Instruments. His shop is filled with precision tools—jigs, clamps—many of vintage variety.

JohnHargiss2Some specialized tools are similar to what dentists use. “I do almost the same thing—polish, grind, fill, recreate, redesign, restructure.”

Assorted wood, metal, and found objects are destined for repurposing.

“I have an incredible way of looking at something and going, ‘I can use that.’ Everything you see will be sold or used one way or the other.”

In addition to instrument-making, he’s a silversmith, leather-worker, and welder. A travel guitar he designed, the Minstrel, has sold to renowned artists, yet he still views himself an apprentice indebted to his father.

“He was a craftsman. Everything I know how to create probably came from him. Everything I watched him do, I thought, ‘My hands were designed to do exactly what he’s doing.’ On his tombstone I had put, ‘A man who lived life through his hands.'”

Hargiss also absorbed rich musical influences.

“(I was) constantly around what we don’t see in the Midwest—banjo players, violin players, ukulele players, dulcimer players. There are a lot of musicians in that part of the world down there. Bluegrass. Rockabilly. Folkabilly. That would be our entertainment in the evenings—music, family, friends. Neighbors would show up with instruments and start playing. Growing up, that was our recreation.”

He feels a deep kinship to that music, and his father had a hand in his musical development.

“My daddy was a good musician, and he taught me to play music when I was about 9. By 11, I was already playing in little country and bluegrass bands. I can play a mandolin, a guitar, a banjo, a ukulele, but I’m pretty much a guitar player. And I sing and write music.”

Hargiss once made his livelihood performing. “I like playing music so much. It’s dangerous business because it will completely overpower you. I knew I needed to make a living, raise my children, and have a life, so playing music became my hobby. I worked corporate jobs, but I kept being pulled back. It didn’t matter how hard I tried. I’d no more get the tie and suit off than I’d be out in the garage making something else.”

JohnHargiss1It turned into his business.

Hargiss directly traces what he does to his father.

“I watched him repair a guitar he bought me at a yard sale. The strings were probably three inches off the finger board. I remember my daddy taking a cup of hot coffee and pouring it in the joint of that neck and him wobbling that neck off, and the next I knew he’d restrung that guitar. I think that’s when I knew that’s what I’m going to do.”

The memory of them making a guitar is still clear.

“The first guitar I built, me and my daddy cut a walnut tree, chopped it up, and we carved us a dreadnought—a traditional Martin-style guitar. I gave that to him and he played that up to the day he died.”

Aesthetics hold great appeal for Hargiss.

“I’m fascinated by architectural design in what I create and in what I make. I study it.”

He called on every ounce of his heritage to lovingly restore a vaudeville-house-turned-movie theater. It came attached to the North Omaha buildings off Hamilton and 40th streets that he purchased five years ago. The theater lay dormant and unseen for 65 years, like a time capsule, obscured by walls and ceilings added by property owners, before he and his girlfriend, Mary Thorsteinson, rediscovered it largely intact. The pair, who share an apartment behind the auditorium, restored the
building themselves.

Preservation is nothing new to Hargiss, who reclaimed historic buildings in Benson, where his business was previously located. He was delighted to find the theater at the North O site, but knew it meant major work.

“I’ve always had this passion for old things. When we found the theater, I remember saying, ‘This is going to be a big one.’”

Motivating the by-hand, labor-of-love project was the space’s “potential to be anything you want it to be.” He’s reopened the 40th Street Theatre as a live performance spot.

Hargiss is perpetually busy between instrument repairs and builds—he has a new commission to make a harp guitar—and keeping up his properties. Someone’s always coming in wanting to know how to do something, and he’s eager to pay forward what was passed on to him.

The thought of working for someone else is unthinkable.

“I get one hundred percent control of my creativity. I’m not stuck. I’m not governed by, ‘Well, you can’t do it this way.’ Of course I can because the sound this is going to produce is mine. When you get to control it, then you’re the CEO, the boss, the luthier, the repairman, the refinisher, the construction, the engineer, the architect. You’re all of these things at one time.”

Besides, he can’t help making things. “There’s a drive down in me someplace. Whatever I’m working on, I first of all have to see myself doing it. Then I go through this whole crazy second-guessing. And then the next thing I know it’s been created. Days later I’ll see it and go, ‘When did I do that?’ because it takes over me, and it completely consumes every thought I have. I just let everything else go.” Encounter

Visit hargissstrings.com for more information.

Old-School Craftsmanship

April 3, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally published in March/April 60+ in Omaha

These are things that happen in the working life of 78-year-old woodcraftsman Joe Privitera: Someone is missing chairs that match their 17th Century table, can Joe make new chairs? Done. There is this beautiful dining room table in Chicago but the darned thing is too big for this Omaha family’s dining room. Can Joe make a smaller, replica table? Well, just to be sure, the family sent Joe to Chicago for a look. Then he made a dead ringer of a knock-off.

Joe Privitera is old-school—oh heck, he’s old world—a master craftsman who began learning how to make wood bend, shape, and shine inside his father’s Sicily workshop starting when he was 13. He learned the craft under his father’s watch and later worked in Geneva, Switzerland, before coming to Omaha four decades ago.

Privitera’s shop, Italian Craftsman, at 4510 Leavenworth, hides in a nondescript building. The interior is just what you’d expect—the rich smell of wood and sawdust, all types and shapes of wood scattered asunder. Pinned to the walls are photos of friends and grandchildren alongside sketches of tables or chairs that Privitera has created. Of course there are some machines, but not that many; just a few of the necessities.

“I need very little of the machines,” he says while pulling one of many pencils from his apron with a thick hand—white and dusty from the morning’s work. “My father, he was top of the line, he had tools and machines too, but not too many.”

The apple didn’t fall far. Privitera’s skills are renowned. His clients include some of Omaha’s most prominent families. And his services aren’t cheap. The table he was sent to Chicago to replicate cost $18,000.

“I’ve seen furniture he’s made that would blow your mind,” says Dr. Mike O’Neil, an orthopedic surgeon and friend. “He is a dear guy and a real craftsman, this is a lost art.”

O’Neil sought out Privitera about 20 years ago after the doctor started making furniture as a hobby. O’Neil says he made three nestle tables out of cherry wood and needed help finishing them. He’s been a fixture at Privitera’s shop ever since. The two meet every Tuesday at neighboring La Casa (who’s owners are Privtera’s cousins) to share a pizza.

O’Neil says Privitera, who talks with a thick Italian accent and often sings opera while he works, is also extremely generous with his knowledge. “He has taught me everything I know, he’s been my mentor,” O’Neil says.

Privitera says people aren’t as particular about their furniture any more. It makes him sad there isn’t as much pride in passing down beautiful pieces through the generations. But he’ll still fix and build those pieces that are a little more special.

“Sometimes they have to just trust me, I’m the first one that has to be happy with the job. If I’m unhappy, you, the customer, will be unhappy,” he says. And later, when talking about wood’s fickleness: “Wood is not like metal, wood talks back,” he says.

He has no plans on slowing down. He has too many customers who need his expertise, like the friend who complained that his table kept tipping over on him because he put both elbows on the table’s edge when digging into his meal. “You know, us men, we really get in there,” he says.

So he helped his friend by redoing the base and making it much heavier. Problem solved. These are the things that come up in Joe Privitera’s working day.

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