For many artists there exists a clear line of demarcation. There is the home where they live and the studio where they create. There is no such distinction with Jon Brooks. He is like a Russian nesting doll — the deeper you dive into his soul, the more art you will find, which is why it is only fitting that he refers to his home and studio as ArtSoul.
Brooks is not so much surrounded by his art as he is immersed in it. His home in New Boston is a living masterpiece, built by his own hands when he was 26 years old. Most of his furniture and sculptures are created from wood found on his own property. He even plays with wood — the game Jenga can be found on the top shelf in his house.
As an artist, Brooks came of age during the hazy nights of the late 1960s in San Francisco. It was a time when the line between art, which is about an idea, and crafts, which are well-made, was blurring. But what has made Brooks so special is that his vision has always been so clear.
In the words of New Hampshire Department of Cultural Resources Commissioner Van McLeod, craftsmen need to know their craft, but Brooks has gone past that. He is creating something new.
“He has moved a craft into a true art,” McLeod said.
That work has garnered him national and international fame. Brooks’ work has been exhibited at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the National Museum of American Art and the Queen Victoria Museum in Tasmania, Australia.
Yet, like the sticks and logs he finds on his property, Brooks is very much rooted in New Hampshire. Brooks was born in Manchester and developed his affinity for nature by escaping to Livingston Park. As a boy, he took art classes at the Currier Museum of Art and now, years and years later, his journey comes full circle. The Currier Museum of Art, the very place that first introduced Brooks to art, will hold a retrospective of his work.
“Jon Brooks is a sculptor who happens to make furniture,” said Andrew Spahr, director of Collections and Exhibitions at the Currier Museum of Art and the author of the Brooks catalog for the retrospective. “He has been a leader in the studio furniture movement for the last 40 years. He has been a mentor to craftsmen coming up and an example to sculptors.”
“He has been so inventive throughout his career,” Spahr said.
His recent works are a feast to the imagination but can be difficult to describe. As fellow New Hampshire Furniture Master Ted Blachly said, Brooks’ work has its own language.
“It may look like a bunch of twigs thrown together,” Blachly said. “But he understands the technology behind working with those twigs.”
“When you look at it [his work] you can easily say, ‘That’s Jon Brooks,’” Blachly said.
Brooks was born at Elliot Hospital, where his father was a doctor and his mother a nurse. The fact that his parents were intellectuals who exercised the left sides of their brains helped Brooks develop his artistic inklings early.
“My father could see that I was not going to go in his direction as far as following his footsteps,” Brooks said. “He gave a wink and a nod to my mom and said, ‘You’d better take this one over.’ She was clearly the more creative spirit.”
At a young age, Brooks was surrounded by art in many forms. His father liked taking photographs and playing the piano but Brooks said he always played by the rules. Brooks was drawn more toward his mother’s flair for the inventive.
“She would sit down at the piano and just make things up...,” Brooks said. “That is pretty much the way I approach art. I do a lot of planning and sketching but I just kind of have at it and let it evolve and change as I go along.”
While his parents offered support and abundant creativity, perhaps their greatest influence on Brooks was their purchase of four acres of land in New Boston to use as a summer home in the late 1940s. The cabin was built as a hunting lodge and made out of red pine logs with the bark still on them. Brooks would visit on the weekends during the school year and all summer long.
“Coming out here was an amazing thing for me as far as getting connected to the land and the forest,” Brooks said. “When I traveled and now, I am always looking for the nearest park or place in the woods. That’s where I kind of feel like I’m in church.”
Brooks constantly built forts and tree houses and it was evident early on that he had an ability with his hands to put things together. He benefited from living in a time when kids were not imprisoned by video games or sheltered from every bruise life has to offer.
“My parents would give me a hammer and twine,” Brooks said. “Today, kids won’t build tree houses because of the liability. Parents build them for them or hire a carpenter.”
Brooks questions whether he could have come to age so fully in this modern day. He believes there is a certain alienation that children today feel because of paranoia.
“People are so afraid some perverts are going to get a jump on them [kids] behind the bushes,” Brooks said. “Well, why wasn’t it there when others were growing up centuries ago? It was always a possibility. We’re more focused on it now because of the way the media handles paranoia in society.”
But Brooks is neither jaded nor out of touch. He is hopeful for the youth of today and thinks society is adapting to social concerns. And although he uses wood and builds with his hands, he believes in technology but is cautious.
“Technology has the propensity to lead to quite wonderful places,” Brooks said. “It doesn’t always do that.”
While he excelled in the forest, Brooks felt confined in the classroom. As a student at Central High School, he struggled both academically and socially: “I just barely got by,” Brooks said.
Yet, on the strength of his art portfolio, he was accepted at the Rhode Island School of Design and the Rochester Institute of Technology. Both admissions were conditional — Brooks needed to get through the first year with a 3.0 grade point average. Such a proposition is unlikely to happen today, but Brooks did not only get by, he thrived.
“I was on the Dean’s List the entire time I was there,” Brooks said.
Brooks enjoyed his fellow classmates and instructors so much that when he graduated in 1966, he stayed and earned a Master of Fine Arts.
He originally chose Rochester over the Rhode Island School of design for the simple reason that it was farther away from home.
“At that point in my life, I was ready to spread my wings,” Brooks said. “I wanted to do that on my own terms and I felt if I got away from home I could do that.”
After graduation, Brooks continued his western migration, to San Francisco. Years earlier, Brooks and his brother had visited an uncle in the Bay Area for a couple of weeks.
“My brother thought it was a nice place to be,” Brooks said, “but I was smitten with the place. Someday I was going to get back to San Francisco. I found myself there in the late sixties, which was quite an eye-opener.”
Beginning his career
San Francisco in the late ’60s is the stuff of legend. To describe it one might use the words of Hunter S. Thompson and the lyrics of the Grateful Dead. It was where convention came to die only to resurrect as an American original. Needless to say, for a man looking to spread his wings, Brooks found a land where he could fly.
“Jon’s time in California was really pivotal,” Spahr said. “In the Bay Area the barriers were dissolving between craft and art. Both were becoming more irreverent. This was all swirling around and gave Jon license to explore many new ideas and art forms.”
Brooks wanted to work. And for the first time he didn’t have the protective environment of a school. He was thrust onto the street and told to survive. He went to work for the Bay Area Transit Authority as an architectural model-builder.
“That lasted about a week,” Brooks said. “Having a boss doesn’t work for me. I’ve always been an independent soul and don’t like to be told what to do.”
So Brooks started doing yard work, light hauling and odd jobs. He enjoyed gardening and landscaping. He started his own landscaping business and had a few clients. He worked a few days a week, which gave him his independence and still allowed him to work on his art.
The longer he stayed, the more he became aware of opportunities for cheaper rent. He found a place in Marin County where he had the choice to pay rent or not. Of course, he would be living inside a chicken coop.
“It was pretty rustic,” Brooks said. “But other well-known artists had been in and out of there as a way of surviving.”
The coop had been used as a kennel and then an art studio. Brooks said artists would stop in for the night but there wasn’t much room. But he made it work. He was there for about 10 months.
“It was home sweet home,” Brooks said. “I got a lot of work done.”
Brooks described his early work as subtractive art work. They were heavy carved sculptural forms. He was stronger then, Brooks said, and so a lot of the early pieces were done with chainsaws using big pieces of wood. In San Francisco, he spent a lot of time carving industrial beams. These works could be thrown down a flight of stairs and not break.
Spahr said he enjoyed researching Brooks’ early works and seeing their variety and inventiveness. Some of the works in the exhibit have never been presented to the public before, while others will be making their first appearance in New Hampshire.
Besides working, Brooks began making contacts with galleries in San Francisco and had his own solo show. His work began to sell and with the money he made from a couple of shows in 1969, he had enough to get started back home in New Hampshire.
Brooks’ decision to return East was more personal than professional. He said at the time he had the urge to build but his first wife, Mona, didn’t like San Francisco and wanted to be closer to her family.
The couple landed in Rochester, where she was from, and looked for property to buy. But land was expensive. At the same time, Brooks was in conversation with his own family and his parents said their neighbor, who was involved in the logging business, was selling his land. Brooks said the property was covered in trash and junk and no one wanted it. So he was able to pick up 15 acres for a couple of thousand dollars.
Brooks cleaned up the property, tore down the old logging sheds and went about making his house. He said at the time his brother, Phil, was working at a job where he took down old buildings and barns. Brooks would help out and then he would salvage all the free materials he could. He built much of his home and his studio with this wood.
“What I had was time, not a lot of money,” Brooks said.
But a man like Jon Brooks doesn’t built just any old house.
Home sweet home
Carol Bonow is like a tornado of joie de vivre. The former French teacher has taken people on cultural tours of Europe for years. But Bonow’s idea of a tour is not standing in line for hours outside the Louvre. No, her trips have engulfed people in the beauty of the lives, work and landscape native to the countries she visited. But after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the world changed. For a while, Bonow felt she couldn’t give her tours abroad.
So she began to think about what was beautiful around her. She remembered Brooks’ house. For more than a year, she went about setting up the “Creative Genius at Home Tour,” where visitors can tour Brooks’ homes and share stories with him and his wife, Jami Boyle
(www.travelingwithcarol.com, 673-6715). Bonow said tours are now on hold until June as much of Brooks’ home furniture is on loan to the Currier for the retrospective.
To visit Brooks’ home, which he calls “ArtSoul,” is to understand how he became so successful. His art does not stop when he leaves his studio. He is surrounded by invention when he brushes his teeth or eats breakfast.
“I tend to be pretty connected to the work,” Brooks said. “It is with me all the time. I’m always thinking about it, visiting the piece I’m working on.”
“I don’t have writer’s block,” Brooks said. “I usually have too many ideas.”
From the outside, the home looks like it might belong to an ancient wizard. The roofs are pronounced, at the same time both sharp and soft. The windows and doors are outlined in purple paint; chimneys reach out toward the sky. Inside, it is like being in the hull of a ship but upside down. Brooks’ work is everywhere from the kitchen table to the couch.
It could be said, rather loosely, that Brooks’ home looks like something you would see in a Tim Burton movie. But it might be more accurate to say the things in Tim Burton movies are likely to come from Jon Brooks’ studio.
For example, Brooks’ ladder-back chairs can be found in the 1988 hit movie Beetlejuice starring Michael Keaton. This was news to Brooks, who did not learn about this until a friend saw the movie and told him about it.
“I said, ‘Bullshit.’ They would have had to ask me,” Brooks said. “Well, they didn’t.”
In 1986, Brooks featured those chairs at the Inaugural Exhibition of the American Craft Museum in New York. He said there was great press at the opening and Time magazine even wrote a piece. Brooks assumes Burton or the producers saw the chairs, liked them and digitally lifted them and inserted them into the movie. After this happened, Brooks discovered from other artists it’s actually quite common.
Brooks’ home is anything but common. Yet it wasn’t always a living gallery. In the beginning it was, as Brooks loves to understate, rustic. There was plastic in the windows and no insulation on the outside. Brooks had only lived there a short time when Mona became pregnant with Brooks’ daughter, Rebekah.
Being in New Hampshire wasn’t necessarily easy for Brooks.
“When I first moved back here, I didn’t have any audience in New Hampshire,” he said. “No one knew who I was. My audience was in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., bigger cities, like Boston. Those were my art market. That was where I was selling.”
Brooks said he always felt the lure of the city but his relationship with the forest was too strong, which is why he settled in southern New Hampshire. He said he has the best of both worlds here, as he can easily drive to Montreal, Boston or New York.
Change of scene
In 1983, Brooks went through a major transition that influenced him professionally and personally. Seemingly out of the blue, he was asked to teach at the University of Tasmania — on the other side of the world.
“Where did this come from?” Brooks said. “It just kind of fell out of the sky. They saw pictures of my work and felt I’d be a good fit for the program.”
It was at this time that Brooks’ marriage was falling apart. In the end, his first wife did not go with him. But Rebekah, who according to Bonow is a skillful artist in her own right in the Northhampton area, did — for at least half the time. It was complete emotional upheaval.
When he first got to Tasmania he used the chainsaw and continued doing the same work he had done back home.
“I was in the studio one day when I realized: why should I keep doing the same thing?” Brooks said. “I had the opportunity to look at what was around me and extrapolate from a totally different environment.”
The environment in Tasmania couldn’t have been more different. Brooks said the landscape was jagged, like the Tetons in Wyoming. Brooks explored the art being done by local artists and aborigines. He decided to try something new.
Brooks started working with sticks and lighter pieces of woods but continued using local materials.
Prior to 1983, he wasn’t pigmenting his work at all: “I thought the beauty of the wood by itself was enough,” Brooks said. “But then I started painting the wood, using color pencils, lacquer finishes and the work was coming out differently.”
The jagged shapes reflected the landscape as well as Brooks’ emotions. When he came back to the U.S. a year later, he had a whole bunch of different work. Many of his clients wanted him to pick up where he had left off. But he told them he wasn’t doing that kind of work anymore. He showed them his new work and many were not interested. But the nation’s galleries and museums were.
“I found that the galleries were really interested in the new work,” Brooks said, “and it was easier to ship because it was lighter. It had lots of advantages — colorful and bright — a whole new side of me.”
The next phase
The lighter, whimsical pieces Brooks works on now reflect his evolution with both art and the environment. His work could be considered a collaboration with nature, as reflected in the title of the Currier retrospective.
“When you start with boards and lumber, if you want to impose geometric shapes, you’re limited in that regard,” Brooks said. “I find it freeing to collaborate with the natural form in that it allows me to have an environmental statement about nature and how it has a voice. No two trees are alike, just like no two people are alike. That excited me. That I could engage on that level.”
Brooks said he now has a slightly different vocabulary with which he expresses himself. He said it is a bit more painterly.
“I like working with color,” Brooks said. “That is very important as part of my expression. Looking at aboriginal work really set me off as far as potential of communication through painting and color.”
One of the difficulties for any artist, especially one who is always evolving, is that his work is subject to interpretation. What does Brooks hope people will feel when they see his work?
“How do you engage your audience?” Brooks asked. “You do the best you can. If there is an honesty of expression that comes first, in other words, I am going to relate to the materials in the most honest way that I know — that I am going to show up as who I am — then I think people respect that. They feel that connection. Whether they can articulate it or not is another story.”
“We’re all searching for communication with each other,” Brooks said. “Mine is visual poetry. A way of talking, as opposed to written on a page or through music, dance or theater. They’re all doing the same thing.”
Like a phoenix
Brooks and his wife, Jami, who is studying to become a minister, woke up at 3:30 a.m. on the morning of Jan. 18, 2010, to a strange glow outside their window. A fast-moving fire was destroying Brooks’ studio — the place he spent hours a day collaborating with wood. When the final flame was extinguished the majority of the studio, Brooks’ tools and work, both finished and unfinished, had been destroyed.
“The fire just gobbled everything up in a few hours,” Brooks said. “I do believe we’re creatures of habit. I had the studio set up where I knew where everything is, all the tools I needed. There was a new addition that was almost finished.”
Brooks snapped his fingers.
“And then it was gone.”
What Brooks didn’t lose in that fire was the admiration of his friends and patrons. They banded together and held a benefit concert on April 3 in Concord. Enough money was raised to build a new workshop and give Brooks some basic tools.
If he is anything, Brooks is resilient. He did not allow the fire to stop his work, but he did let it influence it. He said for the first time in his career he began using the color black and he started using a torch on the surface of the wood.
Much of Brooks’ work both in the past and now is a response to events around him. He made pieces following 9/11 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. He said he has continued this practice.
“I’ve been responding to what it is like to go through a devastating loss with a fire,” Brooks said.
He can take comfort in the confidence of others.
“Out of the ashes rises the Phoenix,” McLeod said of Brooks’ ability to rebound from disaster.
And he will. Brooks will carry on and continue redefining furniture as art. And he will be successful by his own terms of the word.
“I think of success as survival,” Brooks said. “So I can get up every day and create work.”
It is this work that Brooks hopes outlives him, which is why when he is working on a new piece, he thinks in terms of 500 years.
“Making pieces that stand the test of time in the best possible way is important,” Brooks said. “I used the word ‘integrity.’ Quality has always been an important aspect of the work itself.”
“Some of the work is still going to be around when I’m gone,” Brooks said. “I don’t think any words I’m going to say are going to stand the test of time. It is all about the work.”