Jack Mauch: A New Renaissance Man
Eager to begin his life's work as a craftsman, Jack Mauch left high school at age 16, preferring to carve out his own path. By the time he hit his early 30s, he was already creating breathtaking examples of craftsmanship, in everything from furniture-making to ceramics to metalwork.
Written by NATALIE JONES
Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in our Spring 2018 issue. It is being republished as originally written, without new reporting.
Jack Mauch was so eager to begin his life as a craftsman that he didn’t even finish high school. The youngest of five in an artistic family in New Hampshire, he convinced his parents to let him apply to art school as a junior, skipped his senior year, and took the GED instead. He then enrolled at the Maine College of Art & Design (MECA&D), beginning a path to becoming an unusually eclectic artist and artisan.
“I frequently encounter a crisis of identity when I try to describe myself with certain terminology,” Mauch says, on his prodigious website. “Designer, craftsman, artist—they all seem alternately applicable to the nature of my career. I know this is mostly a self-inflicted conundrum.”
Just 32 years old at the time of this writing, Mauch is building a body of work that suggests a sense of precision, an eye for detail, and a fascination with shapes and patterns in an uncommonly wide variety of materials. His self-inflictions already have brought him expertise in a range of techniques, including sand shading, wire inlay, and marquetry (the use of strips of veneer to create patterns, like a puzzle).
Mauch’s curiosities also have introduced him to what some see as today’s devil’s bargain in the world of craftsmanship: the new process of “digital fabrication.” As he continues his explorations, Mauch finds himself struggling through a love-hate relationship with digital tools. In many ways, Mauch’s experiences are a good illustration of how one young talent looks at the choices, and the identities, that more and more artisans will have to face as automation continues to spread.
When he first arrived at MECA&D as a teenager, Mauch started by studying ceramics. He became obsessed with clay, he says, though he suspects that would have happened with any material at that point.
When throwing on a wheel, he says, “you get to have this super direct engagement with the material. There’s a lot of process in ceramics. And that involves a deep understanding of the properties of the materials that you’re using, and really working within the limitations of those materials to try to achieve a vision.” As he would discover later, those early lessons in clay informed Mauch’s sense of the limitations of digital fabrication as well.
In 2011, Mauch applied for a fellowship program at the Penland School of Craft, intending to develop his interest in ceramics. When he arrived, however, he was dazzled by the school’s array of options, and was drawn to woodworking. After dabbling a bit in metalwork, wood soon became his primary material, as it has remained for years.
Mauch finds that both wood and metal encourage him to work differently than he did with clay—requiring intricate designs with pen and paper before plunging in with his hands. While he has enjoyed this change, he’s not hooked on it. “Often, it’s a bit maddening to always be just gripping, hanging on so tight to this final vision,” he says. The result, he finds, is that “I’m not in any sort of collaboration with my materials. I’m not really letting them have a big say.”
Those who know Mauch see these nuanced sensibilities play out again and again in his work. “I really respect Jack in the way that he goes about creating anything that he makes,” says Kathryn Gremley, the director of the Penland Gallery, who has known Mauch for years. “He’s pulling from a really strong wealth of information and skill sets whenever he approaches a project. He’s incredibly capable of taking on these really big, long, arduous projects.” Gremley believes that rather than diluting his focus, Mauch’s broad interests enable him to do more.
Brian Reid, a woodworker, fine furniture maker, instructor, and one of Mauch’s mentors, also considers Mauch’s desire to branch out a plus. “He has a lifetime of ideas already, but I don’t see him giving up on trying to learn new things,” Reid says. “If he can’t figure it out, he figures out who to ask to make it happen.”
“He’s such a smart person,” says Seth Gould, who was also a fellow at Penland. “You really get that, when having conversations with him—that he’s able to take it to the next level. Often I walk away from the conversation thinking about something that I haven’t thought about.”
Mauch fully embraces his obsessiveness, to a point. “This is the realm of my life where I get to be a complete control freak,” he says. “I try not to be a perfectionist in the way that I relate to other people and in my day-to0day life, but I allow myself to be a perfectionist in my work.” By all indications, his approach has worked. “The more that I learn and the deeper I go in my understanding of my process, the more that I actually can see.” Sometimes when he looks at his past work, he says, problems he never saw before jump out at him. “I just think your ability to actually see details changes.”
In 2015, Mauch was doing a residency at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, on Deer Isle in Maine, and one day found himself in the shop talking to fellow woodworker Leah Woods. She mentioned that she had been experimenting with “sand shading”—a time-honored technique, going back centuries, of darkening wood by essentially roasting it in hot sand. So Mauch decided to try it as well.
After rummaging around, he found a simple electric hot plate, some silica sand from the ceramics studio, and an empty tomato sauce can. He filled the can with about 2 inches of sand, put it on the hot plate, then stuck in a bunch of veneer strips, pointing downward. The sand, of course, was hottest at the bottom, and gradually cooler toward the surface. When he pulled the strips out, each one was beautifully colored—almost black at the end, graduating into increasingly lighter shades of brown as the heat moved up the wood. “It blew my mind,” Mauch says. He’s been playing with variations of this technique ever since. “It’s such a tiny augmentation,” he says. “It just blew open all this work I was doing trying to make interesting veneer surfaces.”
In 2017, Mauch was the lucky recipient of two generous grants. One, from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, was for $12,000 with no strings attached. (Out of 160 applicants in the running, only about five were chosen—one being Silas Kopf, a renowned master of wood marquetry.) The other grant, for $25,000, was a fellowship in furniture-making from the John D. Mineck Foundation. Seeing the commendations as a real vote of confidence in his talents, Mauch used his winnings to buy equipment and expand his studies even further.
The field Mauch decided on was a course of self-directed study in digital fabrication. His goal is to see if an automated CNC router (CNC meaning “computer numerical control”) can make veneer conform to a wider variety of curved surfaces.
“It requires so much responsibility as a designer, because there’s no opportunity along the way to see what you’re making, and respond to the design,” he says. “One thing that has been a revelation about working with the CNC router is that it’s a great tool for making things that are really precise, but can be different from each other with very specific relationships.” As an example, he’s found that he can make a form over and over, with just the slightest changes—“and that is so fundamentally different from making objects by hand.”
Nonetheless, Mauch remains apprehensive about digital fabrication techniques, for a variety of reasons. Gremley, the director of the Penland Gallery, has told him not to worry so much, saying these machines are “just another tool in your arsenal. It’s not going to take over your product. It’s not going to be apparent in your work how you got there.” That may be, but the artisan knows. And in some cases, the owner of that work might want to know where to give most of the credit for the curves and symmetry of the workmanship—to the man or to the machine.
“You will learn less about the properties of wood in five months of milling on a CNC router than you do with five minutes of hand-planing.”
Then there is the eternal question of what artisans learn from their tools. “I am so fascinated to be learning this stuff now,” Mauch says. “But I am also so grateful there wasn’t a fancy CNC router around when I was in school.” Why? “You will learn less about the properties of wood in five months of milling on a CNC router than you do with five minutes of hand-planing.”
In Mauch’s view, the first step in becoming a woodworker is to “develop a deep understanding of wood as a material—its requirements, and its limitations.” And, in Mauch’s experience, the only way to get that understanding, deep in the brain, is through your hands. As it happens, there is a fair amount of support for Mauch’s opinion (see below), which is why Gremley’s view misses the point.
After college, Mauch got a job in the Department of Exhibitions at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. While working on exhibitions, Mauch was sometimes given designs for installations “that were just insane,” he says. “And this was one of the best design schools in the country.” For example, a graduate student would spec a shelf that was supposed to be 50 feet long, with no brackets and no practical way to adhere it to the wall. In another instance, to make a structure glow invisibly when back-lit, a student called for using plexiglass. But plexiglass can’t be invisible. Students often assumed, in their designs, that walls are perfectly flat, when in fact almost none are.
“I’m not going to make a philosophical judgment that making things by hand is somehow more righteous, or more inherently beautiful, than making things with computers,” Mauch says. “I just don’t believe that to be true. But I do think it’s possible that I’m going to limit the amount that I’m using these processes, just because I don’t want to be spending that much time at the computer. I also just like working with my hands, and engaging with the materials directly.”
Mauch often talks and writes about his work, largely to understand it better. On his website, he maintains what he calls a “SLOG”—a Studio Log, with a variety of photos, describing some of his processes and the layers of thinking behind them. “The wheels are turning all the time,” says Gremley, “which is what I think is so cool about him. I don’t think it would be very smart for somebody to answer a question for Jack. And I consider that a real virtue.”
As for the future, Mauch’s plans are characteristically open-ended. This isn’t about having trouble deciding on a path; it’s about continuing to encompass new possibilities—new materials, new forms, new techniques. Mauch hopes to continue experimenting, while also teaching and, eventually, making and selling furniture for a profit. “That’s my biggest frustration—figuring out how to make a living at this.”
At some point, Mauch hopes to expand the scale of his work—collaborating with architects, or on public art projects. As he proceeds, if he continues to honor Renaissance traditions—mastering a variety of mediums, and walking a balanced line between all its tools—odds are good that more than a few architects will want to take advantage of his sensibilities.
All images courtesy of Jack Mauch, unless otherwise noted.
For more work by Jesse Beecher, the filmmaker who shot and produced the video of Jack’s “Six Around One” parquetry door project, see Jesse’s website.
For more information on how the human hand affects our abilities, see the 1998 book, “The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture,” by Frank Wilson, who has been a professor of neurology at UC Stanford and other universities. For a summary of Wilson’s arguments, see this NYT book review. In 2008, the philosopher and motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford added to the argument in his book, “Shopcraft as Soulcraft,” summarized here in his Op-Ed for The New York Times. Yet another take on the topic is this 2015 article from CNN, on how working with your hands can stabilize your mood, and ameliorate the effects of aging.