A New Renaissance Man


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Author: Natalie Jones

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Meet Jack Mauch, the newest member of our growing family of “Craftsmanship’s Young Turks.” At age 32, Mauch is already creating breathtaking examples of craftsmanship in everything from furniture-making to ceramics and metalwork.

By NATALIE JONES

In his studio, in Allston, Mass., Mauch strives for what he calls “a synergistic combination of speed, economy, cleverness, and pleasantness of actions that combine to create grace in process.” He acknowledges that this approach “may not have an apparent visual impact on the object, but it’s at least an avenue for rigorous, striving engagement.” photo courtesy of Robin Dryer

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, beginning a path to becoming an unusually eclectic artist and artisan.

Despite appearances, the legs on this table were made from a single piece of walnut, which runs through many shades of brown, purple and grey from the heartwood outward. photo courtesy of Jack Mauch

“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.”

Now 32, 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.

LETTING MATERIALS HAVE THEIR SAY

When he first arrived at the Maine College of Art, 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.

 

Mauch “dissected” the walnut board used for the table’s legs into 3/8″ square strips, then reassembled them so the contrasting pieces abut each other. The result is a pattern of parabolas and hyperbolas. The finished table is quite small–18 inches wide, and 24 inches tall. photo courtesy of Jack Mauch

In 2011, Mauch applied for a fellowship program at the Penland School of Crafts, intending to develop his interest in ceramics. When he arrived, however, he was dazzled by the school’s array of options, and was soon drawn to woodworking. After dabbling a bit in metalwork, wood soon became his primary material, as it has been for the last four 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.”

THE FRUITS OF OBSESSION

This whimsical item is a pewter tavern mug. The goblet turned out to be quite popular–largely, Mauch thinks, because of its chicken legs. photo courtesy of Jack Mauch

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 and 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.”

 

Measuring only 9 inches long and 5 inches tall, this little box is one of Mauch's form studies. His goal here was to experiment with applying his veneer patterns to curved forms.photo courtesy of Jack Mauch

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 to day 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.”

ROASTING WOOD

In this case, Mauch used a high-tech router to build the domed substrates under these veneer curves. To Mauch, a high-tech router is no different than a table saw. Both speed through the boring, repetitive tasks of craftsmanship, freeing the artisan for the difficult hand-work. photo courtesy of Jack Mauch

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 in the ceramics studio, and an empty tomato sauce can. He filled the can with about two inches of the 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.”

Last year, Mauch was the lucky recipient of two generous grants. One, from the Massuchusetts Cultural Council, was for $12,000, with no strings attached. (Out of 160 applicants, 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.

Studies in Marquetry and Parquetry. Photo gallery by Jack Mauch.(Click on any photo below to enter full-screen slideshow)

THE DIGITAL LURE

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,” Mauch says, “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 worksmanship—to the man or to the machine.

This small coffee table, which measures 34 x 18, and 28 inches tall, is made of basswood and maple, with holly veneer. photo courtesy of Jack Mauch

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.

Mauch uses these pewter cups to see if he can make an appealing, affordable, utilitarian object with the basic hand-tools in his studio. “Other than the price point, which is $160, I am satisfied,” he says. To experience each step in Mauch’s process for making these goblets, see his “SLOG” below. photo courtesy of Jack Mauch

IGNORANT HANDS

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 plexi-glass. But plexi-glass 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.”

A “SLOG” vs. A LIVING

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.”

 

To test his ability to work within even finer tolerances than are required for furniture-making, Mauch decided to make a small pocket knife. This knife, which is less than 2 inches long (when closed), is made of 01 tool steel, brass, nickel, silver, and cow bone. photo courtesy of Jack Mauch

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 use his sensibilities.

RESOURCES:

To see Jack Mauch’s work in its full glory–and to read his humble yet thoughtful comments on it–check out his website. Make sure to read his “SLOG,” especially the photo essay about his computer mugs, which are a fascinating delight at every stage.

For more work by Jesse Beecher, the film-maker who shot and produced the video of Jack’s “Six Around One” parquetry door project, see Jesse’s website.

To learn more about Penland, Haystack, and other in-depth schools of craft around the U.S., see Natalie Jones’ 2017 story for Craftsmanship Quarterly, “Summer Workshops for the Aspiring Artisan.”

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 Stanford, the University of California, 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. 

Natalie Jones is a researcher and reporter working in radio and print. She is based in Oakland, Calif., and specializes in health, agriculture, food, and the environment.

© 2018 Natalie Jones, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: March 21, 2018


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