Finding more inspiration outdoors than anyplace else, wood artisan Joshua Vogel traveled the world and the country extensively before settling down in Kingston, NY, in the state’s bucolic Hudson Valley. He set up shop, quite literally, as co-founder and designer of Blackcreek Mercantile & Trading Co., and established his own woodworking and wood sculpture studio, drawing upon his expertise in heirloom furniture design. Joshua considers the environment in which he creates to be an important tool in and of itself, and balances the mess inherent in creation with the personal requirement that his creative space always be ready to accommodate new ideas when they come.
Never taking the easy way out, Joshua enjoys the discovery process of making and tries to take lessons from challenges that arise. “Try to learn from your mistakes — quite often, this means dealing with them rather than discarding or ignoring them,” he offers. Joshua possesses the ability to take inspiration from many disparate and unexpected sources. “I think that it is as much about learning how to look,” he explains, “More so than where I am looking.” For more on his craft, works featured in Joshua’s recently-released book The Artful Wooden Spoon: How to Make Exquisite Keepsakes for the Kitchen are currently on exhibit at The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art. —Annie
Photography by Eberhardt Smith
What’s in your toolbox?
This is a simple tool kit that I use when I am whittling or spoon carving, the great leather roll was a custom-made gift by a friend of mine. There are knives of all sorts, saws, gouges, scrapers, and rasps — but the coffee may be as important as anything in this toolbox.
Fill in the blank, “When I am in the studio, I feel ____________.”
What’s on the top shelves of your inspiration library right now?
I am inspired by many things, history, literature, cinema, documentary, music, art… but I am always much more inspired by being outside than anything else. Nature. I keep a national geographic picture of “The President,” a 3,200-year-old, 247-foot Sequoia tree by my desk to remind me about the scale of things. The logistics of making the image are amazing, not to mention the tree itself. As a creative person, I am greatly interested in the materials that I use and where they come from.
Also, I am greatly inspired by our friends and neighbors who are refitting the all-wood sailing sloop the Clearwater here in Kingston this winter. As a woodworker, I am super interested in this project. I find this kind of work to be the epitome of functional wood sculpture, and I think that there are a lot of great lessons in this kind of application and investigation.
How do you keep yourself organized?
I try — to keep organized.
I think part of the whole nature of our shop is that the shop itself can adapt to what we are making — things are always in flux. Part of creating things is the aspect of destruction and making a mess, but I am always mindful of this balance. If the studio is itself a tool, my attitude is to try to keep it ready to do work. I know that not everyone is like this, but I cannot think clearly if things are a mess. I recognize that cleaning up is an ongoing part of my creative process, not an end goal. I use clean-up time to think. Then I try to follow some simple rules:
It is great if everything has its own place, but even more fundamentally, I try to keep things up off the floor so it can be swept, try to identify and deal with “junk” anchors and “black holes,” and then I try to keep “like” things together.
If you could have one superhero (or magical) power, what would it be and why?
Seriously? I can remember as a child of five or six saving up my money to buy an invisibility suit that I was convinced was real. What a big let-down that was! Now I often joke about wanting to have a magic wand, but if I have learned anything about “power” tools, it is that they are equally quick at making a mess of things. I try to steer clear of that kind of daydreaming.
What is the best advice you have ever received, and what is the one piece of advice you would offer to a young artist, maker, or designer?
“Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” I remind myself of this all the time, and I have been doing it so long now that I am not entirely sure of where I picked it up — I think perhaps my dad, who was also always quick with the cautionary note, “be careful what you ask for…” I find this reminder particularly useful in design work, but it obviously has much deeper and widespread significance. I would add the importance I place on perseverance. Try to learn from your mistakes — quite often, this means dealing with them rather than discarding or ignoring them.
How do you combat creative blocks?
Rest. Quite literally I will allow myself to sleep on “it.”
Change scenery, go outside.
I think that it is possible for a lot of synthesis to happen subconsciously. Perhaps the “block” is just the need for your brain to buffer all of the information in it. Also, I change the type of thinking that I am doing, for instance, if I am having trouble writing, maybe a little drawing will help to loosen things up, or playing a musical instrument often helps me.
Where do you like to look or shop for inspiration?
Shopping for inspiration seems like a really scary idea to me, also I should add that I try to spend as little time on the computer or using the Internet as possible. I find that I learn things much better or am more open to them through immersion — being there or actually trying it out. I like to travel to interesting places, or go to museums, or simply to take a walk outside, rather than specifically looking for, or waiting for “lightning bolts.” In this sense, I think that it is as much about learning how to look, more so than where I am looking.
This past fall we delivered some work to the Charleston, SC area, which turned out to be one of the more inspirational trips that we took this past year. I had never really visited the South before and was totally inspired by the architecture, food, and people. The “Angel Oak” was pretty cool, too, as per my obsession with trees. The drive from New York to South Carolina is full of interesting cities and towns and steeped in historical significance. Many things fell into place for me by actually taking the drive. I think that a big part of it for me is figuring out how to open myself up to be inspired, then I can almost find it anywhere.
If you could peek inside the studio or toolbox of any artist, maker, designer, or craftsperson, whose would it be and why?
This past year, I visited the studio of sculptor Martin Puryear, which was a very special invitation for me. I find the attitude he has towards his work, as well as the method, to be very inspirational to me and my life. But if I had the magic wand and I could transport myself anywhere at any time, I think I would want to visit the studio workshops of the architect and sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, whose work has long been very inspirational to me… Or as long as I am daydreaming, Leonardo da Vinci — definitely da Vinci. I have been in love with his sketchbooks since I was trying to buy invisibility suits in the first grade.
What’s on your inspirational playlist at the moment?
I love all kinds of music. We just revived a whole family collection of 78s and I have really been enjoying listening to these old recordings: foxtrots, rumbas, tangos, and some pretty soulful Hawaiian “slack key” tunes, too. But I listen to and am inspired by a wide range of music and find that there is music that I love to fit every mood, though it is impossible to narrow down a particular playlist…
John Coltrane — “India,” Eddie Harris & Les McCann — “Compared to What,” Charlie Rouse, Jorge Cafrune, Johnny Cash — The Man Who Couldn’t Cry, Mark Lanegan — “Leviathan” or “One Hundred Days,” all Mississippi Fred McDowell, Seasick Steve — “The Banjo Song,” Mulatu Astatke’s Ethiopian jazz, and the Melvins’ Buzz Osborne recently put out a solo album as King Buzzo that’s called This Machine Kills Artists that I love and have been listening to a lot in the shop. I particularly enjoy the ethos and delivery of the songs “New River,” and “Drunken Baby.”