Russell, a self-confessed bachelor hermit, has quietly made sculpted furniture in his Saskatchewan studio for many decades.
Q & A with Jamie Russell
Location & size of studio
My studio and home are 80 acres about 25 miles from Saskatoon. 830 sq. ft.
Institute of Applied Arts and Sciences Cabinetmaking Millwork Program – 1972, Baulines Craft Guild apprenticeship with Art Carpenter and Stuart Welch – 1984, numerous workshops.
How long have you been building furniture?
What sort of furniture do you specialize in?
I mostly make tables and occasionally chairs, all featuring animals carved as structural parts. In the last two years I’ve had a few commissions for case work and have enjoyed revisiting this part of my furniture roots.
Tell us a couple of interesting things about your personal life.
I’m a bachelor hermit living in the country with my dog. Most of my protein comes from eating deer.
If you were not a furniture maker, what would you be?
I originally planned to be a French teacher, but the travelling I mentioned above convinced me I didn’t want to spend a long time in school. Last summer, I thought seriously about getting a job mowing grass in the nearby provincial park. In the end, I decided I was too old to start a new career. I have started a new direction with woodworking-carving decorative vessels and small sculptures.
Do you prefer hand tools or power tools?
My power tools get most of the wood I don’t need out of the way, but to get the sweet lines and surfaces that make my work glow I need hand tools.
Solid wood or veneer?
You can’t carve veneer.
Figured wood or straight grain?
I like wood, period. Even the straightest piece of low-priced birch has an inner glow and some forms don’t need or want the flash of highly figured wood to stand up. On the other hand, I have a source for western maple with a figure that would melt your socks and some of my most successful pieces are made with it.
Inherited Vintage Stanley Sweetheart or fresh-out-of-the-box Veritas?
I think there’s better steel in the old tools and they’re more made to be used. I have a couple of spokeshaves I inherited from my grandfather and nothing else seems to cut like they do.
Flowing curves or geometric shapes?
My work is about sensuality so it needs to flow. Sometimes a hard shape works to help the image in the rest of the piece.
Bread and Butter
A pneumatic die grinder is Russell’s favourite tool. It completes most of the shaping on his work.
This table has a Manitoba maple burl base, dyed big leaf maple leg and walnut top.
In 1993 Russell got a Saskatchewan Arts Board grant to teach himself to carve, and to prepare for a show at the Saskatchewan Craft Council. “Little Luke” was one of the first pieces he made for the show. (Photo by Mendel Art Gallery / Eve Kotyk)
Young Woman With Wing
In 2003 Russell was in Philadelphia as the furniture fellow for the Woodturning Center’s International Turning Exchange. One day he toured the Philadelphia Museum of Art and saw a Brancusi marble bust, “Mlle Pogany”. This piece is basically her turned on her side and is one of a series of vessels and sculptures that flowed from the original. (Photo by Mendel Art Gallery / Eve Kotyk)
Difficult, Yet Critical
Hand sanding is a necessary evil when dealing with so many sculpted surfaces.
Bring it to Life
Being able to have a design concept and follow it through in construction is what Russell feels is the most important skill to have. This “Coyote Chair” is the perfect example of that. (Photo by Mendel Art Gallery / Eve Kotyk)
Manitoba maple burl, walnut. Last summer Russell was having trouble getting interested in his work. When this happens Russell finds it’s best to pick up a piece of pretty wood and lose himself in it. This was the result.
Quotes from Jamie Russell
I’ve found I have to be consistent in my work days to be really productive. This means treating my work like a job. Getting up early and getting out to the shop at a consistent time is important. I find it essential in combating seasonal affective disorder to spend a lot of daylight time outdoors.
I split and haul my day’s firewood before work. To get my daily 30–40 minute walk in before dark during the winter months, I quit at 4:45pm. Once the sun’s below the horizon, so is my energy level. I’m hoping once the sun starts coming up earlier, and stays up later, I’ll get back to my old 40-hour weeks. If not, I’m debt-free and seem to be able to make a living on 30 hrs/wk.
The tool I’m most dependent on is the air-driven die grinder. That’s what I use to shape the details.
I love the immediacy of the lathe. No other tool shapes wood as quickly and efficiently, and no other single process lets you shape wood and handle the joinery all at once.
When I have long smooth curves to shape, I like to sharpen the spokeshaves I inherited from my Grampa. A sharp edge whispering through the wood makes me feel like a “real woodworker”.
When I was younger I seemed to have a backlog of fresh ideas waiting for me to have the time to make them. These days, the fresh ideas are fewer and I rely more on revisiting and refining ideas I’ve used before. I’ll still sometimes catch an animal’s gesture or see an image that just cries out to be made.
The best ideas appear whole in my mind’s eye. The rest of the time I have to drag them out a little bit at a time. Either way, I start with rough sketches (really rough, I can’t draw for beans), which I’ll refine as a full-scale drawing. This gives me a chance to see any joinery problems and to get the proportions right. If I’m having trouble visualizing a critter’s pose or a specific detail, I’ll make a plasticine mock-up to see what it can/should look like.
I would like to see new makers take chances. If you’re not sure, make it anyway; there will be another piece to use what this one taught you.
I’m tired of disposable commercial junk furniture because it’s a waste of diminishing resources.
Some of my best ideas have come from my customers; things I would never have built without their input. If I get someone who feeds my creative process, it’s great. This is also the client who gives me free rein.
I’m very introspective so the majority of my work is self-directed.
How much work goes into a piece, and how hard it is to survive on what we can get for it, is the most understood aspect of furniture making.
In general, I admire other makers who have fresh ideas and outstanding technique in their work.
Michael Hosaluk has been my friend and inspiration throughout my career. He has a thirst for good work combined with a desire and ability to share what he finds. He’s opened more doors for me specifically, and the woodworking community in general, than anyone else, maybe, in the world. He has an amazing ability to recognize what’s best in people and their work and to encourage them to develop it. Some other makers I like…Gord Peteran is the bad boy of Canadian woodworking. The first time I saw Judy Kinsley McKee’s work, all my bells rang. Garry Knox Bennett, like Gord Peteran, is a master of irreverence.
I’ve been in this game for 40 years. I came on the scene just in time for a reaction against mass production and the lifestyle it encouraged. Suddenly there was a national media voice for one-of-a-kind makers and folks like Art Carpenter, Sam Maloof, Wendel Castle, James Krenov and Jere Osgood. Suddenly there were all kinds of college and university courses to learn the trade, and self-taught guys like me could hang out a shingle and make a living at it. The result of this is that now there is a strong media voice for us, schools turning out outstanding makers and a consumer tool industry that I couldn’t have imagined when I started up. I think our future is secure.
Earning a living at building studio furniture is very frustrating.
I’ve always fought being called an artist. I think of myself as a craftsman first, largely because so many “artists” who move into craft disciplines use the appellation as an excuse to build sloppy work.
The public at large is more comfortable with buying art; it seems to have a cachet that craft doesn’t. I think the market for custom furniture is shrinking, but the market for “bijou” – small one-of-a-kind pieces – is still fairly strong.