Spotlight: America(s)

Connected to Place

Design Miami

Mariah Nielson, daughter of legendary California craftsman JB Blunk, shares insights into her father's work on the occasion of Kasmin Gallery's latest show

This month, New York's Kasmin Gallery opened its first exhibition dedicated to the work of JB Blunk (1926–2002), a pioneering wood and ceramic artist who left an indelible imprint on the culture of making in America. To mark the occasion, we reached out to Blunk's daughter, Director of the JB Blunk Collection, Mariah Nielson, to consider this “California Craftsman” through the lens of this year's Design Miami/ Podium's theme, America(s).

Read on to discover Nielson's thoughts on the role that her father's sense of place played in his practice and how the legacy of his ecological sensitivity continues to inspire others today.

 Madonna #1 by JB Blunk (1973-77). Photo © Diego Flores for Kasmin Gallery

Isamu Noguchi once said JB Blunk’s work is typically Californian, even though Blunk's work is, in many ways, a product of his apprenticeship in Japan. What would you say is typically Californian about Blunk’s work?

I would say the freedom and resourcefulness of Blunk’s work are what makes it typically Californian. The natural environment of Inverness, where he lived and created for over 50 years, informed his work. The materials he salvaged, such as redwood burls, local clay, and river rocks are all specific to Northern California.

The Japanese influence is most evident in the architecture of his home and his disregard for the distinctions between art, craft, and design. Toyo Kaneshige, the master potter he lived and apprenticed with in Bizen, was a Shintoist. This way of life, characterized by a profound respect for and awareness of the energy of the natural world, was a major influence. The process of making along with all the experiences, actions, and energies that are a part of the creative process excited him.

Left: JB Blunk's home in Inverness, California. Right: Blunk at work. Photos © JB Blunk Collection

How would you characterize Blunk’s legacy within American arts and culture?

Blunk was a pioneer of the postwar back-to-the-land movement and was often described as a “California Craftsman.” He built his home and studio by hand in the late 1950s, using all salvaged materials. He and his first wife Nancy grew most of their food, raised chickens, and hunted for deer around their home. I would describe his lifestyle as sustainable and resourceful.

It’s difficult to separate Blunk’s lifestyle from his art practice—his home is his masterpiece, a living sculpture—and this is, I think, due to his experience living and working in Japan. “Nothing is precious,” he would say. And he always encouraged people to touch and interact with his work. Although he wanted to be a successful artist, he didn’t pander to the art world.

Ceramics by JB Blunk, on view at Kasmin Gallery. Photo © Diego Flores for Kasmin Gallery

Did Blunk think of himself as a Californian artist? Did geographic identities resonate for him?

His time in Japan (1950–1954) was incredibly significant. It was where his art practice started, and he was always deeply connected to that place. In a 1978 interview with Rita Lawrence, he was asked if the Japanese potter’s life that he intimately experienced in the early 1950s influenced more than his work. He replied: “Of course. It’s all still with me. The way I think and relate to the place around me and the environment, ecology, had its inception then and was important in forming an idea of a way of life.”

Later, when he moved to Inverness, he built a home and created a body of work that was totally and completely informed by and made from the place around him. So geographic identities were significant to him, but I’m not sure it was important for him to describe himself as strictly Californian.

The work of JB Blunk on view at Kasmin Gallery. Photo © Diego Flores for Kasmin Gallery

How has appreciation for craft-based arts evolved in the 21st century?

I think the increased interest in craft-based arts is the result of the technological revolution we’re experiencing. Many people want to go back to the land, to interact with tangible, natural materials, and to see the marks of human hands on the things they live with.

What do you think Blunk would think of the resurgent interest in craft and craftsmanship today?

I think he would appreciate the resurgent interest in craft and craftsmanship, but he would be skeptical of the nostalgic sentiment that is partially responsible for this trend.

What do you think Blunk would think of America today?

Blunk would be extremely distressed but not surprised by America today. He would lament the increase in social discord and would be especially concerned about climate change. He often talked about human nature and the challenges of being human, of rising above our animal instincts to fight and dominate. He worked with a Jungian analyst for a period in the 1970’s and was attuned to the unconscious and conscious aspects of his experience as a man and an artist. ◆


JB Blunk is on view at Kasmin Gallery in New York through November 7, 2020.

All images courtesy of JB Blunk Collection.