It is with a heavy heart that we announce the passing of John in February of 2023. His works are now managed by his long time girlfriend Gretchen.
John McAbery lived and worked on a remote and rugged stretch of the northwest coast, called the Lost Coast. His home was a small handmade cabin without electricity or telephone. His workspace was a small table with a vise attached, a few hand tools and nothing else. “Simplicity and serenity are important to me. Power tools and telephones are incompatible with my style of living.”
John’s sculptures, however, are anything but simple. His free flowing creations were all carved by hand from solid blocks of windfall California bay laurel, sometimes weighing over 100 pounds. The finished sculptures can weigh as little as 4 ounces. “I enjoy working with bay laurel. It is a fast growing native hardwood, both tough and flexible, with a tightly interlocking grain. The colors in the wood move independently of the grain, so I never know exactly how this will influence the finished piece.” Out of respect for the environment, John only used aged logs from trees that have fallen naturally. John and his partner, Gretchen Bunker, also grew and planted native trees in the local watershed.
To begin the process, John used ribbons, clay or foil to create a three dimensional model of the sculpture. He also used seaweed and shells found on the beach as models. The design was drawn on both sides of the block and the carving began. “I have to remove a lot of wood before I can actually see how the sculpture will flow together. It is like searching for a hidden treasure.”
John used a Japanese keyhole saw to rough out his piece. Then he continued to refine the sculpture using smaller keyhole saws, gouges and microplanes. After many days of cutting and shaping, a rough sculpture would finally emerge from the block. John used sandpaper in successive grits to continue refining every twist and curve. The piece would be sanded down to 600 grit, then polished with a blend of beeswax and carnauba. Finally, the sculpture would be mounted on a solid walnut, marble or brass base. Gretchen also collaborated with John on his designs, helped with the finishing process and photographing all of his work.
When John was carving, he never played it safe. “I like challenging both the wood and my abilities. I break a few, but it is all part of the learning process. Every piece I do teaches me something new. So although my tools remain the same, my approach and application are always evolving, which is what really makes carving fun. What I learn is much more important than what I create.”
The beauty and power of John’s natural surroundings inspired many of his designs. “The coast is alive, full of magic, music and motion. Some of that is bound to show up in my work.” John’s peaceful lifestyle in such a pristine setting and his passion for carving continue to be an inspiration to many.
So long John, it was our distinct pleasure to know you. You are missed.