Who is this "j"?
As Director of Craft at Mike Perry Studio, J Bell is responsible for building what Mike and he dream up. Collectively, the two are exploring the question of how to make their imaginations tangible. J’s fabrications for the studio include sculptures, elaborate wood constructions, silkscreens, and stop-motion animation shorts. For the “Wondering Around Wandering” community art project, he transformed 7,000 square feet of raw industrial space into an exhibition and performance venue, which included a miniature house that he designed and built.
At the studio, J is a creative partner, fabricator, producer, project manager, builder, filmmaker. He is also a relentless researcher and artisan. Continually experimenting with materials and construction, he has created a series of built and repurposed objects—using resin, found materials, wood, clay, spray paint, and more—that are art pieces themselves and expand the studio’s aesthetic vocabulary. They are the notebook drafts in which a poet plays with language that later appears in a finished work.
Building is part of J’s DNA. He designed and built his first piece of furniture, a three-legged stool, when he was nine years old. His eclectic history reveals the many talents he brings to his role at Mike Perry Studio. He initially trained as a scientist, obtaining a BA in Environmental Science from the University of Colorado at Boulder. After graduating, he apprenticed under a master cabinetmaker for two years, then worked as a cabinetmaker himself for an additional two years. When he realized building was an essential fascination, he enrolled in the Masters of Architecture program at the University of Colorado Denver.
After finishing grad school, J moved to New York City to work at Richard Meier & Partners, the esteemed architecture firm. During his four years there, he contributed to various projects and oversaw the model shop—the creations from which now have their own museum.
J joined Mike Perry Studio in 2011 and has realized and overseen numerous projects big and small. He is a problem solver extraordinaire, drawing on all of his experiences—both academic and everyday—to create a solution to the quandary at hand. The central one for him and Mike: What more can we imagine?
Do you want more?!
The rooms where Mike Perry and J Bell work feel like the hidden archives you might find in an archaeologist’s research facility. Interspersed with a variety of machining equipment, woodworking tools, art supplies, and other apparatuses are the results of the duo’s creative visions made real—paintings, silkscreens, sculptures, mobiles, zines, et al—scattered around like museum artifacts. The studio is a library and gallery; a workshop where Mike and J lasso imaginary formations grazing in asteroid fields and star clusters.
J then wrangles these ethereal fillies into tangible form. In his role as Director of Craft at Mike Perry Studio, J is a creative partner, producer, project manager, builder, filmmaker. J built the studio space where they work. Once Mike and he brainstorm their idea for a project—whether that is an 8½-foot-high triangular wooden sculpture with squiggly cutouts and built-in LEDs, a stop-motion animation, or the transformation of a 7,000-foot raw industrial space into an exhibition and performance gallery—they examine the logistics of the endeavor, brainstorm about its possibilities, and consider its scope. J is then responsible for bringing it to life, and he implements a plan, relying on his knowledge as an architect, a woodworker, and an artist. As a lover of puzzles, he is consistently developing inventive solutions to the creative challenges presented by the latest Mike Perry Studio initiative.
J is also a researcher, experimenting with materials and construction as a way of expanding the studio’s aesthetic vocabulary. As part of these investigations, J has made a series of built objects. These Duchampian readymades are
like the notebook drafts in which a poet plays with language that later appears in a finished work. They showcase the varying palette the duo use to make their built creations, the vocabulary of wood, paint, resin, clay, and tools that Mike and J use to craft their art.
In the studio, they work both collaboratively and independently. Mike is working on paintings and animation one day while J is building a sculpture, planning logistics for an upcoming installation, and investigating with construction and materials.
Over the years, the studio’s projects have become increasingly complex. Years ago, J had to problem-solve how to get an art installation encompassing six oversize canvases and other art objects from New York to Japan and back again. From the basic math of that project, J found himself meandering to the advanced physics of 2012’s Wondering Around Wandering community art-space, which required him to design and build an exhibition, figure out an elegant circulation for visitors, and construct a small house, among about 20,000 other things; persistent innovation was the norm for that Kickstarter-funded showcase, since multimedia events demanded new capabilities from a space that was by no means built for them. J didn’t sleep much that summer.
For the 2015 Pacific Park mural project, J handled the logistics of corralling a team of artists and volunteers to create large-scale paintings measuring 10 feet high and extending 410 feet along Dean Street in Brooklyn. That meant figuring out provisions, renting equipment, purchasing 70 gallons of paint, and organizing supply boxes for all 10 artists that would allow them to do their thing without any hiccups. As with all the studio’s projects, J is a hands-on producer from beginning to end: Once he had delivered the supplies, set everyone up in their spot, and the mural-making was in full swing, he was right in there, helping to paint.
Not everything Mike and J make is so large-scale, and the smaller projects also reveal essential elements of J’s sensibility. When you look at the made-from-yarn caterpillar and butterfly that he crafted into a stop-motion animation based on Mike’s sketch, it’s uncanny to see how the film and characters have that signature Perry aesthetic. It’s hard to know where Mike ends and J begins. To watch Mike and J tag-team projects to completion is to witness an apotheosis of efficiency, productivity, and creative collaboration. These guys get shit done.
As the studio moves into new arenas of animation, filmmaking, installation, and exhibition, J—with his can-do charm, good-natured celebration of challenges, and that oft-present pencil behind his ear—will continue blueprinting the artifacts that emerge from the studio, architecting the ever-expanding dimensions of a cosmos Mike and he keep dreaming up.
In this interview, J talks about initial projects with Mike, his training in architecture, the projects that keep him up at night, and the way that Japanese saws are made to pull the soul of the wood into you.
the interview with Jeremy lerher
How did you and Mike meet?
I’ve known Mike’s wife, Anna, since she was 17. When I first considered moving to New York, I had been offered a job at an architecture firm. They were offering me a low salary, so Anna was the first person that I called to talk about it. I asked her, “Hey, Anna, somebody offered me a job there—is it possible for me to live there on this much money?” And she said, “You know what, J, we all make it work—you do what you do to make it work.” So I thought, Alright—done. And she offered right then that I could stay with her and Mike. Mike and I had met before, but at that time it was just a quick “Hey, hello.” And just once. So I came here and Anna was out of town when I first got here and so Mike and I were thrown together. And [snaps his fingers] we hit it off right off the bat.
So you were staying with them?
I stayed with them for around two weeks, and then I found my apartment. And when I was working at the architecture firm, Mike asked me, “Hey, I know you’re a crafty person, do you want to build some stuff for me?” So one of the first things I built were these letters. I made him A, E, I, O, U—the three-dimensional vowels that have Mike’s artwork all over them.
What are those built out of?
That’s built out of MDF, which is a very toxic wood. But it’s super stable, paints really easily, and you can get it to form almost anything—if you have the power tools to do that. I made those letters, I made those ladders for him [points to the ladders in the studio]. [J, TO CLARIFY FOR READERS, WE NEED TO ADD DESCRIPTION OF THE LADDERS. ARE THESE THE CURVED LADDERS THAT LEAD INTO THE PAINTINGS?]. And then he was having his show—a solo show at MCAD, his school, and he was a little worried about building the stuff for it. So he contacted me and said, “You should come with me and help me do this.” I took some time off and went and did it, and we killed it and really hit it off. I think that’s when he got the idea that if he wanted to make that next step of doing exhibitions and more elaborate projects, then he would just hire me. And that’s what happened.
You trained in architecture. Where did you go to school?
I went to school in Colorado. I went there for undergrad and graduate, but undergrad was environmental studies, so it was a lot of science and some law. Originally, I thought I wanted to be an environmental attorney, and then I started reading law. And I thought, “Maybe this is not for me.” As a result, when I graduated, I had no idea what I wanted to do. At that point, one of my good friends who had moved to Colorado—someone I had known since the fourth grade—was working in a cabinet shop. He told me, “I can get you a job tomorrow. I know you like to build stuff, I know you like to work with your hands.” And I did that for four years.
It was awesome. I had a proper mentor and everything. But at some point, I started to feel like I wasn’t really going anywhere with it, so I started thinking about going back to school. It was Anna’s dad who helped me figure out what to do. I was having a conversation with him, and he said, “Why not architecture?” And it was one of those moments where you think, “What the f—! How come I never thought of that?” So I applied, and I got in, and that was a three and a half year program. I worked for six months after that in Colorado, and then applied for a job out here and I got it. So I moved.
What was the firm?
The firm here was Richard Meier & Partners.
Wow. Richard Meier is such a highly regarded firm. And you still know him?
Yup. And I’m still friends with a lot of people that work there. I’m playing on their soccer team. That was a great experience. I’m really glad that I got out of it, but I would not give it back. It was perfect. If nothing else, it showed me that I don’t want to be that type of architect. And that’s great.
How long did you work there before things solidified with Mike?
I was at Richard Meier for probably two years, and then Mike and I started doing stuff. Right at about three years is when we did that MCAD show, and then it was pretty much the next year that he got the two shows in Japan. He was in this quandary of, “Holy shit, how am I going to do this?” And he offered me a job, and he said, “We just gotta go do this and make it happen.” And so we did. I started working with Mike in March of 2011. And we went to Japan in June.
What were the logistics of the show in Japan?
There was a lot of preparation for it, and making a lot of stretchers and frames and stuff like that. We did make some smaller objects, but then it was really about how the hell do we get it all shipped over there? And I actually built two tubes to carry the canvases. Mike painted everything, we stretched it, made sure it looked good. Then we took it all apart: We took apart the stretchers, shoved them all into two tubes, checked them as baggage, and then built everything when we were there.
Are you serious, you checked it as baggage?
Yeah. And that thing totally looked like a bomb. And we had two of them. [Laughs.]
Did you get weird looks from the airport people?
What’s strange is that we got it on the way back.
From the Japanese?
Yeah, from the Japanese officials. At that point, we only brought back one, because we left one there: half of the pieces sold, and stuff like that. The airport authorities told us, “You can’t take these back—you can’t check these.” And I said, “Well, I got them here. And there were two of them.” So they made me pay a fine, and then we got through.
But it was a lot cheaper than having than shipped.
And they showed up with us, which was really nice.
With the wrapping process, the canvases were all fine.
Yup. Totally fine. All survived. There was one that we had to do some touch-up on the black, but that was about it.
Tell me about the scope of the projects you work on. Tell me about all the variety of techniques in your vocabulary.
For pretty much almost everything, Mike and I sit right at this table in the studio, and he breaks out a big piece of paper and we just start shooting ideas back and forth about the project. With the picnic basket project that we did for Diffa—we started the conversation with, “This is what they asked for.” But then we started brainstorming what we would like on a picnic, and talking about how we could make it different. I can’t remember how we got onto the idea of using a shipping tube container to carry everything, but then we just started going along with that. It was that and the idea of putting plates in there. Originally we were thinking you could just flip the tube open and eat off of the caps. But that would get kinda nasty. We realized that we could use a magnet and a steel plate that would stick it to it. And then we started going crazy about everything we could do, like including a cutting board and even using the fabric we have here to make napkins. Because we do have a lot of Mike’s fabric just sitting around.
At least with that one, it was a matter of looking at what we have and getting it to work. We could’ve just bought a bunch of stuff, too, but the only thing that we bought was the little LED lights and the leather straps and the tube—and the plates. But everything else, we made and used what we had around. Even the silverware we didn’t buy. We went to a diner nearby, and after we’d eaten, Mike said to the manager, “This is a random question, but can I get some silverware from you?” And the guy was like, “Oh yeah, here you go.”
Tell me more about the process of collaboration. What happens during that time when you’re working with Mike.
It’s pretty amazing. We’re so similar but so different at the same time. He’s extremely visual—I’m not talking ill of him when I say this—he definitely knows how things go together, but it’s a little bit more rough, and he looks to me to add the detail-oriented part of it. So my role is being the maker in terms of building, and him being the maker in terms of what we’re going to create. We talk about the project as he’s sketching it. I’m not that great at sketching—I think it through as I’m building. I think about it beforehand, too, but my “sketch phase” is when I’m actually constructing it, and fine-tuning it.
So he comes at it from the 2D, and I come at it from the 3D. And the combination really works out.
What’s one example of a project where you honed a project during the process?
The Duvel sculpture [a triangular piece made from wood panels that are TK by TK feet]. [J, AS I READ THROUGH THIS DESCRIPTION AGAIN, I REALIZED THAT WE NEED TO CLARIFY THE FOLLOWING DESCRIPTION BECAUSE THE CONSTRUCTION YOU DESCRIBE IS NOT CLEAR—CAN YOU MAKE SOME ADJUSTMENTS OR CAN WE TALK THROUGH?] We had these panels cut, and Mike wanted to cut those into three things. They are cut into three, but then he wanted to cut each one into its own little panel, so it’s 16 by 16. And we would light it from behind. One of them says, “Open,” one says, “Studio,” and then the others are just patterns. But we were talking about doing an object for Duvel. When we stood them up, and put those together, we realized, “Holy shit! This makes a triangle, we could just get this done, get it CNC’d, and then we just build the structure for it, and make a painting on the inside.” [NEED TO CLARIFY THAT REFERENCE ABOUT PAINTING ON THE INSIDE—THE PAINTING SHOWS THROUGH THE CNC’D HOLES, CORRECT?] And we generally get to that idea by the two of us sitting down and talking it through.
So when you start making things, you begin to tweak the piece?
Yes, after we talk it through, there’s still more we need to do. For this picnic basket, we thought that we had figured out everything, but then when we started putting it together, we had another design collaboration in the process of discussing “How’s this going to work?” We collaborate on the concept, and a lot of times, it’s an idea that Mike comes up with, and then we collaborate on the actual “How do we get that to the next step?” And then I’ll make it, and then we come back together and put the fine details into it. We talk about everything and how it goes together, so we can figure that part out.
What I found in working with Mike on writing projects was that my imagination somehow gets bigger—do you find that?
Definitely. It’s really amazing, especially with him. It’s super rewarding, super satisfying, and it really does push me forward. We push each other. One weekend, we were talking with one of our other friends about making a skate video. And we just got going in terms of brainstorming, and Mike and I were [snapping fingers] shooting ideas back and forth, like, “Then you could do that… But then… And then…”
Let’s talk about “Wondering Around Wandering.” So Mike tells you about this project—what’s your initial response?
That was another project that involved a lot of collaboration. He said, “The book’s coming out, and I want to do something like this, I want to put on a party.” And we talked it out, and how much better of an idea it was to have it be a community space instead of one that just showed art. We looked at event and exhibition spaces, but they wanted crazy amounts of money for one night. And then what the hell are we going to do? We’re going to move everything in, and then have to move it out the next day or they’re going to charge us again?
So we did a lot of looking around, and then we lucked out with finding that space. I think that’s the best thing I’ve ever been a part of. It was just amazing. I’d been working with Mike at that point for just over a year and a half, and it really showed how we’d come to work so well together. At one point, he said to me, “I want a house in there.” And I said [snaps fingers], “I know exactly what you want.” So we didn’t even have to talk about it—I just built that house. People helped me obviously. But the whole process was like, “This is what we’re doing—let’s get to it.” And we did it.
Your architecture training certainly came into play for that project.
One of my complaints about my architecture degree, which I brought up to one of my professors—is this: I was there for seven semesters, and you have a studio pretty much every semester. Of those seven studios, I designed four museums. It was awesome that we were doing that, but a lot of architects—most architects—are not going to be designing museums. They’re not going to be designing 10,000- to 40,000-square-foot places. Why don’t we do something small, like a house? Not even a house, just something small. And during the last semester at architecture school, I did design a house.
Yet having designed a number of museums, I have very strong feelings about them; for one, that they shouldn’t be too flashy. They should just be a place for the art and that circulation should be really well thought out so you don’t have to repeat yourself when you’re moving through the exhibitions. I hate that—it drives me crazy when you have to do that. For the “Wondering Around Wandering” space, it was my time to be like, “Okay—I totally know about circulation. I am a geek about circulation.” When Mike and I sat down to figure it out, I drew up a plan of the space and cut out a bunch of blocks that showed the different sizes of the walls we would make. I told him, “This is the way I think it should go, because if you come in here, you can flow like this, and you can come back and move around like this—and you never have to repeat yourself.” And we ended up doing that. It was my architectural education that led to that moment. It’s incredible to see how things come to fruition like that.
The circulation was probably so intuitive that people didn’t really think about it.
That’s the way it should be, and I think we pulled it off in there. I put a ton of thought into it. No one thought about the fact that you never repeat, that you could walk through in one loop and then pop out and back. One person did notice—he was an architect friend who used to sit right next to me at the studio. He showed up on opening night, and he said, “Dude, I know this is all you. I didn’t have to repeat.” I told him, “Yes, Adam! Awesome.”
As far as other parts of the exhibition space, like building the stage, what else did you enjoy?
Out of everything that we built in there, I had two favorite things. One was the little things that held the speakers, that suspended them from the ceiling. And that bar.
You mean the bar area where the exhibition volunteers would be standing behind, where the record player was.
Yeah. We knew that we wanted something there in that spot, and it was one of those situations where I was thinking about how to do it but hadn’t started it yet. I generally have a good idea of what I want to do, but it’s once I get going that I figure out exactly what I’m going to do. The night before I was supposed to start making the bar, I was lying in bed, and I had this thought [snaps fingers]: I got it. I showed up at the space, built the bar, and it was so fucking sturdy. I was really pleased with how that thing turned out.
Tell me more—what did you build it out of?
It was pretty much the same thing as everything else—as the house, as the stage. It was just 2x3’s and also some 2x4’s to link it all together, with it all sheathed in plywood. It turned out really nicely.
I just assumed it was already there. Where did you build all that? Did you build it at the studio?
We built everything in the space itself. I took my table saw and circular saw over there, along with all my other tools, and went to town.
What did you do when you tore it down?
We still have pretty much all of it. We got a storage space, and it’s filled with the material. We have 140 2x3’s just sitting in there.
You just took it apart.
That was part of the concept. We all went over there one Friday night—the three interns, Mike, Josh Cochran, and myself—and we broke it all down. Even the walls, we broke them apart. The one cinderblock wall they left up, but the drywall, the big white walls where all the art was, we disassembled them. We kept offering them to people, and nobody wanted them, and we didn’t want to leave them in there. I also went in and ripped out all the wiring we put in. We left that space like we got it. Actually, we left it cleaner than we got it, because it was super dirty at the beginning.
The walls we had to throw away, which was a bit of a bummer, because it was just drywall. But I went through and picked up as many screws as I could, the next day. And I weighed it all afterwards. I ended up with almost 60 pounds of screws.
That’s what I like to do—to build stuff so that it can be used again. Or so it can be taken apart easily and then stored, and we’ll figure out what to do with it later. We still have the entire stage. We have the house—it’s all just sitting in storage, taken apart.
So you could build it all again.
If need be.
Did you find WAW overwhelming at times?
Oh, yeah. That first two weeks of setup, I was not sleeping. I mean, I was sleeping, but not well. I would go home and my brain would be racing, and I’d just be lying there, thinking, “Shut off! Shut off!” But like I said, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. I worked for almost four months straight—so I was working every day. But it was so rewarding, and made it all totally worth it.
Because it was a shared space for artists and because of the impact it had on so many different audiences.
The people that came by and saw the show—you could just see that people were blown away, and I love that. And kids would come in. These two kids from the neighborhood would come in pretty much every day. They would get out of school and just hang out. At the end of the show, I think it was their grandfather came in and asked us, “What the hell are my grandkids going to do now?”
Part of the show’s impact was to prove to other people that it can be done. There are a lot of people who are very crafty and could do something like this.
You have such an amazing variety of talents. In addition to the architecture and carpentry, you do electrical wiring, CNC’ing, and other things for different projects. How did you master all these techniques?
They’re all somewhat random. I didn’t realize this until I went home to New Mexico to visit my stepmom two years ago. I went out our front door, and I looked down and there was this stool sitting there that I made when I was nine. And I thought, “Oh my God. I’ve been building things since I was nine.” This stool is a three-legged stool, it’s never going to stay up—unless you’re Alvar Aalto, it’s not really going to work.
I’ve been always building things. And that continued when I became a skateboarder: I would build all my own launch ramps and skate obstacles, and stuff like that. And I would even build those for other kids in the neighborhood.
Any influence from your parents?
My dad owned a construction company with some of his friends for awhile. So I got introduced to that, also. We had an old 1971 VW bus, which my dad taught me how to tune up and maintain when I was a little kid. I would work on that, and I still own it. So, overall, I’ve always been very hands-on.
And then electrical stuff—this is probably not the best moment in my life—but I used to steal car stereos when I was in high school. [Laughs.] And that taught me how to do electrical work.
What did you do with the stereos? Would you sell them?
Yeah, I would sell them, and I would install them in other people’s cars. I would de-install, and then install them in other people’s cars, and charge for it.
Did your parents know about that at some point?
I told them later, and their response was, “Woah!”
You were very enterprising.
All these arenas share something. Like with the sewing, which I just started. It’s a fairly new thing. I’ve tailored some of my own shirts, just to mess around with it. And when I was doing sewing for these projects, especially the Diffa picnic project, I realized it’s almost exactly like working with wood. It’s crazy. You take just a little bit more time in sewing, so that you can be really precise when cutting and laying out the fabric. And then you can just go to town. It’s a very similar process—maybe not the same as working with power tools, but definitely the same as working with hand tools. Because you just go slow—at least I do when I’m sewing—and you can see it assembling together.
Can you tell me about learning to sew from your mom?
I’ve done sewing by hand, but not really that well. I would usually just get my mom to do stuff for me. But then I was thinking about knowledge that your parents can pass down to you. And my mom is amazing at sewing. And the thought occurred to me, I should learn from her—she’s an incredible resource. Plus it’s cool for my mom and me to hang out and share that time together. She taught me the basics. The first thing we did was to turn a pair of pants into shorts. She did one leg, I did the other—just us sitting in my apartment working on it together.
You could pretty much build anything: You can make your own clothes, you can build a house, you can do the wiring. Is there something about the tangible aspect of making or the autonomy that comes from it that you’re drawn to?
I don’t know what it is, but it goes with everything I do. Even though sketching is definitely making something, I’m just so much more into actual physical objects and making that. And I think that’s what one of my problems with architecture was. Because I always like to explore a structure in actual model form, but when I was working for Richard, you can’t really do that. The model shop makes the models—and I led their model shop, for about a year and a half. But once I was out of there, I would only go back to the shop if we had time and I could work for my specific project. Otherwise, you have to hand off drawings to somebody, and get them to build it.
That was my major problem with architecture. I would work 10-, 11-hour days, and at the end of the day, I’d sit back and turn off my computer, and I’m like, What the hell did I do today? It’s all in the computer, or I hope it is. If it’s not, then I have to repeat this day. Whereas if I build a little salt and pepper shaker—even if it’s not exactly what I want—I can stand back at the end of the day, and say, “That’s what I did!” And I know how I want to change it, I know next time how to make it better. It’s the physicality of it that I find so engaging, and especially sanding or some technique like that. You can just feel the object taking shape. Even when you’re using a table saw—it’s extremely powerful, and you can feel that blade cutting through the wood and making what you want it to make. That just amazes me, and it always has.
I was recently reading about the furniture maker George Nakashima, who had this intuitive approach to working with wood. Is there a way that you feel that the materials speak to you?
Definitely. You definitely know what wood wants to do when you’re working with it. While I was still in graduate school, I was listening to this guy talking about Japanese architecture and woodworking. Their saws work on the pull, and ours work on the push. And even their planes work on the pull. And the guy said that someone had told him that the Japanese do that because you’re actually pulling the soul of the wood into yourself. And I thought, “That is beautiful, amazing.” When I was working at Richard’s, I became really good friends with a Japanese guy, and he is like I am, we both can make whatever the hell we want—to an extent. He’s a super talented guy. Super talented in a different way. I used to say that the stuff that he built—the models, especially—would be perfect. Mine looked perfect. Because if it’s actually perfect, it doesn’t look right. You look at it, and you see a column, and it’s definitely straight, because you can put a square up to it, and it’s straight. But it looks like it’s not straight. So in my models, I would actually tilt them just a little bit to make it look straight, even though they weren’t.
I asked him about that—about the pulling the souls of the wood, and he told me, “No—it’s just more control.” And I said, “Dammit, Techan, just say, ‘Yes’!” But I don’t really care if anyone else confirms it. I know for me, that’s a beautiful concept, and so I think there’s truth to it. I have a number of Japanese saws.
Did you get the saws before you heard that?
I had one before anyway, because they are the most accurate for doing flush cut saws, or flush trimming. Americans like to do things quickly—with most saw blades here, the teeth alternate, and it can be a very aggressive cutting. With a lot of the Japanese saws, the teeth are totally in line, for very fine cuts, and it actually makes a kerf line that is super thin—whereas ours will be really thick, almost an eighth of an inch. With the Japanese saws, you can cut a line that’s one-sixteenth of an inch, and with some of them you can even cut a thirty-second of an inch, which is amazing. You can get the saw blade to flex and cut something with a great deal of precision and without doing any damage to the surrounding wood. So if you have something, like on these benches here in the studio, the little plug right there that I put in the wood. I could glue the plugs in and have them extend above the surface of the bench and then I came back with my little flush cut saw and trimmed them out without actually marring any of the rest of the wood.
I have had Japanese saws for awhile—but that was because of my mentor in Colorado.
Your friend first introduced you to the shop.
I went to work there for something like six months. Initially, I was mostly on my own. They would give me fairly simple projects, and then after the six months, they approached me and said, “Hey, do you want to be Jon King’s mentee? [IN YOUR CLARIFICATION, YOU SAID THAT YOUR MENTORS WERE JON KING AND TOM “CHOPPER” ROBERTS, BUT I’M NOT SURE THAT THIS REFERENCE HERE IS CORRECT. CAN YOU CONFIRM?] And I was like, “Hell yeah, I do.” I worked under him for a year and a half. And then he left the cabinet shop where I was working.
Let’s jump back for a moment. When you were building skate decks and all that stuff, you had all the tools you needed to do that?
That’s interesting. My dad had a limited number of tools, so at that point, I was building everything by hand. We would just use a handsaw. We did have a jigsaw, but it my friend’s jigsaw, so I would only borrow it to do the curved parts. Like if we were making a launch ramp, I would use it just for that. At that point, I could cut curves well with a jigsaw, but I could not cut straight, really. So I would cut all the other lumber by hand, just because I could control it. I would cut the 2x4s and everything by hand. We didn’t have a drill, so everything was put in my hand. My friends and I had big forearms, because we were screwing things into the wood by sheer force.
You couldn’t use a hammer?
We had it, but I wanted to be able to take it apart easily. So we would take them apart, and reuse the stuff.
And you built several of those for kids around the neighborhood.
Before that, did anyone teach you to do that?
Not really. It was like the stool that I made. It just made sense to me, and I did it.
And the stool, what was the inspiration for doing that?
It was really random. One of my dad’s friends was having a party, and they were trying to find things for the kids to do to entertain themselves. And a guy had a woodshop, and I guess I was just in there, thinking to myself, “What the fuck?” And he said, “Hey, you want to build something?” So he gave me a bunch of lumber and my dad was in there, too, kindof helping but not. Because he wanted me to do it for myself. And I ended up making that three-legged stool. It was a tree stump that had been cut, and then I figured out a way to fix three legs onto it. It was not good at all.
In terms of the work you do at the studio, do you ever consider taking someone under your wing to train them?
I would love to. Mike and I have talked about this.
You have such a fluency in so many varieties of things you can do. You’re an architect, you also do the construction and woodworking—it would be incredible for someone to work with you.
I hope that they would feel that way. I led the model shop at Richard’s for a year and a half. I counted it one time, and I trained something like 18 people there. One of them gave me the biggest compliment even though he never said anything. His name is Toby, he’s a big German guy. When he first started there, I’d tell him, “Toby, okay, you’re going to be building this model, and this is how I would build it.” And I would say, “I’m saying this not because my approach is the end-all, I’m just saying this is how things are built construction-wise.” And he’d say, “Okay, yeah, well, I’m just going to do it this way.” And I’d tell him, “Alright, Toby, you do realize that this has to be done in a week.”
And that happened twice, and both times, he had to tear the model apart and redo it pretty much the way that I said it should be made. But then after those two times, he and I would sit down, and he would fully listen to what I was saying, and then he would do it his own way, but he would take what I said and make it a different way. And my response was, “Yes. That’s fucking awesome.” It was a great way to do it—and that’s what I was trying to tell him, that my way is not the only way, but that’s probably the way it should be built. And then he took that and made it his own. It was the biggest compliment I’ve ever had.
Are there other ways that your work at the model shop influences what you do at the studio?
It was a great experience for me. When I was thinking that I was going to work for Richard’s, I thought I was going to learn the old-school architecture, which is what I wanted to learn. But I ended up learning how to manage people. And I never thought I would actually want to do that or that I would be fairly good at it. But it turns out that I’m actually pretty good at it, and I love that I can do it now. Because at Wondering Around Wandering, my role was very much, “Okay, you, go do this. Alright, you’re with me, we’re going to do this. Questions: Just yell them out, I’ll answer. Let’s get these things built.”
In addition to letting go, what would you say that the collaboration with Mike has taught you, or how have you evolved or changed as a result?
As a person I’ve become so much better, and I’ve also improved at visualizing things. In school, I think I had that, but that’s because I was constantly working on it. And then when I was sitting at my desk every day in front of the computer, I lost that. And even sometimes when I'm in the studio, but I’m not really challenging my brain as much, I lose it a little bit. At the same time, Mike provides me with so many puzzles to solve. And as I’m getting older, that’s what I really figured out I’m all about. I love puzzles. So everything that Mike gives me is a puzzle. It’s making me super, super fucking sharp.
One of my ex-girlfriends contacted me recently and asked, “Hey, I have this problem—I’ve got this shoe rack that won’t fit on my door, what should I do?” Immediately, I drew out a little sketch, took a picture of it, and sent it to her. And she responded, “That’s perfect.” The work with Mike is making me super quick at solving problems.
So when you’re confronted with something you can’t immediately figure out, how do you work through it?
It stresses me out. Those are the things that keep me up at night.
Give me an example.
The structure for the Duvell light panels. Because they’re great indoors, but we needed to install them outdoors just for one night. And I was freaking out about it.
That they would fall over.
Yeah. And Mike said, “Dude, don’t worry about it.” And I told him, “No, man.” The piece goes down to a very small inner triangle, and there’s going to be a bunch of drunk people around them, and they’re eight feet tall? Actually they’re eight foot six or something like that. So I was freaking out about it. Eventually, I came up with a solution, then Mike and I talked about it. But when we got up there, it just wasn’t working. So I was also freaking out about that. Then Mike said one thing, and we were off, and I was thinking, “Okay, perfect.” And we did what we needed to do to get it done.
What did you do?
We hooked them up to pallets, just to give it a very big base. Initially I was thinking we didn’t want to hook them up to anything, because we wanted the pieces to be pure. But once Mike told me, “Dude, I’m totally fine with it being on a big base,” we were able to move forward. And it ended up looking really nice.
Do you ever sketch or freewrite?
I used to do a lot more writing. I definitely sketch some things. It depends on my mood or mindset. Because sometimes I’ll have an idea, but I can’t really sketch it out, I’ll just have to make it.
I drew a sketch for the structure of the Duvel pieces that I think would have worked, but it required us to drive stakes into the ground. When we got up there, we tried to drive a stake into the ground, and the ground was mostly clay, and the stakes weren’t going anywhere. I was hitting the shit out of the thing with a sledgehammer, and it went down a tiny amount. That’s when we stepped back and began thinking, “Hmmm… Alright, what are we going to do?”
You’ve built some of Mike’s sculpture pieces.
I did the shingle pieces, and also the little paper-clip type piece. And then I made all the furniture and everything—the benches, the pedestals, the stage, ladders, that type of thing.
When you’re working on some of these projects, do you get pulled into imaginative thoughts and worlds?
When I’m actually building, my brain is flying around. And this definitely happens with Mike generally, because we talk about the concept of a multiverse so much. So I do get drawn into other worlds. When we’re here in the studio, we listen to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos—Mike can watch it because he’s usually sitting right next to the computer. It’s so good—even just listening to it. And if it’s not another imaginative world that I’m pulled into, I’m in my own little world of building. For the most part, I have Mike to thank for that. He’s opened my mind to a different way of building things.
Like that house for WAW—my God. I knew what he wanted. I definitely wanted to build that thing a little differently, and so I kept removing structure from it to try and make it as light as possible. And it totally worked out. The roof to that thing—the roof would not stay up anywhere, if it was outside. Indoors, no problem. With no wind loads or anything like that, it was perfect.
Did he draw a sketch of that house?
No. He’s drawn that house a number of times, and I’ve seen it. Right when he said, “I want to build a house,” I told him, “I know exactly what you want, I know what dimensions I think will work. We should just go to town.” So we built a platform and then stood on it, and we’re like, “Yeah, this will work.” Then we erected the walls.
That was one of your favorite projects—what was the least favorite?
The one that has given me the most trouble was one of the pieces we made for Japan. It was mostly because we had to paint it. I can build a lot of stuff—but paint is still one of my weaknesses. I’m not that great at it. It was that thing [J, CAN YOU IDENTIFY WHICH PIECE YOU’RE REFERRING TO, AND THEN WE’LL WORK THAT INTO YOUR ANSWER?]. The paint was just driving me crazy. Each one of those things I probably repainted four or five times.
Was it the kind of paint or your technique?
I think it was both. It’s a really fancy spray paint. It comes out almost like a powder. I’ve done stuff with spray paint before but nothing like that where you’re trying to get it uniform over the entire surface, edges, and everything. It was really messing with me. I was in the studio a lot of late nights trying to get that thing dialed in.
What’s your sense of where you are now in terms of your collaboration with Mike?
I’ve told this story before. I feel like things happen for a reason, and I had this epiphany about that when I was working on this one piece. And it also showed another really good thing about collaboration.
Mike made this drawing—it was just a pencil drawing. And it was with the triangle-shaped guy that he draws all the time, and he’s peeking through the keyhole, and there are the boobs back there. Mike and I were talking about it, and I told him, “Mike, I could make a template, and cut that keyhole out of pretty much anything. And then we can glue a piece of wood behind it to give it some depth, and then you can draw the boobs on there.” And his response was, “Holy shit!” It spiraled from that, and he made the piece—and it’s one of my favorite pieces.
I was making it with my router—the thing spins really fast with a very sharp bit. The router just shut down and would not turn back on. One time when I turned it on, I had noticed a little spark flew out of the top. And the cord was getting kinda janky on it. And so I unplugged it, pulled the cap off, and sure enough, one of the cords had become frayed and was not making a connection anymore. So I ripped this thing apart [laughs], and I'm rewiring it, and I’m sitting there, and I’m like, “Oh my God. Okay, I stole car stereos when I was a kid—it taught me wiring; and so I can fix this router. I went to school, I thought I was going to go into law, and ended up not doing that. Ended up becoming a cabinetmaker, so that taught me how to use this router.”
And then I thought: “I went to architecture school, left Colorado to come to New York for a job, so that’s really what brought me here. And now all those little steps are making it so that I can cut a keyhole in this piece of wood so that Mike can draw some boobs on it.” Amazing. All those little things led to me being here, working with Mike, having a fucking amazing time. I am super spoiled. There’s no way I can do anything else—this is it.
You’re doing what you love, and you get to do all these incredible projects and help him. And the two of you collaborate and create these imaginative pieces.
And we really fuel each other, and I love that. One of us can say something, and then the other builds on that, and it just goes back and forth.
What realms are next? Are you going to start doing movies?
We have talked about movies quite a lot. We want to do another Wondering Around Wandering. First, we want to get that properly going, like a little gallery. And then we just keep this studio space forever. Obviously, if we do what we want to do, we’re going to have to move to a bigger space at some point. If we want a full shop and build crazy shit and have a spray booth and stuff like that, we’re going to have to have a bigger space. But we would keep this studio and make it a gallery—the entire thing. That would be amazing. And then we’ve talked about Mike approaching Kickstarter and saying, “We want to do the Wondering Around Wandering show, but we want to do it in another city. Not in New York. And we want the people to decide what city.” So if Kickstarter could do this where they would put it out there, that whichever city raises the most amount of money, that’s where it’s going to happen.
Interesting. And people don’t get charged unless their city gets the project.
Exactly. If people in St. Louis donate, but it ends up not happening there, then nothing gets charged. But let’s say Kansas City raises the money, then Kansas City can do a show.
Your enthusiasm is palpable. There’s clearly so much you enjoy when you guys get into the flow with these projects and ideas.
Like I said with the problem solving, that’s where I love it. My brain just becomes so sharp [snaps fingers]. It’s super addictive. Which maybe is not good. But at least it’s something positive.
What’s something surprising that lovers of Mike’s work or friends of Mike don’t know that you know from working with him?
I think it might not come across—maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, but he is always working. It’s insane.