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The Spirit of Wood:Jessica Wickham’s designs for eco-living with graceby Molly Jones

In traditional Japanese culture, natural objects are imbued with spirits, and handmade objects made with natural materials are revered. Thus, in Japan, gardens, flowers, and trees are brought into the home and are crafted into beautiful buildings, art, clothes, and furnishings. Having lived in Japan for four and a half years and studied a form of traditional Japanese woodworking called Sashimono, Jessica Wickham is well versed in this mind-set. As a master of handcrafted furnishings, Jessica has found a passion in the spirit of wood, and her work involves a meticulous devotion to the whole tree—including its environment—from the harvesting of the log to the final finished pieces. Ironically, she discovered her passion as an escape from life in the multi-national corporate world.

Jessica’s first choice for vocation was anthropology, and while in college visualized a future as a documentary filmmaker. However, upon graduating, she decided she wanted to live in New York City. With jobs in her field scarce and the cost of living there prohibitive, she opted for a job in the technology division of a large corporation. “I got sucked into a big machine, “ is how she describes her work. The work was stimulating and it did offer a chance to travel. Working in the Asia division of the company, she was transferred first to Hong Kong and then to Tokyo. However, the pace of work was “frenetic,” working like mad during the day and on conference calls with the US at night. As she explains, “There wasn’t a lot of room for oneself.”

Coming from a family of architects, Jessica had always had an interest in woodworking. She had seen a show about traditional Japanese joinery and buildings as a teenager at The Urban Center in New York City and the work she saw there stuck with her. While in Japan, during her off hours, she started looking into the craft, which led her to a group of people who were studying with two masters. She studied with the group for four and a half years, in Japanese, which she did not know at first. She says, “They didn’t let me touch a tool for the first six months.”

When the company wanted to transfer her back to New York—to Wall Street—she quit the job instead, stayed in Japan, and moved to the old capital city of Kamakura, which she describes as “a magical, wonderful little town right on the sea. You have these two mountains coming down, and you have the harbor, and then you have this really big Shinto shrine. All around this Shinto shrine are hundreds of smaller temples. So, this place is full of temples and gardens.” She explains that the carpenters that build the temples are revered almost like holy men. They are master craftsmen and they only work on temples. Jessica adds that “It’s all very ritualized, even to this day.”

After living in Kamakura awhile, Jessica came back to New York and explored her options. As she explains, “I started to realize that this was something that was very powerful: the act of making something and connecting with a certain kind of aesthetic.” Her family had a place in New York’s Orange County, where she met several carpenters and woodworkers, including her business partner, John Woodward. She explains that she worked with them to learn the different ways to cut the logs and the different characteristics of each species. As it turns out, much of the wooden pieces that Jessica saw in Japan were made with hardwoods from the northeastern US, such as black walnut and black cherry. She realized that all that wonderful material was right in her back yard. With a friend’s barn offered as a place to store and dry the wood, Jessica was ready, after a year and a half, to start making her own furniture. Jessica had a big break when the project architect for the new National Audubon Society hired her to make thirteen tables for their new headquarters in New York City. With the profits from that, she was able to purchase the major equipment she needed.

She describes the kind of work she does as, “somewhere between traditional woodworking and sculpture. There’s a concept and a goal.” She works with thick-slab cut wood that has been air-dried for two years, a process which is much less stressful to the wood than the more common kiln-drying. She prefers to keep the natural edge of the tree as a prominent feature. She also finds that every tree is unique and that the cut pieces often have amazing patterns in the wood.

Most thick-slab cut wood is imported from South America and Africa, which Jessica avoided at the outset for ethical reasons. Besides the costs to the environment to transport the logs, other considerations for her were the labor practices involved and how the logs were harvested. Jessica and her partner only take logs that are harvested locally and ethically, which means that they either came down on their own, or were taken down for a reason. She does not harvest trees specifically for her pieces. The pieces are finished with a hand-rub of natural vegetable wax, which allows the wood to breathe and for the character of the wood to come through. She adds, “I like it because it’s tactile. It’s not like a plastic film on the wood, so it still feels like wood.”

In the summer of 2009, Jessica moved her studio to Beacon, NY after renovating an old industrial building on Main Street. In this bright and open space, she has many finished pieces on view as well as slabs of wood ready to be made into something beautiful and useful. Jessica’s love of the natural spirit of the wood is evident in her work and in her enthusiasm for her work. As she tells it, “The pursuit of something extraordinary within parameters is so interesting to me. We’re so distracted in our modern culture. I’ve just learned that you can take anything, and if you look at it hard enough, it’s pretty darn interesting. Wood is really good for that.”

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