September Featured Artist: Joe Bourgeois
By Annette Verna
Joe Bourgeois is a furniture and cabinet maker from Bunker Hill, WV. His earliest experience working with wood was when he was 6 or 7 years old. He and his brother decided they would add a room on to their house in Massachusetts. “My mother found us with a hammer (missing half the handle), a few bent nails and a couple of short pieces of wood. We were building a room on the house and were making the doorway. She suggested we build the room first. ‘How do you build a room’ was my question.” That question stayed with him.
A Room and A Life
Joe started working with a cabinetmaker when he was 12. “He showed me how to sand the edges of doors and round off the sharp corners. I learned how to support heavy materials going through the table saw – he pushed, I held them up. I learned in the summer to start at seven and quit at seven. In other words, it became a life for me.”
It wasn’t a paying job, but it was a valuable experience and Joe continued to work with the cabinetmaker until it was time for college. He went off to Harvard and in the following years, he taught history, and then served as a United Methodist preacher. At 40, he turned back to the idea of that room from many years ago, became a licensed construction contractor, and then a furniture and cabinet builder.
The cabinetmaker from his youth appears in a few of Joe’s “Shop Musings” on his Web site (https://bourgeoisfurniture.com). The cabinetmaker passed away more than 40 years ago, but it is clear he left a lasting impression. Joe most enjoyed the times he would get to do something new. “I would go to one end of the bench, and he would go to the other. I learned to watch him and thus learned the new task.” As Joe grew his own business, it was his customers who influenced new experiences. “I have always been excited about tackling a new thing. I like it when customers ask me for new work. In a way, it puts me back in that shop at the other end of the bench.”
Joe builds tables, chairs, beds, bureaus, desks, work centers, kitchen cabinets and other things. He is currently working on a full set of kitchen cabinets. His furniture includes inlays with wood, glass and tile. If you’ve been to the Berkeley Art Works, you know he also makes sculptural art pieces and small art objects.
A Relationship with Wood
Joe enjoys pushing the envelope with each new project and does his best to meet the challenges that come. “I have no family tradition, or other strength that I can draw on. I am just trying to continue forward,” he says. When you read his musings, you will quickly learn that his relationship with wood goes deeper than this modest statement. “Wood strikes many people as inert – unmoving and unchanging, passive, waiting for our touch to bring it to beauty. This is a deep misunderstanding of the relation between wood and woodworker. In the process of a project the change is at least equal, if not more on the woodworker’s side. Wood changes our stance and alters our being. It gets into our brain and unleashes forces which lift our vision and release our feelings. The relationship between the woodworker and wood may be likened to that of a wave crashing onto the rocks. The wave comes in and is metamorphosed into force and spray, and is redirected ultimately to itself and its source of energy. When I start a project, I pick the size and shape that seem right for the purpose I have selected. As I come incrementally closer and closer to the wood, my vision clears and feelings are released. I am reoriented to my project and suddenly it is me reacting to the wood. I am mixed with it. This is important because wood is my way of communicating with others, and in a way it takes an equal part. The brain of a woodworker is changed by wood. Finally, that is good because it brings out a more authentic person.”
An Artisan’s Journey
Joe is an artisan – a combination of craftsperson and businessperson. As a craftsperson he has focused on acquiring the practical skills necessary to master his medium. No matter how simple or elementary a task, doing it properly takes practice (time) and skill (patience). “Skill goes in two directions: one not only must know what one wants to do – cut, bore, turn – but one must know why one wants to do it – how does this action fit into the other actions one must perform to execute a specific design?” The business side brings a different dimension to the questions of making. The tasks of running the business must balance with the making. “I want to be serious about finding mastery in my craft and allowing the business side to develop in coordination with that craft. As the business side grows within this perspective, it feeds the craft side, revealing new challenges.”
Today, with years of experience, Joe seeks to growth in working with wood. His motto: “Every day put your hands on the wood.” It is the road to the best growth and all creative people know they need to do the hard work to both grow and maintain a level of work. “Wanting to be better, or to be at all, is not enough. Some effective contact must be achieved. With wood, meaningful contact involves the hands. It involves investing oneself through manipulation. This does not mean I ignore reading or thinking about wood, styles, etc. These activities are good for a certain kind of perspective, but without hands-on experience, no real progress occurs.”
Joe writes, “Wood has always been all around me – in the trees in the forest, in building construction, in furniture, sculpture and art…. Things have happened to me which have caused me to get a perspective on it beyond my first surround.” He continues to question and search for meaning in his work and his creative life. He strives to be the best craftsperson he can – every day. “As I navigate my life and craft, I am looking for my job, my life-giving and identifying task. It has brought me in contact with many good people and made me friends. It has helped to plumb my own depths and potential.”
As evidenced by his work and the people who seek it, Joe has built more than a “room” and a “life”. Through his work and his journey, he shows us all the importance in finding, meeting and stretching the possibilities given to us, and the depth and richness of growth that comes in artistic development.
Come to the Berkeley Art Works anytime this month to see Joe’s work featured in our front window! You can also see photos of his work on the Berkeley Arts Council Web site at https://berkeleyartswv.org/artists-at-the-works-galleries/. And of course, you can always come into the gallery Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays between 11am and 3pm to see what else is up in the co-op. To see more, visit Joe’s Web site noted above as well as his Facebook page.
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