“That was the pattern I followed for two years. At the end I had to do a piece of furniture that showcased all the skills that I had learned, and it had to be of my own design. It was kind of like my thesis piece, my statement to the world. My nemesis had been the dovetail. By the end of two years, all I wanted to do was showcase my dovetail expertise. I had been harangued by my schoolmates so badly about my joinery. I really felt bad about it. So, when I was designing my thesis piece — a wall-mounted sideboard made of cherry and maple — I kept looking at its various parts and thinking, ‘I can dovetail that! And that! And that!’ It took me two and a half months to complete. There were 150 dovetails in it.
“It was one big dovetail.
“My student review was hilarious. We sat in a group with three instructors evaluating the pieces. They looked at my sideboard and they looked at me and one of them finally said, ‘Now that we’ve mastered the skills, people, we move on to let the design speak for itself and not showcase so much our skill level.’
“My heart sank. I’d expected them to be thrilled with the joinery. Instead, they were telling me, less is more.
“Experiences like that, however, give you a lot of the resiliency that an artist needs to persist, to build a business, to make a career. You’ve gotta be tough.
“I graduated from Leeds and my only plans for my future were to put myself in a warmer part of the country. My parents were at Camp Pendleton. And my grandmother was here. I knew that I could live with her rent-free.
“I got here in 1986. I had been trained in the very finest woodworking techniques of the 17th and 18th Centuries. I had studied at one of the finest schools in the country. I could make beautiful, exquisite furniture. But when I got out into the real world, came here to San Diego, I was plankton on the food chain. I had no applicable skills. I’d never used a cordless drill or any of the power tools that you use for making money, for making things quickly.
“All I knew was this esoteric way to make fine furniture. I got my first apprenticeship with Ron Montbleau, on State and G Streets. Six dollars an hour. Sweeping the shop. Ron was really my mentor. He taught me cabinetmaking, production furniture, veneered furniture. At Leeds we didn’t have time budgets. The point was to learn to make things the correct way, but with Ron I learned the value of the man-hour. Ron, however, went out of his way to give me projects with ample time budgets.
“In the late ’80s and early ’90s, I decided I needed to diversify my skills. I got a job doing antique reproductions at Artisans du Bois in Miramar. I made doors, staircases, and solid-wood cabinets. No one does solid-wood cabinets anymore. The costs for the raw materials are too prohibitive. But we made solid-wood cabinets. We had clients who could afford it. Solid-wood furniture used to be something that everyone could buy, but the world’s lumber resources have been so depleted that solid-wood furniture has become something that only well-off people can acquire. I worked on butternut doors for Bill Cosby. Built a computer cart out of white oak for Steven Spielberg. A blanket chest for Jerry Coleman. We built a staircase for a brain surgeon in Rancho Santa Fe, which was just fascinating, learning to build the sections of risers and runs — it’s an entire art unto itself. These are the things I needed to learn in order to branch out. After working at Artisans du Bois, I did custom yacht interiors. It was truly phenomenal. Everything on a yacht has to fit in a very precise space. Furniture making isn’t as meticulous. For example, if I build a desk that’s a quarter inch too short, nobody cares. But on a yacht everything is scribed, which means that everything is fitted precisely to the adjacent walls. Surfaces on yachts are always crooked and twisted, never square. Work like that refines your skills, refines your eye, and gives you the discipline you need for absolute precision. That sort of discipline gives you versatility.
“After working on yachts, I went back to Ron Montbleau. I’d always retained a good relationship with him, and he welcomed me back with open arms. That, of course, was 1992 to 1993 when the recession hit, and during that time I had two major hand accidents — the great occupational hazard of woodworkers. It was the absolute nadir of my career. I cut the tip of my index finger off. I wasn’t respecting my machinery enough. Then the following summer, after having the tip of my index finger grafted to my thumb — so that the flesh and skin would grow back — I turned around and cut right through my thumb’s knuckle. I destroyed the joint and had to have my thumb fused. When you’re an artist who works with your hands, who is involved in tasks that require an extreme degree of manual dexterity, accidents like that are terrifying. Just about the only innate skill I brought to woodworking was my manual dexterity, something that I’d developed over years and years as a child building tiny, intricate models of airplanes, cars, and boats. It’s a kind of talent for delicacy, a sensitivity to touch, to pressure, a fine mobility in the muscles of the fingers and hands for refined, detailed work. Any crippling of that skill can be devastating. The irony of being a woodworker is that your most important assets, your hands, are the part of you that’s most at risk.
“Those accidents scared me. Two important things came from them. The first was that I learned to respect my machines. I will never ever jeopardize my safety again. The second was that they made me step back and really concentrate on my work. I couldn’t afford to zone out even on simple, routine tasks. Each task, each procedure, each part of any process was equally important. The accidents made me learn to always pay attention, which is an important lesson for life in general, but for an artist, a fine artist, it’s crucial. As proof, all my award-winning work has come after my accidents.