On the coffee table in front of the fireplace the maid set out Earl Grey tea and thick slices of Christmas cake. A German shepherd dozed on the Oriental rug near the crackling, popping fire. Every wooden surface in the room that could take a polish had been rubbed and buffed. It all glowed with firelight. The room’s taste was so refined you would never know that each stick of furniture in it was worth many thousands of dollars.
The two men standing in the entry hall ignored the furniture and the steaming teapot, the slices of cake, and the cozy fire. They admired the front doors. The men made an odd pair. The taller of the two, Brett Hesser, boyish, lanky, animated, towered over Maurice Kaplan, the homeowner, who in his late 80s speaks in a soft, pacific voice. It takes a while to realize that many of his comments are laced with lethal irony. Maurice Kaplan has been around the block a few times. He is nobody’s fool. His anecdotes begin with phrases like, “Last week, when my daughter, who writes for the Economist, was introducing the Turkish prime minister at a conference in Istanbul…” and, “I remember the day Nelson Rockefeller walked into my office…”
Kaplan and his wife are board members of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. They have donated big bucks to both institutions — and to the San Diego Museum of Art, an act of generosity that some people, including the Kaplans, fear was about as useful as tossing money down a rat hole. But Maurice Kaplan is philosophical about his philanthropy. His true love is the collection of fine woodwork in his home, one of the largest and finest collections of its kind in North America.
“You know, Brett,” Kaplan says, “these doors are really the showpiece of the entire collection.”
Hesser blushes and gazes at the white toes of his squeaky high-top tennis shoes.
“Thank you, Mr. Kaplan.”
The doors, eight feet by five feet, are magnificent. They are composed of more than 200 separate handcrafted pieces of glass, brass, Honduran mahogany, and primavera wood from the Yucatán Peninsula. They consumed more than 350 man-hours of effort. The hinges alone took two full weeks of work.
Hesser made the “mesmerizingly labor intensive” doors. He charged $7200 for them, but Kaplan was so pleased with Hesser’s work that he gave him $8000. When the exquisite doors were installed in Kaplan’s Rancho Santa Fe home, a delegation from the American Craft Council in New York flew out to admire and take pictures of them.
“Yes, yes,” Kaplan sighs, stroking the chocolaty mahogany with his pale hand. “You did a very fine job, Brett. You have every right to be proud. These doors are spectacular.”
Kaplan’s home faces south. On the drizzly late afternoon he and Hesser stood in the entryway admiring Hesser’s craftsmanship, the light was turning the thin watery blue of not quite day, not quite night. You had on the one hand a young artist at the beginning of his career and on the other an elderly businessman now long settled into his success. The doors seemed especially suggestive of inside and out, beginnings and endings.
It took a long time for Hesser to arrive at Kaplan’s entryway. Before he could warm his scarred hands before Kaplan’s Rancho Santa Fe fireplace, Hesser had to do time in rural western Massachusetts, where he lived in a filthy, windowless basement with three anxious lunatics.
“I am the son of a child-psychologist mother and Marine Corps colonel father who taught computer science at the Naval Academy,” Hesser explains. “When my dad would holler at me, my mom would explain why. It worked like that. I had the sort of typically strict upbringing you would expect of someone who had a Marine Corps colonel for a father, and I had the sort of typically wild, rebellious adolescence you would expect of someone brought up like that. When I graduated from high school I had absolutely no direction. I was crazed. I was drinking and crashing cars and chasing women. We were living in Rhode Island at the time. And my parents were at their wits’ end trying to figure out what to do with me. I didn’t have any idea what to do with me either.
“But my mom remembered that I had done well in shop class in high school. So, she starts doing research and she finds out about Leeds Design Workshop, this incredibly great, fine woodworking school in western Massachusetts. She sends away for an application and I fill it out. One of the requirements for admission was that you had to show an example of your work — a box, the basic component of cabinetry. I remember my dad driving me up to the school, and I had this ridiculous box I’d made in woodshop class. For whatever reason they decided it wasn’t so ridiculous. I remember the day I got my acceptance letter. You know, usually when you get accepted to a school you get this really thick envelope. But Leeds sent me this very thin envelope. My mom, the child psychologist, saw the envelope and thought she’d cushion the blow for me. She opened it. And when I walked in the door that afternoon, she said, ‘You’ve been accepted!’ And I ran out of the house, waving the letter, dancing up and down the street of this Navy housing project where we lived in Rhode Island.
“That’s how I ended up at Leeds Design Workshop in Easthampton, Massachusetts. It’s a bucolic, very serene little town of about 30,000. It’s in what they call the ‘educational breadbasket’ of Massachusetts, the five-college area — Smith, Holyoke, Hampshire, Amherst, and U Mass aren’t far away. The school I attended was founded in 1970 and held its classes in an old textile mill. Easthampton had been a big textile producer until the mid-1800s, and this huge mill in which I studied was filled with all kinds of different artists — potters, four or five world-class furniture makers, bookbinders, leathersmiths, metal workers. It was a wonderful environment in which to learn. To really understand fine art, you have to be immersed in artistry of all types. We were up on the fourth floor and had these huge windows that let sunlight flood in. In the fall, you could see the trees, watch the leaves turn from day to day. And in the mill, you could trade skills with the other artists. You could trade a bookcase, for example, for gold-leaf work on a project you were working on. But I’m getting ahead of myself. It took a while before I was doing projects.
“The school was founded by David Powell, who in the 1940s had apprenticed under one of the most famous woodworkers in England — Edward Barnsley, who came from a long line of fine woodworkers. Barnsley ran the Froxfield Workshops, and during the war, while Powell worked and studied, he could hear German bombs falling around the workshops. Later, Powell became famous in his own right and even has stuff in Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace.
“Powell set up Leeds to mirror the educational process at the Froxfield Workshops. The thing was that he was terribly shy and a horrible communicator. He would demonstrate for us and another instructor, John Tierney, spoke. Powell had these incredibly beautiful English woodworking tools. He was painstakingly slow and meticulous with everything he did. I remember walking past his workroom and watching him slowly sharpening his tools. We spent six weeks — six weeks! — learning how to sharpen tools. That was the sort of training I had. Grounded in 17th- and 18th-century woodworking methods.
“And so my studies began, 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. five days a week. September through May. I remember on my first day of class everyone took out their tools and made a big show of putting them on their workbench. Most of the other students already had woodworking experience and had all these beautiful tools. I was the youngest student there by six or seven years. All I had was a set of Stanley screwdrivers my mother had given me. My teachers walked by and looked and sort of sighed and rolled their eyes. I needed everything. I was starting from scratch.
“What I lacked in experience I made up for with drive. With desire. I was hungry. I wanted to learn. And that made me a very good student, because I didn’t come to the school with any bad habits or any preconceptions of how things should or shouldn’t be done. I was a clean slate. So I really studied. I studied all the time. Besides, there wasn’t anything else to do in that small town. I was too young to drink. And where I lived wasn’t exactly wonderful. My dad was giving me $300 a month in living expenses. For $150 a month I rented a room in the basement of this house. There were four rooms in this basement. One shower. One hot plate. One sink. One of the guys living down there was a recovering heroin addict who’d done time in Attica state prison. He was the most wretched alcoholic I’d ever seen in my life. The stench coming from this man’s room was so vile that every time I came home I’d scream, ‘Manny, close your goddamn door!’ He’d drink a case of beer at a time, and he’d stack the cans in a pyramid and at the end of the night he’d be so drunk he’d crash into the beer cans and I’d hear them fall and roll around on the floor. I realized at that point that the human body was incredible and could withstand incredible amounts of abuse.
“Then there was Izzy a guy in his late 30s who’d been at Woodstock as a kid and gotten really strung out on some hallucinogen. He would pick at his zits with a knife. He said the devil was coming out of his body. He’d lock himself in the bathroom, picking at his zits with a knife, screaming, ‘Gotta get it! Gotta get it!’ Izzy’s brother made the fourth. He was an odd little duck with horrible teeth who carried a Buck knife. This was my ‘home life.’ I remember one night I came home from school and I was hungry and I was frying some bacon and I accidentally let it burn and I guess the smoke somehow set off the smoke detector in the apartment upstairs. The guy living there came running down the stairs and pointed a shotgun at me. Again, this was my home life. Most guys, you know, have college buddies or frat brothers. Izzy and Manny were my college buddies.
“Life in the workshop was tense too. And competitive. Most of the other students had worked as carpenters and were following the usual progression of a career in woodwork, from cabinetry to fine furniture. I was doing the opposite. I was starting with fine furniture. I was under terrible scrutiny, and I was incredibly self-conscious, afraid of making mistakes. Of course, I did make mistakes. My very first piece was an end table that took me a month to make. I made it with no power tools. One morning I was carefully, very carefully rubbing an oiled finish into it. It was time for class and I piled all my oily rags on my workbench — my workbench made of wood. I want to emphasize that this was a very stressful atmosphere. All you want to do is blend in, not make mistakes. So, we’re sitting in the lecture hall and the instructor is showing slides and all of a sudden this guy bursts into the room and yells, ‘Who’s got oily rags?’
“I just froze in my seat. My heart pounding. It felt like it took about a million years for me to raise my hand — ‘Uh, I’ve got oily rags.’ We all ran into the workshop, and it was filled with this awful oily stench. My rags had spontaneously combusted. Right there. On my wooden workbench. I was chastised in front of everybody, but the instructor said he was glad that I’d provided an excellent opportunity to talk about the dangers of piling up oily rags.
“Life was lonely. I didn’t have any friends. But the isolation was very good for me. Every Friday night I’d go back to the shop and practice my dovetails. I practiced all night long into the early morning. I’d start again on Saturday afternoon and practice and practice until early Sunday morning. Sometimes I’d take a break and read from my instructors’ collection of books on woodworking or design, or I’d sharpen my tools. There I was, in that big silent mill, all by myself, weekend after weekend, cutting dovetail after dovetail. It was lonely, it was cold, but I was mastering my craft.
“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.
“Fortunately, I healed. My thumb will forever be locked rigid, a constant reminder of the lessons I’ve learned. I had a new sense of focus. I met another woodworker named Pat Trimm who invited me to come down and use part of his shop in Barrio Logan, where I’ve stayed ever since. Pat Trimm and Ron Montbleau both convinced me that there was no time like a recession to start your own business. It was slow going. No one was commissioning anything — no kitchen cabinets, no tables, no dressers. Nothing. Pat and Ron kept work coming my way, and I developed a strategy. First, I never wasted time. I filled every available minute with learning. If I was killing time waiting in the airport, I’d study 20 or 30 pages from The Encyclopedia of Furniture Making or The Nature and Aesthetics of Design by David Pye. While I ate my meals, I read dozens of woodworking periodicals. I did everything I could to learn more about my craft, to learn the latest techniques, to glean tips on how to do things better or faster. And although there wasn’t much work coming from other people, I realized I could always work for myself. For every two pieces I did for someone else, I made sure that I made one for myself. I concentrated on special pieces of my own design that I could either show in galleries, or have featured in magazines, or sell later. I kept on building speculation pieces — tables, jewelry boxes, dressers, anything. I concentrated on sheer volume. I was determined to get better. Well into the evenings and even into the early morning, I was building furniture. I wasn’t making any money, but my portfolio was growing. I bartered with photographers — exchanged pieces of custom furniture for professional photos of my work. Very soon my portfolio read very strongly. I had pieces in galleries. When the recession was over, I had plenty of pieces to sell, my skills were even better. I was ready to roll.
“One of my first big breaks came in the summer of 1994 when I won a third-place ribbon for contemporary woodworking at the Del Mar Fair, a pair of round end tables made of curly maple and Cuban mahogany. A woman from Carlsbad named Pat Reilly saw them and commissioned me to make a chest of drawers for her bedroom.
“This was a very important opportunity for me. She wanted the chest of drawers to be of my own design. It was the first time anyone had ever come to me and said, ‘You have a beautiful style. Make me something in your style.’ I had always been aware that my stuff had an Asian flavor, that I also admired art deco. But I’d never really sat down and took it all apart to define it, to understand what other people might define as my style. I had been too busy trying to reinvent the wheel. I thought each piece I made had to be entirely unlike anything ever before seen on earth. I really didn’t understand what style was. When Pat Reilly commissioned me, I was so desperate to do a great job that I forced myself to go back and carefully study how great woodworkers had developed their style. One of the most important I studied was Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, the greatest art deco designer. He never actually built a piece himself. He only designed. He had 30 of the best ebonistes, or woodworkers, working for him in Paris. His designs can be found in museums all over the world. The reason I love art deco is because of the inlay, the technical work, the use of exotic materials. What I saw was that he didn’t entirely reinvent himself with each piece. He took elements from his many previous pieces to create something new. He would, for example, inlay ivory fillets on the peaks of a multifaceted table leg, and this detail would show up again in many different pieces throughout his career.
“I went back and started looking at sketches I had done years before and I found specific elements that made up my style — using ebony inlay around the perimeter of a tabletop, putting a delicate ebony foot on a table leg, joining a drawer’s side to its face in such way as to show off the dovetails or other type of joint. I identified the things that made my pieces uniquely my own. They were things that showed off my technical skills, the precision woodworking. I had my own style.
“Patricia Reilly was great to work with, and she had the financial wherewithal to allow me to work as an artist. The chest of drawers I built for her was made of bubinga, an African hardwood, and ebony. It was so beautiful that it ultimately appeared in Fine Woodworking Design Book Seven, 1996. Reilly was so pleased that she immediately commissioned me to make another chest of drawers for her.
“Finally I was convinced that I could really do it, that I could make a living from my art, which is something that every artist hopes for.
“I ended up building two nightstands and an end table for Pat Reilly, in addition to the two chests of drawers. She gave me many thousands of dollars’ worth of work. I’ll never forget the day I came home and got my very first bank statement that didn’t have the little hash marks in front of the numbers.
“I started getting commissions by word of mouth. Bigger commissions. I also had a few disasters, the sort of things you kinda have to expect to go through when you’re building a career. I was commissioned by Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich to build a reception desk. A big reception desk. It came in two pieces, each piece eight feet long, four feet high. L-shaped. I was very proud of it. I drove it downtown to the HBJ building and with everyone present proceeded to unload the desk. I wasn’t able to get it in the elevator. There I was with this very expensive high-end piece of furniture of my own creation, and I can’t get it in the elevator. There’s no way to get it up to the office. There was a lot of nervous laughter. I had to take it back to my shop, cut it down, and refinish it in such a way that the cuts were invisible. Thank God, it worked.
“Getting through the mistakes and disasters builds your confidence, so I was very confident by the time Ron Montbleau called me in 1995 and told me that the Kaplans had asked him if he knew anyone who could build doors for them. Ron told them about me. The Kaplans could have had any of the most famous woodworkers in America build their doors for them. Especially as collectors of fine woodwork, as people who own one of the greatest collections in the country, they had every reason to choose someone famous for their doors, which are so important because they create the initial impression of the Kaplans’ collection and home. They chose me, someone who’d never made doors before. Never. Not one pair.
“It’s difficult to describe what this meant to me. My doors were going to be hanging in front of work done by all my furniture heroes: George Nakashima, Michael Coffey, Wharton Esherick, Richard Scott Newman, and a local woodworker of national prominence, Wendy Maruyama, who teaches at San Diego State. It was as though I were a baseball player and were going to appear in the Hall of Fame alongside Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, and Ted Williams. I was determined to do the best job possible for the Kaplans. I wanted the doors to be a showcase of the most challenging techniques I could come up with.
“When I sat down to design the doors, I decided I was going to make the hinges and handles myself, handcrafted. For the doors themselves, I chose primavera and Honduran mahogany because I loved the contrast of the gold tones against the darker brown tones. I sat down and made some sketches, maybe it took two minutes. The thing about woodworking is that the size of the materials often dictates the scale of the project. You can’t often refine your drawings until you know what size boards will be available. I went to Tropical Exotic Hardwoods in Carlsbad, owned by Mitch Talcove. He has a great eye for exotic hardwoods and purchases accordingly. I found fantastic pieces of mahogany in roughly the sizes that I needed, and all the primavera. I ended up ordering a mahogany-crotch veneer from New York. It took me about a week to get all my materials together, and then the work began. I had no idea how difficult it was going to be. I knew that the scope of the project could make or break me. The pressure was tremendous.
“I had to build a full-scale model of the hinges to test the stresses and the force of the weight involved in hanging the doors. It took me five days just to build the model. I bolted the mock-up to the wall and tested its ability to hold. The wood cracked and the joints failed. My dimensions were too narrow and too thin. I slumped over my bench. Then I ran outside and jumped on my bike and started pedaling madly around the barrio, weeping and crying. It was the last time I cried as an adult male. I didn’t know what to do. I thought my career was over. And there I was, pedaling around the barrio as fast as I could go on a rusty old bike with a broken bell, crying — mumbling to myself and crying. I must have seemed insane.
“When I finally hung the doors at the Kaplans’ home, they fit perfectly. They’d taken me two months working full-time, 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. I was utterly obsessed with the doors. I still have anxiety visions of them collapsing, even though they’re the best-made doors in the world. I ate, drank, and slept doors. After I hung them I took the guy who helped me out for the most expensive steak dinner I’d ever had in my life. An $80 dinner. The feeling in the truck as we drove away from the Kaplans’ home was unbelievable. It was like we were flying.
“In 1996, about seven months after I finished the doors, the Kaplans asked me if I would be interested in donating a piece to the Mingei International Museum that had just moved to its location in the former House of Charm in Balboa Park. They’re very close friends with Martha Longenecker, the Mingei’s director.
“My first thought was, ‘Oh my God, I can’t afford to give one of these boxes away. They cost $1500.’ Thirty seconds later I realized, ‘I can’t afford not to.’ The visibility and the prominence of having something on permanent display were worth more than $1500. Also my box was going to be on display next to a rocking chair by Sam Maloof, the dean of American woodworkers. I was only 29 years old.
“At the opening night I got to meet Sam Maloof and rub elbows with other famous craftspeople, but I found myself looking at Maloof out of the corner of my eye, staring at his hands and fingers and thinking, ‘Geez, he’s got the first piece of contemporary woodwork in the White House! He’s a legend!’ My jewelry box was sitting just a few feet away from one of Maloof’s beautiful rocking chairs.
“In the summer of 1996 I won blue ribbon at the Del Mar Fair for contemporary furniture, for two end tables made of Karelian burl and ebony. A couple months later the judge who awarded me the ribbon called and asked if I’d be interested in doing some work for the Dean Spanos residence. In three years I had gone from just barely making ends meet, from staying up all night making pieces I didn’t know if I could ever sell, to having a piece in the Mingei and being asked to do work for Dean Spanos. It ended up being six months’ worth of work, all commissioned at once. I made coffee tables, nightstands, breakfast room tables, and end tables. All neoclassical style with custom inlays. I then went on to make two pieces for Michael Spanos — a dining room table and a buffet — and I made a dining room table, a buffet, a game table, and a breakfast room table for Alex Spanos.
“Now it’s not unusual for me to work 10- or 12-hour days. I do everything myself — taking the orders, designing, building, delivering. I don’t know how much longer I can keep it up without hiring someone to help me. I’m usually too busy and too tired to reflect on my life, but just recently I realized, ‘The reason you’re so busy and so tired is because you’re a success.’ ”
One day last week Hesser took time off work to visit his jewelry box at the Mingei. Dressed in dusty blue jeans, a T-shirt with a red Mustang on the chest, and his squeaky high-top tennis shoes, he looked out of place in the museum’s tidy, bright formality. His $1500 jewelry box sits next to a cherrywood music stand by Wharton Esherick and a walnut rocking chair by Sam Maloof, works of art Hesser describes as “priceless.” Esherick died in 1970 at the age of 82. Maloof is in his 80s. Hesser is one of the youngest furniture makers in the country to have a piece in a permanent collection of a nationally known museum.
He looked down at his jewelry box made of curly maple, ebony, and ivory reclaimed from the keys of a 19th-century piano. It’s a construction of clean lines and symmetry. Its spare exactitude — hair-thin ebony accents, small exact plugs of ivory — feels Asian. There’s nothing lush or effusive about it. Somehow the wild car-wrecking teenager found beauty in refinement.
Hesser cleared his throat and looked around the room.
“Fourteen years ago my father drove me to my interview in Massachusetts. My horrible little pine box sat on the backseat. I knew I had no direction in my life. I hadn’t applied to any colleges. My parents were borderline disgraced. They lived in fear because I didn’t have a passion. I was completely aimless.
“Driving to Massachusetts I know my father was thinking that either the pine box was going to work, or he was going to take me to a Marine Corps recruiter. There was a general gray pallor over the whole trip. The weather was gray. My father was tense. I was tense. This was the culmination of an adolescence from hell. I had been a vandal, a truant, I’d been kicked out of boarding school. I’d been declared incorrigible by my parents, and they’d sued me for being incorrigible — they’d told the court they no longer wanted to be held legally responsible for me. Things are great between us now, but those were very dark times. And that trip to Massachusetts was my last chance at redemption.
“My ugly little pine box failed. The instructors at Leeds said, ‘Well, we guess it shows that you’re capable of assembling something.’ What won them over was my enthusiasm. I said, ‘All I need is an opportunity to learn how to properly build things in wood. I’ll do anything it takes to learn how.’
“So, I’m standing there in front of the instructors, hoping that they’ll accept me. And my father’s standing beside me. My father. The most important person in my life. I’d been such a rotten kid because he was so important to me. Everything I did was an attempt to break free of him. It was like living with Archie Bunker and I was Meathead. He represented the Establishment. The Institution. Middle-class American life. More than anything, he represented discipline. He represented discipline and I wanted to break free of it.
“I tried so hard to break free of it and break free of him. I love him so much. And after all these years the deal is that it was discipline that got me in this museum. Discipline to study and practice and work. The thing I’d tried so hard to run away from is what got me here.”
Two weeks ago the Kaplans commissioned Hesser to build another piece of furniture for their home.