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Art and a Life in Harmony

Alone on a rugged stretch of the Lost Coast, John McAbery uses simple tools to coax delicate beauty from hulks of fallen trees.

January 31, 2005|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

KING RANGE NATIONAL CONSERVATION AREA, Calif. -- John McAbery's sinuous wood sculptures would not exist without the lonely stretch of wind-blasted beach where he staked out a home nearly three decades ago. Neither would John McAbery. Not as the man he has come to be.

McAbery has plied many trades over the years: builder, restaurateur, maker of sheepskin coats. ("The first one was really ugly. But because it was the '60s, somebody bought it off me.") In nearly all pursuits, he was self-taught. And so it went with sculpting.

The 60-year-old recluse with a thick shock of gray hair and dancing eyes never imagined he'd make a living from art.

But 11 years after McAbery crafted a crude spoon from a chunk of driftwood, his sculptures sell for more than $3,000 to upscale woodworking galleries in Seattle and Santa Fe, N.M., as well as to a growing list of private collectors.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 02, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
John McAbery artwork -- An article in Monday's Section A about artist John McAbery failed to include a photo of his finished work. One of his sculptures is shown above; additional photos can be viewed at his website:
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday February 25, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 63 words Type of Material: Correction
Wood artist -- An article in the Jan. 31 Section A about Humboldt County wood sculptor John McAbery may have mischaracterized his pieces as small by stating that some are more than a foot tall and weigh as little as 4 ounces. In fact, most of his pieces are more than 30 inches tall but nevertheless can weigh as little as 4 ounces.

Liberated whole from a massive block of storm-toppled bay laurel, each work mirrors the music and magic of the ocean that churns outside his hand-built cabin. Finished works are paper-thin ribbons or are modeled on shells and kelp. Some are more than a foot tall and weigh as little as 4 ounces.

Other sculptors might steam and bend their wood. But McAbery is a purist -- in it for the process. It takes about six weeks to give birth to each seamless twisted shape, using only a tabletop vise and a tattered box of hand tools.

McAbery is mainly known by a few galleries and woodworking aficionados who have stumbled across his work. Other artists enjoy more acclaim. But McAbery's story is one of life and craft entwined.

There is no electricity on this stretch of the Lost Coast in Humboldt County. No telephone ring to rap on the door of his concentration. In fall, flies rise off the kelp mounds in vast numbers. In winter, waves lash the cabin's edge, wrapping McAbery's world in a wash of sea foam. Every day, he sculpts.

This is how they move through the seasons, the man and California's most pristine coastal landscape, in a balance as delicate as the wood McAbery manipulates. One false move, and he can splinter a piece he has slaved over for weeks, relegating it -- with only the rarest frustration -- to the pile that feeds his stocky woodstove.

McAbery's ritual begins at dawn on a recent fall day with cup upon cup of strong black coffee. Then comes a walk to the squat Punta Gorda lighthouse for firewood. On a recent day, a raccoon's tracks mark the surf-soaked sand. As the sun pushes over the ridge, the earth steams. A seal pokes its head through the waves. Then it's time to work.

Inside his cabin, McAbery reaches for the worn cardboard container that serves as his only toolbox. In it are a simple Japanese keyhole saw and a host of carpenter's rasps that resemble cheese graters and that peel at the wood with a steady "chht, chht." There is also a gouge. For hard-to-reach places, improvising helps. To smooth the ridges inside the bulb of a vexing conch shell sculpture, McAbery recently resorted to an old whale bone.

On this morning, McAbery digs into a new piece. Modeled on an orphaned scrap of kelp, it is a three-dimensional tease that McAbery -- a boyhood lover of jigsaw puzzles -- is eager to tame. He has printed a digital photograph of the kelp on graph paper and enlarged it. He draws the curling pattern on a thick block of wood. Then, with the keyhole saw, he begins the slow journey, working away chunks from every angle. He sweats. The wood gives off its sweet bay odor.

As daylight shifts, McAbery does too, avoiding the sun's direct gaze. The wood cracks easily in the heat. But once a work is thinned and has lost much of its moisture, that danger subsides and McAbery likes to take pieces at this stage onto his small stoop at the front of his cabin. He reaches for a nearly finished sculpture and moves outside. The pulse and crash of waves mix with the rhythmic rasp of sandpaper.

"It was this environment that produced the art," McAbery offers. "I'm one of the tools."

A Journey to Isolation

McAbery grew up in Oroville, Calif., when the Feather River was wild. But when he was 17, the family retreated to Monterey to appease his mother's urban sensibilities.

McAbery's journey back to the isolated north began in 1963, two days after John F. Kennedy's assassination. Eager for escape, he searched the map. The Lost Coast extends 25 miles -- the longest stretch of Pacific shoreline unmarred by road access in the continental U.S. Vast swatches of surrounding public land are nearly as unsullied, dotted only by occasional private holdings. "I saw this big stretch of land," McAbery said. "I had to check it out."

He made a hitchhiking sign shaped like a thumb that read "Utopia." His last ride, to the tiny town of Petrolia, came from the mailman. He bushwhacked to the beach and wandered for weeks. He met a rancher on the land that eventually would become his.

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