Thursday, December 5, 2013

Frank Wright Spoonmaker

Vertical spoon on the Growlery shelf.
I've known Frank for 15 or 20 years. I don't wish to embarrass him, but he might be one of the most intelligent people I have ever known. Our frequent conversations are always a fun, rolling ride, jumping from subject to subject. Frank is quitting making spoons at 8:52 this evening. Locking the door on the past. Moving on. I cannot image Frank not creating things, but he says that going to the shop every day has become a drag. His work has become relatively expensive over the years. He doesn't measure anything and he's gotten pretty fast at it, guessing he has made 40,000+ kitchen utensils over the years, yet he cannot keep up with demand and feels pushed. 

Frank has moved on before. He was a veterinarian at the Detroit Zoo, the Brookfield Zoo and the Minnesota Zoo. In 1988 he got tired of the institutional politics, came to a spoon in the road, made a sharp left turn, and quit his job as the head veterinarian at the Minnesota Zoo. He said he thinks they were probably going to fire him anyway because, "I was getting to be kind of a pain in the ass."  The last straw may have been when the zoo wanted to ship a Beluga Whale to another zoo, which required a veterinarian's signature on the shipping permits. Frank declined to sign it because, "It wasn't in the best interest of the animal."  Frank was only interested in the health of the animals, not zoo visitors and politics.

But back to spoons, following is from a insert that Frank included with each purchase.
2013 is my 22nd and final year of retail spoon making.  My shop will close permanently on December 5, 2013 at 8:52PM, the moment I turn 65.  I’d like to thank my many spoon customers and spoon shop fans for their patronage, good will and good humor.  If you have spoons in need of rejuvenation, bring or mail them in for a free overhaul.  
Rhubarb cultivation and promotion is slowly, inexorably, taking over my life.  That and home/shop repairs and painting will keep me quite busy for the next couple of years. 
I was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1948 and my woodworking apprenticeship spanned the 1950’s.  My neighbor, Mr. Hamill, a foreman at the General Motors patternmaking shop, kept me supplied with beautiful odd-shaped blocks of rock maple. They flowed endlessly from the massive band saws of his artisans who built solid wood mockups of the cars of the future.  Like a little elf I searched my pile of blocks to find the mirror image forms.  I topped them with thin boards and well pounded nails to create my idiosyncratic line of footstools.  My aunt Ida used one of these in her kitchen for 50+ years.

Finding the beauty and utility within the discarded served me well then as it does today.  These blocks were for me what the Froebel Blocks were to my colorful namesake, Frank Lloyd Wright, who reminisced fondly regarding their influence on his work.  I too had toy blocks to play with, my favorite being Lincoln Logs, invented by FLW’s son John Lloyd Wright.   After a few decades of production, he sold them to Playskool who continues to make them today.

Today though is about spoons, chopsticks and other utensils, my livelihood since 1992.  The spoons stood immediately.  I had been working on a series of tabletop sculptures whose verticality leapt into the first spoons I roughed out from firewood on the band saw.  Had I started making spoons 3 months earlier there is every reason to believe none would be standing today.  Just as biological genes move and recombine within organisms this design ‘meme’ of verticality moved from experimental sculpture to functional spoon.  The wonderful visual and word play made possible by standing spoons has become my signature.   If I were a bad headline writer (which I guess I am) I’d say “Signature Sesquipedalian Spoons Stood Serendipitously”.

My personal antennae for what I call ‘verticality in quotidian objects’ have become acute.  I enjoy tracking this in food presentation, in objects such as the Philippe Starck standing flyswatter, the Koziol standing pasta server and new instances every year. It is hard to imagine a world without standing wood spoons. 

I gather the wood I use for my spoons and utensils from mostly local native and ornamental species.   Odd logs and blocks of wood arrive occasionally from afar thanks to friends and customers with a good eye for bits of comely wood in need of a second career.  I rarely use lumber since lovely wood from yard, orchard, roadside and surrounding forest is enough.  I have a modest supply of exotic woods for chopsticks and other small items, much of it deeply discounted ‘scrap’ from wood dealers acquired during my art fair travel days.  I don’t think I’ve purchased a piece of lumber in ten years.

All of my work from design to completion is free hand.  There is no mechanical duplication involved.  I have no ‘elves’ in my employ.  I use hand-held and bench mounted power tools extensively-- Band saws, die grinders, drill presses, all manner of personally designed sanding, finishing, and polishing equipment.  I love power tools and have since college summers working in steel mills and auto plants.  They stand between me and carpal tunnel syndrome.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank Jim Huppert and his ‘abrasive nerds’ at 3M here in Minnesota for their generous assistance to a struggling spoon-maker in 1992.  Their expertise transformed menial effort to meaningful work.  Without them I don’t know how I could have designed and made such attractive and useful utensils.   Even my frugal family and friends can afford to use and enjoy them.    
My work is finished with edible walnut oil and beeswax.  Those clever little green rings on my pairs of chopsticks are pure latex rubber bands you can get for a penny apiece at your friendly farm store.  They otherwise are used to neuter various animals as well as dock the tails of lambs.  They are the last remnant of my veterinary career prior to spoon making. If you have these chopsticks you may notice under the ring there is a light blemish.  This occurs with some woods.  It is because the ring shields the wood from the darkening exposure of light and air.  Also the oil in the wood is attracted to rubber.  Despair not.  Use and random ring placement will eliminate this in time.  I’ve accepted this quirk of materials and hope you can do the same.
I encourage you to use these utensils.  Cook!  Serve!!  Eat!!!  Fondle them if you must!!!!  Spoons   increase in charm and warmth with the wear and patina of use.  Refer to the care card included with them.  Like many of us, some of these utensils are on their second and third career--tree to barn beam to spoon.  Service is what they know. Occasionally bad things happen to good spoons.  Should that happen to one of yours send it back to me and I will repair or replace it.  Like people, spoons occasionally go to pieces and are always worth the effort to make whole.  
For many years I labored in the vineyards of retail art fairs and wholesale marketplaces. Now I am able to retail solely through my Coffee Street shop.  I am grateful to the many art fair patrons and gallery owners who have supported me in the past.  It is a blessing to travel less, garden more and have unhurried conversations with friends old and new.   My life is bursting with luxury.  I have health, family, friends, delightful work and a beautiful town and vibrant community to live in.  It is a wonderland of morel mushrooms, theatre, art, limestone bluffs, potluck suppers, trout streams, books, fabulous home cooking, forests, trails, farms, cattle, fine neighbors, and respectful visitors.
Did I mention Rhubarb?  Lots of rhubarb!   Please stop by my workshop should you find me there on your next visit to Lanesboro.  
Bon Appetit!
Here's some shots of some Frank's work that Lorna and I have accumulated over the years.

Frank, an American Master? ;-)


George A said...

Neither of our rhubarb patches (one in Maryland, the other at the beach house) have done squat this year. I dug up what was left of the patch at the beach and moved the plants around to a new location. Hopefully that'll shake them back to production. Didn't have pie or sauce all summer.

Kurt said...

While I think that your display in the growlery is very attractive, there is something unsettling about having an eating utensil and the leaves together, knowing the manufacturing process of the leaves.

Gunnar Berg said...

How do you suppose the spoon was finished?

Kurt said...

With Sugar and spice And everything nice. At least for the girl spoons.

But most likely "with edible walnut oil and beeswax".

Jonny Hamachi said...

Good stuff.