Mark Koons: Building Conversation Pieces

The chair Mark Koons is currently building is not intended for work, or for dining, or for relaxation, or for reading. It’ll tip you back — just enough to put you at your ease — but not so far that you’re completely relaxed. It’s roomy enough for two people to hold an animated conversation, read each other’s body language, and get into each other’s head. And did we mention that there will be no stretchers in the chair and the front legs, arms, and back are all one continuous bending?
That’s a lot to put into a chair, but that’s the way Mark Koons works. It’s the kind of sensibility that’s found admiration in both woodworking and fine art circles. How he reached that point is a tale going back over 30 years to when he became an Army medic working at a medical evacuation unit in Japan. A self-described pink-cheeked kid of 19 from Wisconsin, Mark was suddenly dealing with helicopter loads of casualties from the war in Vietnam. Two experiences from that time continue to inform his work today.

“Day and night, the stream of helicopters flying in was endless,” Mark recalled. “I was a good soldier and did what was expected of me, but I was emotionally and physically exhausted. Then on a day off, I was visiting this little village on the southeast side of Mount Fuji. It was getting dark, and I was looking out at the water on the bay. It wasn’t windy, but there’s this choppiness as the tide rises and falls at the foot of the mountain that makes the water kind of swoop up and down, and in the twilight it looked like faceted glass. When I saw that, I felt this huge release from the personal suffering I didn’t even realize I was going through. Something as simple as dark coming across the water balanced the endless terrible things I was seeing.”

“Within a week of that, I also had a traffic accident. A guy slid through a stop sign and dented my fender. After we sorted it out, it was explained to me that I was expected to go the guy’s house. Well, he didn’t speak any English so we didn’t really converse; we just had tea and cakes and a cigarette and after about 45 minutes that was more than enough for both of us. But we also went from being hostile adversaries to regarding each other as human beings.”

Both events rooted deeply in Mark’s mind. When he got out of the service, he took an apprenticeship in the building trades and lived out of a travel trailer while working all over the West building bridges and power houses. Along the way, he built a crib for his partner, whose wife was expecting a baby.

“I had a twenty dollar router, an electric drill, and the workmanship was dreadful. But I was full of good intentions, and I enjoyed the process so much.”

A journeyman ironworker by that time, Mark was ready for a change. He quit the trade, and he and his wife settled down in Wyoming. Learning woodworking skills has been a long and painful process for him.

“It’d be immodest to say I’m totally self-taught.” Mark explained, “I have complete sets of Woodwork and Fine Woodworking magazines. I read all of them as they came in over the years, but it took a while for everything to soak in. I would recommend that anybody who can remotely afford it should go to a great teacher…even if it’s only for a weekend seminar.”

Over time, as Mark’s skills grew, he developed friendships with such leading woodworking luminaries as Sam Maloof and James Krenov.

“When you spend time with them,” Mark explained, “it’s not so much technique that you learn — and both do have much to teach regarding technique — but have a discourse on what it is you’re trying to do and why. One of the big things I eventually took away from Krenov is to enjoy doing your work. He doesn’t think that everybody has to work with incredibly sharp hand planes to do valid work — the pleasure comes in the making.”

Then in the late eighties, just as the first Gulf War was starting to stir up and coalitions were being formed, Mark got to thinking about the whole idea of “building consensus” and those two experiences back in Japan came to mind. It took time, but eventually it all came together in his version of a sake table.

“I built them for two people who aren’t necessarily friends to sit in close proximity to each other. With the table in common, they’re close enough to occasionally feel each other’s warmth in a cool room.”

Mark fits over 900 pieces of end-grain walnut, laminated together to create the top, and then carves the surface to resemble the choppy waves out on Tokyo bay that day long ago. The tips of the waves are on a single plane, and he uses a hand-sharpened and hand-driven gouge to carve them out. Aside from its artistic and symbolic virtues, it also represents a technical achievement.

“The whole thing expands and contracts sort of like raisins in a loaf of bread baking,” Mark explained, “and though seasonally the thing gains and loses a quarter of an inch in length, it never raises one leg or gets loose or anything. The legs themselves go straight through and make part of the top.”

To create his visions, Mark’s primary piece of equipment is a 15-year-old Felder combination machine, which includes a 12″ table, saw, 16″ jointer plane, a shaper and mortising table. He does endless sketching to get his mind around a shape. Eventually, he creates a full-sized drawing for everything he builds to get the curves and proportions just right.

And, like so many high-end woodworkers, Mark relies on high-end customers. His connections to the art community have been key to making the right contacts…something he recommends for any woodworker. In fact, he’s developed relationships with many of the area art centers, such as Steamboat Springs, served as past president of the Mastercraftsmen’s Guild of Wyoming, and taken on the role of curator for several shows.

His advice to aspiring woodworkers?

“Go to the Furniture Society Conference — sleep in your car if you have to — and muscle your way up to the front of the demonstrations to see how guys do the kind of work that interests you!” He laughed, then added, “I think the best crafts are quiet things that don’t shout for your attention. They stand there and serve their function, but when you regard them, you think, oh, that’s really a nice thing!”

In June, Mark’s work will be on display at the Sangre de Cristo Art Center in Pueblo, Colorado. And this winter, he’s curating and displaying his work at a Steamboat Springs’ art show that runs from November 14 through January. After that, he’ll move the show to the Denver International Airport for three months.

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