Artisans of the Hamptons
Photo Feature by Michael Heller
True art, by definition, is the use of technical skills to create something visual, something beautiful, something useful that can be enjoyed, appreciated, even criticized. Most art work comes from the hand of a craftsman or woman who relies on raw material to bring their visions to life. Here we tell the stories of five local artisans whose lives revolve around their crafts.
Craig Socia, Landscaper – Handmade Benches
How did you get started?
“I was an art director for a magazine when I first graduated college; I was there for eight years after college. I’d rented a house in Amagansett from Janet Fenster, whose sister is Victoria Fenster, the landscape designer for Grey Gardens. I met Victoria at her sister’s house, and she asked me if I’d help her out to come weed the garden. It was a cloudy day in August, and I went there and discovered Grey Gardens for the first time. After about six months of doing that I was like, ‘You know, I like this a lot better than what I’m doing in New York!’ So I quit, packed up everything and came out, and that was in 1993.”
How did you get started with wood-constructed garden furniture?
“It’s an element of gardens that I’ve always liked, like Victorian gardens that have the rusty pieces in them that have follies, benches, fences. We do a lot of modern stuff now, and obviously this isn’t something that we’d dare to put in a modern garden, but in the old shingle-style homes, this is perfect for it.”
Did you ever have any kind of hands-on training for construction of these kinds of pieces?
“No. The first time I started out we used oak, and bittersweet vine, and made a fence out of it. It looked incredible when we built it, but it rotted within two years. So then it was like ‘Oh! We’d better use Cedar!’ I’m self-taught, and learned as I went.
Joan Walton – Ceramicist
How did you get started working with clay?
“In 1997, I left my career in publishing as an art director, and I didn’t know what I was going to do. Shortly after I took a class in handmade tile-making, and I thought I might do something like mosaic flooring, or something like that. So, I just took a class, and basically fell in love with working with clay. The second semester I took a wheel class, and sat down at the wheel, and that was it – I was a goner. So, I really became a potter for about six or seven years before I started making this hand-built work.”
How did your work evolve into hand-built work from working on a wheel?
“I sort of gave myself permission to stop thinking about functionality, and decided that I wanted to do more sculptural work. It just sort of happened. One day I was in the studio and just happened to push into the clay that was in this clay hunk in a different way, and realized then, ‘I can do this!’
What influences your work?
“My work is very influenced by my time out here, with what I find when I walk in the woods, or along the shore. Montauk influences my work tremendously. I love the bleak times best of all. It makes me think about the aging process, beauty, and what’s left behind.”
Romulo Guichay – Stone Mason
How and when did you get started working with stone?
“I’ve been working with stone almost 15 years. It was my first job when I came to this country from Ecuador. I had never had any experience working with stone before, but I found a job working with another mason in Montauk, and they taught me everything. “
What do you like most about working with stone?
“I like working with stone because I can make anything that we want to do. Sometimes customers give me an idea and say, ’I’d like it like that,’ but I like to make something that looks much better and is beautiful, and very often they’re very happy with my job.”
What are the most unusual or difficult things to make?
“Since I love to work with stone, there aren’t very many things that I find are that difficult. Sometimes customers will ask for stone columns for their pergolas with an arch, and sometimes that’s difficult, but we made the customers happy.”
Temidra Willock – Fabric Design
How did you get started working in fabric design?
“My grandmother was a seamstress, and she worked a lot with textiles. My parents are originally from Antigua, so weaving is a big part of their culture. I loved making clothes for my American Girl dolls, and making my Halloween costumes. I went to school for fashion design and textiles, and then after I graduated I got a job out here for a company designing rugs. I left that job in 2012 and started my own company, Vivid Blueprint, in 2013. That was just strictly fashion, and I realized I didn’t have the same passion for that as I did actually creating textiles. I realized I loved creating the fabric and designing the fabric more than creating the garment.”
What’s the process of going from concept to finished piece?
“It starts with an idea. I like to pull inspiration from my life experience, and things that I’m emotionally connected to. For example, the fish rug I created was inspired by my father, who is a landscaper, and growing up he would take me to see all these Koi ponds that he created, so I have an emotional connection to that. I’m currently working on a rug design that’s inspired by fish nets; my husband is a commercial fisherman…there’s an emotional connection for me, and that’s how I like to create stuff. After coming up with the idea, a lot of times I like to work digitally —it’s what I learned in school — and on the computer it’s easier to manipulate, change things if you need to, and speed up the process. I then do a whole specification sheet, and send it off to my manufacturer. We’ll go back and forth to get it as accurate as possible, and then they’d send me a strikeoff sample. We’d then make whatever changes we need to make, and then go into full production.”
John Battle – Iron Worker
How and when did you get started working with iron?
“It’s been a lifelong fascination with iron. My mother was a painter, and she focused my eyes on beautiful things, and got me thinking about art at an early age, and I started working with metal when I was probably 12 years old, doing metal sculptures. I learned how to weld in my early years, and worked out here in a shop in the 60s with a guy named Count Strong, kind of a local legend.
What is it about iron or metal in particular that you love, as opposed to other mediums?
“I’ve always been drawn to metal, and iron and rust and the strength of it and the malleability of it, and the ability to shape and move it — something that seems so un-shapeable and un-moveable; to be able to do that has been seductive all my life.”
What informs your designs, and/or where do you draw your inspiration from when you create new works?
“That’s an interesting question, because most of my life I’ve spent realizing other people’s ideas, other people’s designs, other people’s imagined items, and I’ve focused on that over the years in this business. But all the while, behind that, I have a love for sculpture and fine art, so I try to keep my hand in that…but those are two distinct things, really. When I’m working with fine art I’m trying to connect with something that is larger and more instructive; I’m trying to communicate ideas, and my observations about beauty and about form. When I’m working as a craftsman I’m trying to realize someone else’s idea, and solve it practically through craft. With fine art, it’s much different.”