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.
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.
Then he moved on. To San Francisco, Oregon, Idaho, Colorado. He married a New York City native and returned to Monterey. Like his father, he worked as a builder. Like his mother, his wife craved an urban life. In 1978, they split.
With his children, ages 1 and 4, in tow, McAbery headed north again. The rancher, it turned out, had troubles of his own and was willing to part with 400 acres, which McAbery and a business partner purchased. McAbery and the kids made their home in a sheepshearing shed while he salvaged wood for the cabin. McAbery gathered parts for a year and a half, then assembled the cabin in 30 days.
There were hand-made bunk beds for the kids. For food, there were mussels for the plucking a short walk from the door.
Then McAbery went broke and lost nearly all his land. The Bureau of Land Management, guardian of the King Range National Conservation Area, was looking to buy out private owners and got most of his land. McAbery kept a few acres free and clear.
He found work in Petrolia -- plumbing and electrical jobs and a stint owning a local eatery. Then he stumbled on a piece of driftwood mahogany that changed his life. It looked like a beachcomber’s footprint. With a rusty gouge, penknife, hacksaw and sandpaper, McAbery carved his first spoon. It was -- in his word -- “rustic.”
But this sun-lined man with dark wild eyebrows is nothing if not methodical. For a year, he carved spoons -- thinner and thinner. Until the light shone through. Until they were no longer serviceable. Then he searched for a new subject.
“I had no experience,” he recalled. But “I didn’t want to do little bears and chipmunks.”
Egrets intrigued him, but he couldn’t get close enough. He opted for variations on a Mobius strip, a one-sided surface formed when one end of a rectangular strip is given a half twist and attached to the other end. Soon, dancing ribbons emerged from his massive blocks of wood, so light they blew easily in a faint breeze.
Then abalone shells became his models. And so it went. Always something new caught his eye. He welcomed the challenges, like carving the conch shell from a single piece of wood, with all its twists and cavities.
But the wood that washed ashore was too cracked, the sand and salt too hard on his simple tools. Early on, McAbery switched to bay laurel. He posted a flier at the Petrolia store, asking for windfall, trees downed by gusts.
Soon, everyone in the Mattole Valley knew the routine. When a tree fell, they’d get word to McAbery. The downed laurels must sit for three years and give up their moisture before McAbery will approach them with a chain saw, the only power tool he uses. He cuts the trunks into 80- or 100-pound blocks that he hauls -- alone, of course, and by hand -- to the beach.
For two years, McAbery carved without thought of a sale. His tipping point as a working artist came when a beautiful woman with hands like a pianist’s walked down the beach.
Strangers are thin to none on McAbery’s beach by late fall. But summers offer a parade of coast walkers. Gretchen Bunker was one of those. She “was on her way somewhere,” McAbery said with a grin, “but she never got past Petrolia.”
It is at Bunker’s home that McAbery communes with the world by phone and e-mail. Bunker, now his girlfriend, has designed his sculpture stands and some of his ribbon pieces. She photographs and promotes his work, creating a record as each sculpture transforms from a clumsy block into a whimsical miracle of movement. Like a baby’s first photo album, the photographs accompany each piece to its new home.
Galleries in Carmel and Half Moon Bay have represented him, and he remains a steady presence at a gallery in Seattle. When a Santa Fe gallery closed its doors, the owners cut their artists loose with a thank you. But they took special care to pass McAbery along to nearby Stephenson Gallery.
‘A Zen Master’
They knew his location and lifestyle made self-promotion tough. They also rightly predicted that his work would awe Jeff Stephenson, as it had transfixed them.
“John,” said Stephenson, “is kind of like a Zen master who happens to work in wood.”
Customers often look at the whisper-light ribbons, all of a piece, and assume they were steamed. Stephenson takes glee in correcting them: “You just sit there and watch it sink in,” he said. “People are dumbstruck.”
McAbery is happy to leave outside contact to a minimum. He drives a few hours north to Arcata just four times a year, when his gray mane turns so shaggy it cries for a cut. His son and daughter, now grown, live in Southern California and Oregon.
He shuns radio batteries as “lumps of poison,” so he long insulated himself from news of the world. “I missed the Reagan years,” he says, “and the first Bush.”
Then he got a solar-powered radio four years ago, and the world flooded in. The first thing he did was buy George Orwell’s “1984" and reread it. Then he put pen to paper and started writing. In the last year, he sent 400 letters to public officials -- one a day, for a time, to President Bush -- expressing concern over the war in Iraq.
Still, McAbery easily trades his global angst for simple pleasures. His cabin boasts a steam room fired by the wood stove, and he has rigged the outhouse with spring-fed plumbing. Partly open to the elements, the outhouse offers views of golden hills and wild open ocean.
There is a new love affair too. After years combing for shells to sculpt, McAbery suddenly took notice of the kelp. His worktable is covered with tiny pieces of sea plant, reaching skyward or curled in on themselves. They glow orange in the morning sun -- models for a lifetime.
In the evenings, McAbery dines on mussels or ling cod, rockfish and cabezon he pulls from the ocean. He soaks in his outdoor tub, taking in the stars. Then to the steam room and bed.
“I’ve got to be one of the luckiest people on the planet,” he said.
“I found something I love to do in a place I love to do it.
“I’m part of this environment. It’s part of me.”