Wood never Dies

Portland (USA) based woodworker, Austin Heitzman seeks
inspiration from ancient trees

I have been attempting bonsai for just as long as I have been a professional woodworker. When contacted about commissioning a bonsai stand, I thought I had won the lottery. Unfortunately, the job never went through, but the idea was planted firmly in my mind. Ever determined, I contacted bonsai professional, Michael Hagedorn and, guided by his expertise and enthusiasm, stands finally began to emerge.

Trees and kusamono on display by Michael Hagedorn

If you have ever stood in awe of an ancient tree, looking up with excitement at the character, grace and power of such a creature, then you understand what drove me to woodworking. Every piece I build begins by sourcing interesting material that tells some kind of story about the tree that bore it. Like bonsai, my work emerges through a collaboration between the material and myself. To achieve my vision I often have to manipulate the material, but the goal is always to create something that seems natural and fluid. Each piece should appear as if the boards and the piece grew up together. Furniture history is also a profound influence on the kind of work I produce. In developing ideas for bonsai stands I poured over a Kokufu-ten Exhibition catalogue that Michael lent me, trying desperately not to dog ear the pristine pages as I went through them again and again. I then tempered these Eastern influences with designs from my Western culture, from as far back as ancient Greece up to the present day. Since these stands are produced in the Northwest United States, I believe they should speak about our landscape and culture, in addition to bonsai tradition, in order to substantiate the trees placed on them.

Bonsai table: Austin Heitzman, Juniperus scopulorum, Mike Blanton
Artisans cup 2015
Photo: Arthur Hitchcock
Western Walnut (the top and bottom, dark)
Apple (light wood in between)
Left piece: Height: 25 cm / 10” Width: 28 cm / 11” Depth: 15 cm / 6”
Right piece: Height: 35 cm / 14” Width: 25 cm / 10” Depth: 12 cm / 5”

Often I embellish my pieces with material that has grown or is broken, in ways that echo classic furniture designs. For example, I will use a natural hole where a carved opening would otherwise be or use the gnarled profile of the tree to mimic a classic profile. This gives the work a familiar form, even if you can’t quite put your finger on it that makes all the ‘unfinished edges’ seem absolutely necessary.

Trees are living things and the wood they produce never really dies. Even in its milled and dried form, wood still takes in and gives off moisture causing it to expand and contract; in essence it breaths. I have to engineer my designs to be at harmony with this movement in the wood to ensure the piece’s integrity into the coming centuries. Maybe then I will finally have a finished bonsai to put on my stands.

A strong stand for a strong tree. Made from two kinds of walnut, English and Western black; natural voids on the side reference traditional Asian decorative cut-out elements. The top features stone inserts that can be removed and customized to best suit the tree on display

Wood provides the perfect platform to display any item.

This jita is created from a fabulous slab of Pennsylvania cherry, known as the best in the world for its rich colour
Large folded slab
Western walnut (book matched: meaning two consecutive boards from the tree joined together to make a mirror image of one another)
Height: 13 cm / 5.5” Width: 43 cm / 17” Depth: 33 cm / 13”
Bonsai table: Austin Heitzman, Juniperus scopulorum, Randy Knight
Artisans cup 2015
Photo: Arthur Hitchcock
© Copyright Bonsai Europe Publications Text and photography: Kinbon