Jim Christiansen in profile archive

Friday 24 May 2013

The work of Jim Christiansen is very personal and reflects his deeper feelings about the mysteries of life. He constantly experiments and moves his designs forward. Tegan Foley finds out more about him here


I have been wanting to profile Jim for a while and was thrilled when I came across his piece 'Feeling Is Believing', which gave me the opportunity to make contact and suggest the profile idea. The piece mentioned was featured in the magazine in issue 252. The thing that instantly struck me about Jim's work is the fascinating surface enhancement and the amount of detail which he is able to incorporate, whether it be in the form of small flowers, recreating the effect of bronze or a skeletal structure, for example. These details are always finely executed and leave you wondering how they were created.

Jim is fascinated with the process of design which has led him to explore woodturning and the creativity behind it. He is interested in broadening the awareness of design principles within the woodturning community and many of his activities focus on doing this. Jim has exhibited his work nationally and internationally and has travelled around the world teaching others about critique and design. He believes that his most important role is that of mentor and he spends a lot of time in his studio working with individuals who want to learn more about the process of art and design.


After a 28 year career in education where he specialised in a variety of roles ranging from teacher, school administrator to professor, Jim quit his job in 1996 to become a full-time woodturner. "Since then, the time has gone by quickly," he says. "Even though I am well past retirement age, I still spend most of my time creating wood art. Frequently, I spend seven days a week turning." Throughout his turning career Jim has had what he calls an 'open shop', where he welcomes anyone who wants to be a woodturner. He has never charged anyone for his services and as a result, there are quite a few woodturners in his area. When Jim began turning, he had to travel many miles to meet other turners. He lives in a small town located in the wheat fields of Idaho, so having a group of others from which to learn and to share with has been a very positive thing. "In my opinion, being a part of an active creative community is an important element that I hold very dear," he says.

Discovering woodturning

When he was in high school Jim had a gifted inspiring wood shop teacher and without knowing how to use tools correctly, he somehow was able to finish a gate leg table with turned elements: "Succeeding with that project laid the ground work for me pursuing woodwork as a hobby later on. But, what really got me interested was the opportunity to purchase a very old 1930s Oliver lathe. It had no evidence of ever being used and still ran on its original leather drive belt. I went through a period of trying to teach myself how to turn on this machine. I made little progress," he comments. He tells me that sandpaper was his most effective shaping tool and he knew very little about tools and sharpening, and as a result, catches and even minor injuries became common for him.

Jim then met another turner, Will Simpson, at the local farmer's market who actually knew how to turn: "We became friends and decided to attend the Utah Turning Conference. While there I was suddenly exposed to a world of possibilities. The designs, creativity, techniques and the comradeship displayed by the presenters, made a big impression on me." Actually seeing how to do things helped Jim greatly and he says that from that first conference, he knew that he would be happy with woodturning being his life's work. "Since that time I have also picked up many mentors and shared ideas with people from all over the world. I am amazed that I have never attended a gathering of woodturners where I didn't feel welcome. A large part of my attraction to woodturning is the opportunity to learn and share with others," he explains, but he also gets a thrill from seeing his ideas and feelings develop into an actual work of art. Jim comments that it is difficult to select a 'best' thing about turning because there is so much that gives him enjoyment, but if he had to choose, it would probably be seeing people he mentors turn out world class work.

Turning style

When I asked him to describe his turning style, Jim tells me that form and line are very important. But, the shape of an object is an important but lesser part of the pieces he produces: "I focus most of my time and energy on surface decoration. So the majority of my work is rooted in classical forms combined with surface features that emphasise carved elements and subtle colour schemes." Jim never does measured drawings but he does put rough sketches on the wall that represent a vision of what the final form will be. He frequently peruses the internet and publications for pictures that he pastes into a sketch/scrapbook. When he is trying to come up with a new idea he always reviews the pictures and notes he has collected. Jim says that he is always surprised how the meaning/feeling of a particular piece can be altered with minor changes in form and proportion: "I think it is important to make sure the form and surface decoration designs are supportive of the design intent. Most of my current efforts involve teapots, long-neck vases and platters. Because of the interesting challenges that are inherent in designing teapot sculptures, I plan to do more of them in the near future," he says.

I asked Jim about the special tools he uses to complete his turnings and apparently the most used and important are his NSK rotary carvers - one pneumatic and two electric. Jim says he has about every turning tool ever made, including a wide Henry Taylor gouge ground as a scraper as well as a number of D-Way gouges that he really enjoys using. "After years of trying to control dust, I recently purchased a table top air cleaner from Trendlines. No dust. I regret not purchasing it years earlier. Had I realised how easy it was to solve the problem, I would have bought such a unit years ago!"

Inspirational sources

So what inspires this turner? According to Jim it is by art that communicates feelings and objects that use pure form to communicate reverence and a sense of preciousness: "Some bowls by turners like Bill Luce have a presence that effects those who view them or are lucky enough to hold such a piece in their hands. When I see such a piece on display in a gallery, I enjoy watching the body language of those who come close enough to be influenced by the sacredness of such art. I also like art with an obvious message. Artists like Gerrit Van Ness who incorporate turning into complex presentations with a strong message, I find appealing," he comments. Jim informs me that he has made some pieces that have actually caused some people to recoil with a look of disgust. The piece he is referring to incorporated carving of a helmeted skull headed figure missing an arm and a leg and a woman holding a dead baby and expresses his feelings about useless war. Jim particularly enjoys any turned art that expresses a sense of humour and is inspired by the mastery of those who developed all the classic forms and with little technology achieved exquisite surface decoration without the aid of modern technology, but mostly he is inspired by craftsmanship.

So what is this turner's greatest challenge? Apparently it is making his hands do what he wants them to do when he visualises a design, which is no easy feat. As Jim says, this is a never ending quest where he knows he will always have room to improve.

"I am inspired by those who feel free to express their deepest feelings without restraint or ego getting in the way," he finishes.

Changing styles

I was interested to learn how this turner's work has changed over time, when he first starting using the lathe and no doubt producing items that are very different than those he creates today. Jim says that over time his work has become more consistent and he has also been able to produce pieces with more refined features. He says he is surprised, however that he still finishes a piece and then when he looks at it a week later, he discovers some significant flaws. "I rely on my shop mates to look at my work and try to discover issues that I seem to overlook in my own work. After almost 20 years of practice I now turn without even thinking about how to do a particular cut. Not that I have mastered everything, but I just don't think about how I do things. It just seems to happen automatically."

In Jim's words, his turning style lies somewhere between folk art and surrealism. His attempts to capture feelings and the essence of a particular form is tempered by his limitations as a craftsman: "Because I complete such works with an obsessive zeal, at least the viewer is usually impressed with my attention to imperfect but minute details. Most people see my work as sincere," he comments.

Jim says that his greatest influence is rooted in his desire to experience and feel authentic pure emotion, unencumbered by ego, lack of vision, lack of knowledge and narrow thinking. He says there have been times where he has transcended mundane reality and experienced feelings that are beyond explanation. Such times were always brief but very memorable: "The birth of my children, being in love, racing motorcycles, and sometimes shaping wood were experiences that allowed me to briefly see what is possible. I am always searching for this high that comes with such experiences,' he tells me. Jim explains that he has always had this idea that there is some kind of alternate reality that he can discover: "Some kind of a place that I can go to and experience pure joy. The possibility of experiencing fleeting such moments keeps me going."


Jim shares his workshop as well as tools and advice: "We have six lathes, two tablesaws and just about every tool anyone might need to complete any project." Each of them has a dedicated carving station. Their workshop attracts many local people who want to learn woodturning/carving and most days they have guests who are learning how to turn: "We don't charge for lessons," Jim explains.

Work ethos

In terms of work ethos, Jim says that when outside obligations don't interfere, he likes to work seven days a week: "If my eyes were stronger, I'm sure I would work regular 10 hour days. I am a firm believer that time spent working is necessary to become a better turner/carver." Most weeks, however, Jim takes one day off to take care of such things as house cleaning, grocery shopping, etc. He is very aware that all of us have a very limited time to accomplish our goals and therefore Jim lives by the ethos of trying to use his time efficiently, accomplishing his goals along the way.

I noticed that Jim doesn't have his own website, so I was curious to find out how he promotes himself. Obviously he is a world renowned turner, but how do you get new people interested in your work and continue to promote your message? Jim says that his only consistent method of promotion is tying to get into juried exhibitions: "I feel that getting into a major show along with people whose work I respect, gives my work a greater perceived value. I always encourage others to also get their work into exhibitions." He tells me that the reason he doesn't have a website is because he isn't very good at using technology, although he recognises the benefit a website would bring. "As it is, I purchase a presence on a general wood website called Fine wood Artists."

A day in the life

Jim tells me that a typical day starts about 8am. He spends about 8-10 hours in the workshop working on a variety of projects as his eyes really suffer if he attempts to do more than about four hours of detailed carving: "I usually try to do some reading after cooking dinner. I have a good time creating recipes from what I have on hand. I actually cook and clean the house to relax."As well as all this, Jim somehow finds the time to do some sketch book work at least three days a week in addition to regularly talking on the phone with family and friends.

The future

Jim informs me that the highs of his career so far mostly centre on the people he has met as well as the friendships that have developed through the sharing of ideas and experiences. Jim also points towards the importance of teaching and learning, mentoring, helping and sharing. In terms of the lows, Jim says his career lows have centred mostly on being too critical of his own work: "I am still working on accepting the pieces I turn out without too much focus on the flaws."

When I asked Jim what he expects the future to hold in terms of his work, he says that he sees himself heading towards learning new and better ways to express his feelings in his work: "I want to develop a greater ability to use subtle design elements in harmony so people can project their own knowledge and experiences by viewing my work. I will also probably use more complex surface features." In addition to these things, Jim also plans to achieve better forms that will be a part of his total design statement.

Jim says that he has, for a long time centred on improving his execution and craftsmanship: "I work hard to make each piece better than the last in some way. I have practised enough that now the biggest barrier is developing the patience and focus to improve. I am also working on developing more self assurance so that I never settle for less than I can achieve." Jim also says that he wants to contribute to the field of woodturning by helping others and by receiving help from others and he is a strong believer in the value of productive healthy relationships in the arts.

Woodworkers Institute

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Woodturning , Tegan Foley , Jim Christiansen

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Contact Details

Email: jimchristiansen43@gmail.com

Handy Hints

1. I believe that taking time to work with others is a very good thing; I have never failed to learn something from everybody I have worked with
2. I think spending time in workshops belonging to others is the best thing you can do to improve your skills

Likes & Dislikes

1. I like the tradition we have in the woodturning community for sharing and helping others
2. That woodturning is slowly but surely gaining wide acceptance as a valid art form
1. The belief of some that only certain types of methods and products are deserving of attention
2. I do not like poorly designed and built woodworking machines. Over the years I have purchased many that did not work properly well or did not last. I try to only purchase the best tools when I can
3. I do not like poor customer service when I try to get tools repaired. Luckily this seems to be a rare occurrence these days
4. The fact that many teach woodturning as a skill that can only be done one way. There are many tools and many different ways of creating good work. I feel we should embrace diversity and problem solving rather than insisting on a particular method or tool