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John Clark, Woodworker

An Interview by Wayne Muromoto
Reprinted in part, with permission from Furyu Magazine

"There's a feeling that a handmade thing has soul in it. It's hard to put into words, but there is definitely and element of spirit or soul in a hand made object."

John assembles each shrine by hand.

Woodworker John Clark still recalls the fist time he saw his mentor, Jay van Arsdale, work a piece of wood. Van Arsdale (the author of Shoji, How to Design, Build and Install Japanese Screens Published by Kodansha International.) used traditional Japanese carpentry tools to plane and chisel a piece of cedar. To hear John talk about that moment, it's as if the scent of the aromatic wood still lingers in his nostrils, like perfume lingering on silk kimono sleeves. "It (van Arsdale's tools) was like a knife cutting through butter. I was just taken by the whole thing," John recalls.

An close-up of the Joinery
used in John's work.

From van Arsdale, he learnt the value of wood as a material, and of woodworking as a spiritual endeavor. "In the morning, I would tell Jay that I had just come from meditating at the Zen Center. He would hand me a blunt chisel and say ---'Sharpen this, this is your meditation' and he was right."

"Sharp tools are fundamental to my woodworking, they allow you to follow your layout lines precisely, making the joinery suck together as you assemble the piece."

A handmade Kamidana by John Clark

John learnt to construct everything from Shoji Screens to cabinets using only traditional hand crafted Japanese joinery. "When I started to see Japanese carpentry and design, it struck me as being quite profound in it's simplicity. When it grows out of the joinery and construction, the piece has authenticity, but if you try to make it simple in an arbitrary way it doesn't work."

"There's a feeling that a handmade thing has soul in it. It's hard to put into words, but there is definitely and element of spirit or soul in a hand made object."

Several years ago John struck out on his own as Zen Wood, specializing in Kamidana, the little house-like Japanese shrines, traditionally found in homes, Temples and Martial Art dojos. "In Japanese, Kami means spirit. A Kamidana is a shrine to honour the living spirit in everything. In the rocks, the trees, water, you and me. The Kamidana helps us remember that this spirit is universal, and that we are one.

John constructs his Kamidana from select pieces of cedar. The cutting, chiseling and planing are all done by hand. The finished shrines are then rubbed with a light coating of linseed and citrus oil.John also builds Altars, Shoji screens, stools and cabinets.

A cabinet built to hold a Buddha

"I lay it out by hand. All the joinery is done by hammer and chisels. I will use some glue and nails, but that's the way they (the traditional Japanese craftsmen) did it." John won't mass produce his products, even though it would make more sense in terms of man-hours and production. He'll stick to hand tools and long hours.If John is trying to pursue a way of livelihood and lifestyle, his is also, inherently, following a way of thinking. He is trying to blend the gentle and human values of traditional craftsmanship with the era of the World Wide Web, U.P.S. and Fax machines.

"We are living what Marshall McLuan so aptly named, "The Global Village". The countries of the World are our neighbors. I am a village carpenter."

In conjunction with his woodworking John is a long time practitioner of Aikido and Zen. "What I'm finding is that the different aspects of my life (Aikido, Zen and Woodworking) are becoming one. "I have this overlapping sense of one part of my life blending into the other. When I'm woodworking, I'm practicing Aikido. When I'm practicing Aikido, I'm sitting Zazen. It's all the same.

A large garden bell stand, built by John.

Zen Wood