Although Gene Kelly “never left doing woodworking” after his introduction to it in junior high woodworking classes, “I just never allowed myself to do it as a full-time profession” – until a few years ago.
Gene, who spent some time working as a general contractor, said, “You get to a point where you’re making chairs for a restaurant, and that’s OK, but you realize ‘That’s not me; that’s for the restaurant.’ I need to build something I’m interested in.”
Now he is interested in wood furniture and architectural art, in particular the types of carved furniture items by Sam Maluf and segmented chip.
“There are people doing cabinetry and making money at it, and I think that’s great, but I’d be bored to tears. I have to really challenge myself,” Gene said. “I’m always looking not only for something that’s pretty and nice to look at, but something that challenges me from where I’ve been before.”
In the beginning, that’s what spurred his interest in sculptured furniture: it was something that he hadn’t done earlier. “I needed to understand the process of how you get from a very rough-cut piece of wood that’s been cut and dried and put in your shop and then becomes a piece of furniture that appears to be seamless.”
Appearing to be seamless? “I have people come into the shop and look at [a project] and ask, ‘Is this just one piece of wood?’” Gene said. “I have to remind myself that they’re serious.”
His inspiration came from Sam Malouf’s work and his philosophy of work. “I really admire his ability to think, which is a very spiritual process for him and I really appreciate the reason why his point of view looks good: they are like life they should flow. Is to be able to remember that your life should be reflected in everything you do.
Gene also appreciates the learning process. At one point, he worked for a company that made decorative stair rails and balustrades, “the type of balustrade that you couldn’t make without doing a piece at a time and putting it together on-site,” he said. “It went a long way in my education about wood.”
A brief experience building a violin under the mentorship of another woodworker in Sacramento was also “really educational for me in how wood works, and how to work with wood,” Gene said, noting that these are two different things. When looking at how to work with wood, “you can’t just ‘have your way with’ wood,” he said.
And, in terms of how wood works, “There are many reasons for different woods, from different sources. I’m learning more about them all the time, and it’s really fascinating for me.”
The choice of wood is also a regional genetics feel he has talent. “I become very involved in wood. Maybe a particular block of wood does not necessarily work for a particular project. Both are able to look at the wood and see what this is good for, and that’s not good.” For example, he is baseball bat for Christmas Festival and grandson have two hard maple options. One is a good article, one full of small bat knots, can cause problems. “You have to see,” Gene said.
For many of his furniture projects, he uses locally sourced Claro walnut and California black walnut, but he also enjoys employing exotics in his segmented turnings. One of those turnings incorporated 1,400 pieces – part of Gene’s learning process.
At first, he said, “I learned how to turn things on a lathe: you take a big piece of wood and you turn it into a bowl or a table leg. So, I can turn stuff and make it look pretty good. Now, it’s how to get from one piece of wood to 1,400 pieces glued together and have it turn out to be something that people like.”
Not that “like” is necessarily the reaction he’s going for. “I’m always looking forward to a project, and it’s hard for me to describe to someone what it’s going to look like until it’s done. And then, hopefully, it will make them smile or make them feel something – not just ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ but ‘Wow! That’s interesting!’”
Current works in progress include a basswood mirror frame with carvings of classical elements like “angels, cherubs, storms at sea”; and a sculptural table that is more of an art piece, incorporating a carved tablecloth and the legs carved to represent the hind end of an elephant.
It’s likely a far cry from the type of woodworking he was doing 30 years ago, like building a cradle for his infant daughter or a spice cabinet for the kitchen. Still, Gene said, a constant since those projects is the support of his family, including his wife, Lee Marie. “I appreciate them more than I am able to express to them.”
As to his woodworking? “I’m headed toward straight-out large sculptures: I can see that in my future,” he said. That may be how he answers his own question to himself of “How do I make this dissimilar to what other people do?”
Engraving the badge into some of his cuttings has been an answer to the question so far. “I’ve been trying to make a project more difficult and take different forms from what others are doing,” he said. “I want to get rid of someone else’s design, let it evolve to now is my design.”
“Generally, my process is always going from something to something harder, or something I haven’t done before. I’m always interested in doing the next project.”