Environmentalist and master craftsman,
his personal odyssey has delivered him from
ironworking to the pinnacle of American furniture artistry.
There isn't a substantial tree within sight of Mark Koon's shop, which is no surprise since he lives in a desert. Yet, his lumber rack is overflowing. Everywhere one looks, there are slabs, flitches, logs and planks. He has an astounding collection of burls, a solar kiln full of huge, wide roughsawn boards, a balcony groaning under the weight of milled stock. And just when you think you're starting to get a handle on his inventory, he drags you up the street to his "new" shop. The first thing to greet you there is the milled trunk of a 106-year-old Russian Olive (the small end of the butt log was 40" across), given to him by no less a personage than the former governor of Wyoming. In fact, over 80% of the material he uses is either recycled or salvaged.
Koons is a free thinker in a state noted for conservative, old-fashioned politics. He's not quite an enigma, but he's certainly working on it. His tolerant, inclusive view of life is evident in the way he welcomes visitors, but more especially in the way he works. The Elkhorn, Wisconsin native found himself in Japan in 1966, staffing an army evacuation hospital for Vietnam casualties. There, he was introduced to "the remarkable focus" of traditional Japanese woodworkers, and the concept that craft was a worthy calling. Thirty-five years later, Koons says the most profound effect of living in Japan was "seeing how people deliberately balanced the turmoil outside with tranquility within."
After the army and his sojourn abroad, Koons returned to the Midwest and began an apprenticeship as an ironworker in Rockford, Illinois. Although involved in the building of factories, bridges and hospitals, he spent much of his early apprenticeship far from the glamour of girders, setting rebar in concrete forms. He literally worked his way up and, by the mid 80s, Koons had become a supervisor (which may have suited his natural skills, but most certainly not his personality). The job eventually brought him to a new power plant being built near Wheatland, a farming community about 170 miles north of Denver. After a period of introspection at the power plant, he traded in his bridge belt for a tablesaw and turned his attention to a new medium.
At first, Koons applied his knowledge of tools and processes to light commercial and residential contracting in the Wheatland area. It didn't take him long to find his natural groove: he felt a whole lot more at home building cabinets and working wood than roofing or pouring concrete, and his business gradually changed direction. After several years spent building sets of cabinets by bid (which he describes as "frantic, exhausting and not very remunerative"), he began to experiment with other woodshop activities - most notably building craft multiples, such as the end-grain laminated food service boards shown at right.
By 1990, he was devoting his energies entirely to artistic craftwork. In 1993, Custom Woodworking Business ran an article on his prize-winning entries in the Design Portfolio competition, and he was on his way to national renown. He became president of the Master Craftsmens' Guild and, in 1999, his work was featured in a solo show at the Wyoming Arts Council Gallery in Cheyenne. Later that year, his Sky King Table was exhibited at the Western Design Conference and purchased for $10,000 by the Buffalo Bill Historical Center Museum, where it is on permanent display.
Koons rounded out the 90s by winning the Grand Prize at the Steamboat Springs Arts Council Show, and the following year the Council invited him to judge their Fine Craft 2000, where he also was the featured exhibitor. Over the past three years, his work has continued to gain stature among his peers while his artistry and craftsmanship have attained new heights. In 2001, he authored a piece for the Furniture Society's Furniture Matters. His work appeared in the 2001 Western Design Conference's Sourcebook, where his methods were discussed in detail. He sat on a jury at Fine Craft 2001, where he also took a First Place and was featured in Steamboat Today. Koons also served on the panel of four exhibition judges for the 2002 Western Design Conference, after which he remarked that he "thought that some very fine work was rewarded".
An energetic participant in the show circuit, and a student and self-described "camp follower" of both James Krenov and Sam Maloof, he says he "draws many important personal lessons from my understanding of both the lives and works of those two". Aside from his teachers, Koons is quite familiar with major influences in his field. His curator and judging duties keep him on top of trends and breakthroughs in both materials and methods. Yet, despite all this socialization, his work is done in splendid isolation. In his remote 3,300 square foot studio, Koons prefers to work alone. This may in some ways explain the unique nature of his craft. Despite his jocular, welcoming nature, an exquisite sense of humor and an unquenchable thirst for good conversation, his is a profoundly introspective nature. His art is all-absorbing. He gets lost in it, searching for something far more important than wood or glue, or a fine cutting edge. Koons' latest project is an excellent example of this quirk. He was in search of "a chair ideal for conversation". Over the last five years he has "stolen about 1,400 hours for this project, much of it wasted on steambending - proving only that tapered bent lamination is the way to generate the form I have in mind."
He wanted to create a piece which influences the very nature of interpersonal relationships. To work for him, this chair had to change the way conversations happen -how people view and react to each other. "Until recently" he says, "the rules I've consciously tried to serve involved utility and longevity, of giving no offense, like the table that bruises a shin or the object that shouts when it should speak softly. I thought people might behave as I wanted if they were surrounded by the right sort of things. I sought beauty, smoothness and luster, thinking they were related to perfection." He notes that trees don't fit this manmade notion of perfection, and continues...
Over a span of thirteen years of rapid personal and artistic growth, one of the many ways Mark Koons has surprised his audience has been his ability to use old (recycled) materials to express new concepts. His two shops and dry kiln were all created in this manner. This aspect of his genius shines most brightly in his innovative use of "the stunted, defective, scrubland hardwoods that come my way - boxelder streaked with pink, Russian olive and golden green mulberry". He has variously combined these with walnut scraps from a door manufacturer and salvaged mahogany from a demolished hotel to create pieces that simply take your breath away. As he moves beyond each experience (such as end-grain lamination), he enters new areas of growth such as his chair for conversation.
Koons, when asked to describe the essence of his work, replied that it was "ideas and increasingly, emotions". The lack of plentiful, industrially perfect hardwood has enhanced his art, rather than detracted from it. Instead of complaining about the limits of his palette in this remote location, Koons celebrates the natural color of his lesser-known species and uses them to bring life to his work. The windswept, dry land is an environment that "makes unending demands regarding wood movement. When it's dry, it's very, very dry. Sometimes, I can't even get a reading on my moisture meter. But when it's wet, it's like coastal Washington".
Among the recycled or salvaged species he works with are butternut, walnut, red oak, cherry, sugar maple, soft maple, Russian olive and mulberry.
While Koons seems to have moved through his end-grain period and is now addressing new challenges, he is still excited about the technique and loves to share his knowledge. Finishing end grain is one of the challenges, as it is so absorbant. He recommends a blend of food-grade cottonseed oil and refined beeswax, a concoction he calls his Wheatland Woodworks Kitchenware Wax, for kitchenware. It's "not especially durable or water resistant, but is totally begnign and easy to renew." For his other, non-kitchen pieces, he likes to use "a mix of tung oil and Spar varnish, maybe six or eight thin coats, each worked finer and finer, finishing with 4-0 steel wool and paste wax".
Back in 1998, Mark Koons described his remote location for Woodworker's Journal...
In the ensuing six years, things have changed a lot for this incredibly talented woodworker. His influence and reputation have grown immensely, as has his range. This new stature was most evident in his latest project, acting as curator of an extraordinary exhibition of fine craft entitled "Four Virtues: Fine Craft 2003" under the auspices of Steamboat Springs Arts Council. It opened on November 14, 2003 at the Eleanor Bliss Center for the Arts and ran until January 2004, when it was moved to Concourse A of the Denver International Airport for another ninety days.
For a guy whose initiation into woodworking as a skinny GI was watching Japanese master craftsmen at work, Mark Koons has come a long, long way. Now, the woodworking world is watching him.
(This profile was written by John English, editor of Woodezine)
Below are two images of Mark's completed chair.
The lower one shows the chair on the cover of the Western Design Conference's 2004 Sourcebook.
Contact Mark:firstname.lastname@example.org or 307-322-2127
Snailmail: 1356 Maple Street, Wheatland WY 82201