ORGANIC COIL of hickory, Limited Edition Bracelet Collection, 7.62 x 12.7 x 7.62 centimeters, 2010. Photograph: Erin Beckman.
Gustav Reyes The Irrepressible Spirit




“Some people create different things in their life, and to have the feeling that you’re at the cutting edge of creating, well, you’re epitomizing humanity. You’re being what you’re here to be. You’re here to evolve, and to grow, and to be the best person, the best human animal that you can be in this world; and for me, creativity is at that cusp.”

With the resoluteness of a true believer, Gustav Reyes’s faith in the world resides in the creative experience. A self-taught artist and an entrepreneur, Reyes expresses through words and deeds what is needed to succeed in work and life; and like the trees which provide the raw material for his enchanting jewelry, Reyes’s own life is filled with the rich complexity of branches and roots emanating from a single strong trunk.

Reyes’s father, a carpenter, made jewelry as a hobby; and while influenced by his father’s involvement in the medium, his death when Reyes was eleven meant he was largely self-taught in the basic techniques. As a method of releasing pent-up energy, he immersed himself in creative efforts, building doll houses out of wood. “Not to play with them but just to build them—and my mother let me do it because it was a way for me to do something, without doing bad things or something negative; so she kind of encouraged what I did.” The construction of these structures instilled in the young Reyes joy through the act of making. His creative path had been set in motion.

NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY of padauk, exotic wood from Norm Sartorius and silver, 3.81 x 2.54 x 3.81 centimeters, 2009. Photograph: Tom Petroff.

Although he studied painting and drawing at the Art Institute of Chicago, his jewelrymaking skills were developed by practice, not through classes. His knowledge of wood initially developed from making furniture. His wife Juanita managed to provoke Reyes’s curiosity for other uses of the material the day she asked whether making a wooden ring was possible.

“I drilled out a piece of wood and shaped it, seconds later it would break because of the grain crossing the ring. So I dismissed it, but after letting me simmer a couple of days, she came back and asked, ‘Can you bend wood?’ I said, ‘Yeah, but wood can only bend within certain tolerances, then it breaks.’ ‘But what if you get it thin enough?’ she asked. Picking up a little piece of paper she started rolling it up and that’s when it clicked.” Now, Reyes makes wooden rings inspired by that day, taking a thin sheet of wood that has been soaked in water, rolling it up on itself with glue, binding the wood upon itself. Taping it, he then heats it to set the shape.

“As a woodworker you’re told literally the world is flat, you gotta cut it, drill it and force it. Now I realize that it’s not flat and you can get wood to do things you never thought it could,” Reyes enthuses. Nothing eloquently expresses this more than his finished work. Reyes has spent years revealing the capabilities of wood, and a beautiful progression of pieces speaks to the all-encompassing inquisitiveness he evinces for the material. Cornucopic winding bracelets are created from a single piece, spiraling around itself to suggest plasticity, motility and animation that turns the normal conception of wood on its head. Like coiling springs, Reyes’s work seems to store potentiality. A time-lapse video of a growing tree would show that living wood is not inanimate, it moves and expands. It is this spirit of stored energy that Reyes conjures with each of his pieces.

“What’s interesting with the circular forms,” he says, gesturing at a wooden brooch composed of overlapping circles, “is that it’s one solid piece that creates that structure. So in a humid environment, this will grow, and in a dry environment, it’s going to get smaller. So this exciting thing happens with the natural material that is part of the living process, which is really cool.”

TREFOIL NOT of cherry wood, Limited Edition Bracelet Collection, 8.25 x 8.25 x 1.9 centimeters, 2012. Photograph: Erin Beckman.

Reyes creates many of these brooches and bracelets by using a compression machine, which alters the cell-structure of the wood, making it pliable for months if the moisture content remains. With this process, Reyes can make wood of varying thicknesses easily bend into graceful curves. While his wood is currently being processed by a compression machine in the state of Washington, he is putting together a Kickstarter campaign to purchase one for his studio.

His organic method of problem-solving represents a core part of Reyes’s character, a grand pool of creative imagination, derived from a true love for process: solutions are arrived at not all at once, but part by part, binding at last into the answer to a larger problem. Learning something from the execution of a series of rings, ring by ring, leads to an interpretation that can be applied to a bracelet or brooch.

As he explores methods for his jewelrymaking, he also ruminates on how best to run a small business. He has two enterprises: Gustav Reyes and Simply Wood Rings. Reyes does almost all the work for the Gustav Reyes line, with one or two people occasionally assisting in heavy milling and sanding. Simply Wood Rings receives a large number of orders, and since every ring must be hand milled, up to three assistants are involved at the busiest times of the year. The shop assistants for Gustav Reyes do not work on the jewelry, but rather are involved in the photographic and clerical aspects of the company. Although Reyes has had some training with Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, he eventually realized the necessity of freeing himself from this work and passed its responsibility to his assistant Erin Beckman. “Erin is very good at graphics, and with releasing myself from the feeling that I didn’t have to have control over everything, she’s gained confidence and her work has gotten much better in terms of communicating.”

PETAL EARRINGS of cherry wood, sterling silver, 8.89 x 5.08 x 2.54 centimeters, 2011. Photograph: Erin Beckman.

With his rolling oral style, flowing through topics of interest, Reyes delivers his often pragmatic wisdom. For those owning a small business, one must be familiar with the potential agony of delegating to others and the worry of letting something integral to the enterprise be placed in someone else’s hands. But, as he points out, it is preferable to forcing yourself to do something for which there is a lack of both knowledge and passion. “So I’ll stick to what I enjoy best, and I think everybody benefits from fitting into their roles,” he summarizes.

He tiers his jewelry according to his audience with varying pricing levels. Simply Wood Rings deals only with rings and is attractive to younger buyers. This is where many of his wedding customers come to him. Some of his limited-edition bracelets, necklaces and brooches, for instance, have a higher price point, and are likely to resonate with an older audience. This concept is not new to business, but simply how Reyes employs it in his own life. “I think you do need to,” he says. “When I first started I wanted to do one thing, and I was still basing my work off of the belief that the world was one way, and it’s not one way. And you don’t fit yourself into the world working like that; you fit yourself into the world the way you’re comfortable.” Over time he has found that having a few lines going is the comfortable balance for him. And while his Simply Wood Rings makes work that sells at a lower price point, he proudly proclaims his audience for it as some of the best customers an artist could wish for.

As a self-taught artisan, Reyes has many opinions about the craft artist’s dilemma, namely the importance of having self-respect. Especially for those first starting out, there is a tremendous pressure in having to make a living from one’s creations. The urge to just “do work that sells” is really a fear-based reaction, bringing the proverbial walls and ceiling closer. Resisting takes courage, endurance and, in practical terms, ‘the big break’ that recognition brings. However, having gone through several levels of experience, Reyes is stalwart in his support of artists who are in that more uncertain intermediate stage of growth. “I get excited by being able to show young artists work and by encouraging them to continue, because so many artists think of what they do as a second job or something that they can’t do as a primary living, and they can!”

TURQUOISE EARRING of walnut, turquoise, sterling silver, 6.35 x 3.81 x .635 centimeters, 2011. Photograph: Parveer Sohal.

His own story of success began with his involvement with Etsy, the online do-it-yourself (DIY) craft store. Reyes joined Etsy when it was only five months old, certainly a different creature than what it is today. “I couldn’t pay the mortgage; I was borrowing money,” Reyes says. “I put a couple of things on Etsy, sold them, and then the owner emailed me. His name was Rob Kalin, and he says, ‘Hey, how would you like to be featured on the front page of Etsy?’ I said, ‘Sure, that would be cool.’ I was featured. I got a lot of hits, yet Etsy was so small at the time that it was exciting, and it showed me that there are people who wanted the work. And as long as you are professional and open, people want to interact with the actual artist. I think that’s what that encounter showed me more than anything.”

It is this concept of exchange, of a fair trade, between individuals that sets off the light inside Reyes. “There’s a true energy there. There are people who really want the work, and you really want to sell it, but without diminishing either party,” Reyes states. “People are willing to support craft and own things that are created by hand. I think that exchange, it’s the basis of what we do for a living; it’s the basis of what everyone does for a living, but one doesn’t benefit and take advantage of the other.”

Reyes’s own experience with his customers informs him of a wellspring of interest from a younger generation. Within the age-bracket of twenty to thirty-five, there are multitudes who appreciate the personal. Big box warehouses, iPhones, the internet, and online shopping make it easy to have so much available at one’s fingertips, but they do not provide that powerful personal connection which so many of us desire to have in our lives.

“They’re an up and coming generation; there’s a huge amount of them,” he affirms. “You don’t have to cater work to that age group, but you should know what they’re looking for in terms of being authentic. For me, the wedding rings do well and I really like that interaction with the younger crowd. You have to know that there are older craft customers, and then there are the younger customers. So you can have separate models, and you can make work for both.

Reyes’s own experience with his customers informs him of a wellspring of interest from a younger generation. Within the age-bracket of twenty to thirty-five, there are multitudes who appreciate the personal. Big box warehouses, iPhones, the internet, and online shopping make it easy to have so much available at one’s fingertips, but they do not provide that powerful personal connection which so many of us desire to have in our lives.

ARC SERIES BROOCH of hickory, walnut, sterling silver, 6.35 x 1.27 x 12.7 centimeters, 2011. Photograph: Erin Beckman.

It is obvious how meaningful these exchanges are for Reyes. From stories like the marine biologist who used inlaid garbage to carry the intimate into the lives of her and her soon-to-be husband and to those who have sent in wood from childhood trees, or sand from different beaches, they have all made a connection to Reyes by sharing something important and asking him to incorporate them into his work.

Reyes venerates the material with which he works. Symbolism and metaphor are built right into the foundation of wood and the artist finds no end to his fascination with it. “I just like the idea that this material makes you think like it. It shifts our way of thinking and focuses us on the present,” Reyes explains. He contrasts wood with silver and gold, which he describes as having connotations with the future or the past. Both precious metals have a far longer shelf-life, and their monetary value means they can be purchased to fund one’s future, or passed from generation to generation, thus an anchor to the past. With wood, he says, “It’s about living with it now while we’re alive and treasuring it.” The temporal nature of the material creates this understanding of finitude.

Yet it is a finite existence which can still span eras. “The materials can go from five-thousand-year-old bog oak to fifty-thousand-year-old wood from New Zealand,” Reyes urgently relates. “These are trees that the last ice age knocked over, and when they do land development, they take this material, move it, and put it into a landfill.” This disturbance of the natural process, particularly the taking of a precious substance and disposing of it as garbage, is somewhat anathema to Reyes. “To be able to salvage that wood from going into the landfill, with all the history that it has,” he almost despairs. “It’s the oldest workable wood in the world.”

In exploring the capacity of wood, Reyes has experimented with many elements. Most of the time, he uses just one piece to form a bangle or a brooch, spiraling lustrous woods like cherry into lovely spring-like forms. Variations come like branches of a tree; a spring-like cherry wood bangle gets flattened into an intertwining braided bracelet, or layered on top of itself to become a brooch of concentric circles. He then plays with the pin-back, countering expectation by bringing it to the front as a design element in itself. He will move on to using three pieces of wood, joining them together with lap joints, a technique used in furniture making. Again, he undermines the norm, by making a piece with curved parts, which are traditionally structurally weak, but when fortified by the lap joint process becomes robust.

THREE TREASURES BROOCH of cherry wood, sterling silver, 15.24 x 15.24 x 1.27 centimeters, 2011. Photograph: Erin Beckman.

Reyes’s explanation of his design process is rooted in the ever present act of inspiration, that eternal moment of time that existed in the ancient past through to the contemporary. “One of the stories that informs my work is a flute that was discovered that is thirty-five thousand years old. It’s from a bone of a vulture. Picture these guys sitting around a campfire, and he’s sucking on the bone of this vulture and it makes a noise. This noise is the first noise they’ve heard that sounds like this, so it’s a spark of creativity. At that point in the evolution of man, by thousands of years ago they’ve all taken in this noise, and another guy decides to put a hole in it, and it slowly evolves into this instrument. It’s these slow little steps that, when I’m working with things, and feeling like I’m innovating, I’m living that life. I’m living no differently than the person who made this flute thirty-five thousand years ago.”

Another facet of his style is his use of asymmetry and contrasts. Reyes finds the pairing of opposites, such as soft and hard, heavy and light, clean and rough, create an off-kilter aesthetic which feels very innate and authentic. “To me, this imbalance is a natural thing. It’s about the world. There’s symmetry in nature, but there’s probably more imbalance and asymmetry, and I think that’s what makes it natural for me; it gives it that vibration of life.” Reyes tells how he often begins with uniform pieces, but will then cut them to create unevenness and variation, and then reconnect them to further accentuate the ordered chaos within.

Reyes’s view of humanity is a passionate one. “I tell my wife that we’re human animals, that we, just like the birds and the bees are attracted to baser things like insects and flowers; we are more of the biological world than we are of our mind. Our mind is a creation and we negate and put down the physical part of our world. When we take ourselves out of the biological world, we deny a great part of us, and we’re separating ourselves from our humanness,” he pronounces.

“The most human thing we can do is create. That is, as far as I’m concerned, what we’re here for. Some people create drama,” he says, laughing lightly. “Some people create different things in their life, and to have the feeling that you’re at the cutting edge of creating, well, you’re epitomizing humanity. You’re being what you’re here to be. You’re here to evolve, and to grow, and to be the best person, the best human animal that you can be in this world; and for me, creativity is at that cusp.”

In the book The Craftsman, Richard Sennett, a noted sociologist, discusses how a nurse is a form of craftsperson. By paying attention to her occupation, by constantly improving her skills and how she interacts with her work environment, she is crafting her existence, like a woodcarver might shape a block of wood. “My feeling,” Reyes concludes, “is that he stopped there, he didn’t go far enough to say that we are literally crafting our existence and our world by the choices we make, by the things we do; so in that respect we’re all creators. We’ve given up our power by saying that my position in life is this. And that’s not the case. You can do and be and create anything you want, and it starts at the very beginning.”  






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