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Blunk House: Inside a Master’s Sculptural Homestead, Hewn by Hand, in Northern California

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Blunk House: Inside a Master’s Sculptural Homestead, Hewn by Hand, in Northern California

December 18, 2017

The artist J. B. Blunk (1926–2002) described his Northern California property as “one big sculpture.” On a remote hillside in Inverness, California, Blunk cobbled together a home and workshops out of driftwood, demolition debris, telephone poles, and railroad ties. He made metal doorknobs from melted-down wrappers on wine-bottle necks, and he chiseled a cypress slab to form a sink. He turned tree slices into tables, cast friendly metal monsters out of bronze, and fired pottery vessels inspired by rough Japanese ceramics. And for a dozen public spaces around California, he used chainsaws to sculpt enormous redwood chunks into benches. His three children—the artist-artisans Rufus and Bruno Blunk and the couture and housewares designer Mariah Nielson (she co-runs home objects and accessories line Permanent Collection with Fanny Singer)—learned from him to express themselves in wood, metal, and clay. (Blunk’s two wives—the musician and dancer Nancy Waite and the textile artist Christine Nielson—pursued creative careers, too.)

The family now maintains the property as a residence and headquarters for J. B.’s archive (scholars, artists, and designers can arrange tours by appointment). Mariah is digitizing his voluminous papers in preparation for a 2019 monograph, while helping organize Blunk exhibitions at institutions including the Oakland Museum of California and the Palm Springs Art Museum. She has made minor upgrades in the house, taking down tapestries that obscured the beams and replacing worn carpeting with walnut flooring. On a few walls, she preserved strips of paper that J. B. tacked up, bearing his favorite lines of poetry: “It’s a little bit of his voice coming through,” she says.

Photography by Leslie Williamson.

 Blunk carved the property’s entry arch from one redwood trunk. On a stump, he perched a naturally formed rock sphere found in the nearby Stanislaus River. Blunk made the property’s sculptural “Scrap Wall” by stacking redwood and cypress slabs and driftwood chunks.
Above: Blunk carved the property’s entry arch from one redwood trunk. On a stump, he perched a naturally formed rock sphere found in the nearby Stanislaus River. Blunk made the property’s sculptural “Scrap Wall” by stacking redwood and cypress slabs and driftwood chunks.
 J. B.’s first wife, Nancy Waite, designed and made the kitchen’s polygonal table with sawhorse supports. J. B. hollowed redwood chunks with a chainsaw to make the stools. Above the doorway hangs a Blunk abstract artwork, painted on redwood bark.
Above: J. B.’s first wife, Nancy Waite, designed and made the kitchen’s polygonal table with sawhorse supports. J. B. hollowed redwood chunks with a chainsaw to make the stools. Above the doorway hangs a Blunk abstract artwork, painted on redwood bark.
The open-plan living space, with a carved, benchlike couch.
Above: The open-plan living space, with a carved, benchlike couch.
A wooden sculpture by the doorway.
Above: A wooden sculpture by the doorway.
 A woodstove heats the interior.
Above: A woodstove heats the interior.
 Blunk’s painting in black and white mirrors the chainsaw markings on the underlying redwood plank. The flared and curved outlines of the redwood stool echo the silhouettes on a display of river rocks.
Above: Blunk’s painting in black and white mirrors the chainsaw markings on the underlying redwood plank. The flared and curved outlines of the redwood stool echo the silhouettes on a display of river rocks.
Blunk’s hand-hewn bathroom sink, with marks from his chisel.
Above: Blunk’s hand-hewn bathroom sink, with marks from his chisel.

Also on the property is Blunk’s studio where, outside, river stones are stacked in a shape reminiscent of Japanese pagoda roofs. Inside, a weathered table is ready for visiting artists to spread out tools and get to work. The family has carefully preserved J. B.’s well-used tools, but not as museum pieces; his son Rufus sculpts with them.

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