The Man Who Makes Wood Come to Life

THERE IS ONE particularly mesmerizing sculpture in Christopher Kurtz's studio that stands as high as the ceiling. Upon first glance, the wooden piece looks like the type of biomorphic object that may come to life during a wild fever dream and chase you around the room. The space is full of these idiosyncratic sculptures, each one with more protruding points and slanted lines than the last. The immediate visual effect is magical and commanding, but the longer you stare, the more the details come into focus: the spikes that extend out from all angles like mesmerizing limbs, the contours that come together to form a seamless body, and the basswood grain that peeks through a fine layer of white milk paint. 

This duality of artful precision and off-kilter surrealism is present in much of Kurtz's sculpture and furniture design. The work is exacting, disciplined, and free-form all at once. He pokes and prods and sands and shapes until ordinary wood transforms into something sublime. But despite all these intricacies, everything is carved by hand without the guidance of computer programs or technical blueprints. 

“I might have an idea sketched on paper, but it's more of a feeling or an intuition,” Kurtz says. “When I start making something, I let it evolve at the workbench and follow what's working and avoid what's not working.” He speaks in long, calm sentences that meander with deliberate precision. The artist and designer goes on to tell me this clairvoyance and laissez-faire process of his didn't materialize overnight — it's the accumulation of the last two decades.

Originally from Missouri, Kurtz has been living and working in New York's Hudson River Valley since the late 1990s. He remembers paying $150 a month for a beat-up three-story rowhouse in downtown Hudson, a far cry from the glossy million-dollar listings that now make up most of the city's main street. His present-day studio is located just minutes outside of Woodstock, right off a quiet highway in a single rectangular garage with massive welcoming windows. Kurtz studied at the Kansas City Art Institute before receiving his BFA in sculpture from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. After completing his schooling, he recalls feeling aimless and unmoored — not exactly capable as an artist or professional creative.

“I felt pretty lost. In art school, I felt like I didn't know what I had learned. It wasn't a failure of my education; it was more the condition of the art world at the time,” he says. “Everything was very post-studio. It was all about traveling and living, concepts and performance art. Things you could do without learning technique or mastering a craft.”

Kurtz went to work as the studio assistant to renowned artist Martin Puryear, a master of large-scale wood installations, widely regarded as one of the nation's most distinguished sculptors. It was under Puryear that Kurtz found the craft-oriented direction he had hoped to find in art school. In 2005, he set up his own studio practice and began to experiment further in furniture design in addition to his sculpture. Kurtz views both as interchangeable; he thinks little of labels and genre.

“In terms of the process, the level of attention to detail, and the curiosity that I bring to it — it's the same. It all happens under this roof,” he explains. “When I approach a piece of furniture, I am thinking about it more as a sculptural object than a piece of industrial design.” That thinking is simple to see. His furniture is often as eccentric as his sculptures: credenzas with naturally occurring forms and chairs featuring unconventional details. Many of the amoeba-esque sculptures in his studio at the time of this interview were shown this past summer at Messums Wiltshire, a contemporary art gallery located in the southern English countryside. The exhibition was thousands of miles away from his Hudson Valley studio, but the aesthetic similarities between the two are remarkable: a quaint town with medieval churches and rustic barns, open fields with lush greenery and hilly landscapes — all hallmarks of upstate life.

When I ask Kurtz — an artist living by the woods, working with his hands — about what drew him to this lifestyle, he is quick to set the record straight. “I'm the first one to dispel the myth of the upstate life. This idea of leaving the metropolis for this better life of yesteryear,” he says. “It's not the lifestyle that you see in magazines. Any person who makes a living with their hands will tell you: it's not nostalgic, and it's not romantic. It's a job, and it's just as stressful as anything else.”

Kurtz speaks of the difficulties of being a small business owner and how these messy aspects of the upstate artist lifestyle are often hidden from public view. “It's not like my days are spent sniffing lavender and walking around in my Wellies,” he says with a laugh. “There are moments that I enjoy and love. But sometimes it's winter, and I come in here tired and cold and not wanting to do it. Then you push through it, and there are moments of bliss.”

I suspect it's in these moments of bliss where Kurtz propels his work from ordinary to prodigious. To produce work that is so simultaneously raw and refined is no small task. Even in his most polished pieces, you can still see his hand — everything that comes out of his studio feels organic and alive. Kurtz speaks of how he uses spokeshaves and chisels to achieve this level of finesse, but his intuition is the true creative center of his craft and his art. He is compelled to make these things: the hulking sculptures and the imaginative furniture. The difficulties of making a living with your hands and the myth of a picturesque life as an upstate artist be damned — Kurtz is drawn to his work like a moth to the flame. 

“Everything is telling you not to do this,” he says of life in the arts, pausing for just a moment. “But you still do it anyway.” ◆