“BIG NEWS” hovers on the semigloss surface of a pamphlet from a sawmill retailer. A cartoon lumberjack grips a megaphone, smiling beside orange text that announces: “INSTANT SAVINGS…FLEXIBLE PLANS with Payments as LOW as $102 per Month.”
Sam Duket and Brad Fesmire have been eyeing this mailer lately, fantasizing about those low, low payments on a portable sawmill. As professional woodworkers, partners in their joint venture Transom, Duket and Fesmire make their living off fabrication, carpentry and millwork. A sawmill would be useful — not only for their profession, but their artwork.
As you might guess, these carpenters render robust forms from humble wood: the smooth and the knotty, the polished and the lacquered, the painted and the unadorned. But, Duket said: “I don’t think anyone would say that we share an aesthetic.”
What the pair do share is an interest in lumber, labor and the physicality of the painted object. (And workplace style: Both sport Carhatt overalls and plaid shirts in their Olneyville workshop.) They’re also sharing the gallery space at Jamestown Arts Center in “Untitled (not titled yet),” an exhibit opening Thursday, April 27.
For the opening, Duket and Fesmire are constructing a large, wooden platform, on which they’ll install toy trains and tracks. Model trains are a curious and antiquated technology, largely the province of aging hobbyists and nostalgic baby boomers. Using models from their dads and granddads, Fesmire says the Lionels might become “a vehicle and icon to talk about a shared past and a shared history” — or, better yet, enchant folks unacquainted with Lilliputian locomotives.
Speaking of shared history, this is the fourth time Duket and Fesmire have shown together. A peek into their past efforts is a good indication of where the JAC show could go. Fesmire attacks plywood panels with a router before applying vibrant coats of acrylic color. His paintings’ titles reference blue collar work or tools of the trade (such as a Kubota tractor last manufactured in 1996). Duket, meanwhile, employs fir, walnut and other hearty timbers in savvy, sculptural constructions more dimensional than traditional painting, but still reliant on wall space.
“I feel like I am a painter and nobody believes me,” Duket said.
Given the duo’s mutual histories of manual labor, their work’s artisanal aesthetic is unsurprising.
“I feel like I’ve had a hammer in my hand since I was 5,” Fesmire said. Duket, meanwhile, remembers roofing a house as a 7-year-old. Parallel to their proletariat sides, Duket and Fesmire both hold degrees in painting.
This lifetime among the (felled) trees has profoundly impacted not only Duket and Fesmire’s aesthetic aims but their choice of muse. “I watch more lumberjack videos now than I watch painters painting,” Fesmire said.
He and Duket are quick to recommend their favorite carpenter.
“You wanna see somebody drive a nail,” Duket began.
“You should check out Larry Haun,” Fesmire said. “He’s like the greatest framer ever.”
“He makes a nail gun seem like a foolish endeavor,” Duket continued. He identified Haun as a “euphemism…[for] expertise that’s lost on most of us, that’s sort of all around us.”
Well-made, functional things (and their makers) can go unsung against mechanical perfection or, in the arts, the pretension of the beautiful object. Discarding the derogatory notion of craft, Duket and Fesmire might forge a partnership of material with the painterly impulse toward the sublime. Materials come to embody ingenuity and ideation. Wood becomes bilingual, capable of speaking both theory and technique.
“Carved plywood could be an entry point for a tradesman showing up in a gallery, looking at a piece of contemporary art,” Fesmire said, a possible means of enticing an audience that “usually wouldn’t give a shit.”
Larry Haun once wrote that “I had no idea what a thesis was, let alone how to write one.” But I get the feeling he might have appreciated both the intellect and the craft in Duket and Fesmire’s work.