Carlos Taylor-Swanson at Madera. Photo: Lisa Kinoshita

“I first look at [a] magnificent cut of wood with appreciation and reverence, then try to figure out how to make it bow to my wishes,” says Carlos Taylor-Swanson, a Tacoma artist and fine woodworker who has been honing his craft for more than 30 years. Madera Fine Decorative Furnishings, located near Thea Foss Waterway, is his combined workshop and showroom. On a recent visit it presented a feast for the senses, wonderfully pungent with wood shavings, the walls stacked with behemoth cross-cut slabs from unusual species such as non-endangered sequoia, as well as gorgeous finished pieces.

Prototypes from recent jobs give a glimpse of the breadth of Taylor-Swanson’s artistry, from a rustic headboard made of weathered, reclaimed wood, to a sculptural bench designed for the Washington State Convention Center. This soft-spoken craftsman is truly a poet with a special connection to his medium. Moss + Mineral is proud to present new work by Taylor-Swanson in a group show, “Natural Spectacle: Art + Eco-Furnishings”, opening June 7, 1-6pm. We chatted with him recently via e-mail.

Awaiting inspiration at Madera.

A Madera regular and a cedar stump awaiting inspiration.

Moss + Mineral: Hi Carlos, last time we worked together it was co-curating an exhibit about the seven deadly sins, and considering the merits of artist-made chastity belts. It’s always a pleasure, as they say. What are you up to these days?

Carlos Taylor-Swanson: Work-wise I am fortunate to be doing what I love: designing and crafting original, custom woodwork for folks who are wanting hand-made items that did not come off an assembly line….Outside of work, I am blessed with a wonderfully full life. Two young, sociable kids and a self-employed wife (who is also in graduate school at UW) make for a busy, engaging and adventurous time.

Big wheel keeps on turning: Taylor-Swanson at the lathe.

Big wheel keeps on turning: Taylor-Swanson at the lathe.

M+M: In your studio you create several types of woodwork: modern cabinetry, furnishings for yacht interiors, also artful pieces from repurposed wood…You’ve done large-order commissions for the Washington State Convention Center, and one-of-a-kind dining tables from ancient slab wood. What is the connecting thread?

CT-S: The threads are many but the main ones are, of course, the material, wood – “madera” in my Puerto Rican mother’s native Spanish – and also the challenge of crafting someone’s desires. There is an immeasurable reward and satisfaction in this, especially when it is done well and with intention.

M+M: A walk through Madera is so different from at other art studios. Giant raw slabs lean against walls waiting for the call to duty, others are casually used as benches. Regionally sourced walnut, maple and elm are a few of the non-endangered species you use. When I look at your pieces, I sense the respect you have for the materials – which brings us to Natural Spectacle: Art + Eco-Furnishings, a group show opening June 7 at Moss + Mineral. What are the considerations when looking at a cut of wood that will take on a new form?

Western maple trestle bench by Carlos Taylor-Swanson. Photo courtesy of the artist

Western maple trestle bench by Carlos Taylor-Swanson. Photo courtesy of the artist

CT-S: There isn’t a natural material that is more broadly useful in our culture today, nor throughout history, than wood. It has qualities that allow it to bear incredible weight, float on water, keep us warm, protect our valuables, heal us and express our creativity. It has such amazing variability in density, texture and color. But all of this glory aside, it can be fickle. Because it is a natural material, we, as woodworkers, are subject to its many whims. Any board that looks as if it was destined to be transformed into something spectacular could have so much inner tension in its grain that it is impossible to work. So to answer your question, I guess I first look at that magnificent cut of wood with appreciation and reverence, then try to figure out how to make it bow to my wishes.

M+M: There is a poetry to woodworking, as no two pieces are ever alike, can ever be repeated. But there’s more – trees are a record of history. For one special commission you created a custom dining table from highly figured claro walnut native to California. It was salvaged from trees lost in an arson wildfire set in the Sacramento Valley. How does such knowledge resonate when you are making an artwork?

Taylor-Swanson sketching online.

Taylor-Swanson sketching online.

CT-S: I cherish every opportunity to work with wood that was harvested for another reason other than lumber. The walnut you mention was a tragic loss. Seeing the logs after milling, many still showed the burn marks on the outsides. But at least the wood is available to be transformed into something both useful and beautiful. And now there is a story. We often work with slabs that were milled from trees taken down in urban settings. Perhaps the trees were encroaching on utilities, maybe the property was being cleared for building, or, it might have been weather related. Making furniture from these urban harvested trees is such a satisfying experience and a great way to lock in that carbon, keeping it from going up in smoke.

M+M: You regularly collaborate with architects, designers and metalsmiths. What is your favorite kind of project?

CT-S: For me and my two talented employees, our favorite kind of project is the one that allows us to craft with care and the intention for quality and longevity. We love challenges to seek creative and elegant solutions. And we always enjoy variety in materials and purpose.

M+M: And we enjoy seeing the results! Thank you, Carlos.

Please join us at the opening reception of “Natural Spectacle: Art + Eco-Furnishings”, a group show opening June 7, 1-6pm. Exhibition features Carlos Taylor-Swanson, Holly Senn, Claudia Riedener, Harriet McNamara, and Jeff Libby + Adrienne Wicks. Address: 305 S. 9th St. in Tacoma; 253.961.5220. ~Lisa Kinoshita

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