Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Artistry in Woodworking

Through the years Ben Bigler has been a construction supervisor, a woodworker, and is now an artist creating beautiful doors and windows for local architectural projects. His Bigler Woodworks at 414 Jefferson Avenue in Covington is filled with plans, projects and planks that will become great showpieces in local homes, churches, and the childrens' museum.

Earlier this decade, he worked on house renovations in Los Angeles, CA. In 2014, he and his wife moved to Covington, where she is from. In California he was a construction supervisor with a large workcrew, and they did a number of high-end home renovations, adding outstanding artistic elements to existing architecture, both old and new. For three years he worked on renovations to the 1920's Frank Lloyd Wright "Ennis House." 

His office door

Now that he's in Covington, he is concentrating on the artistic aspects of woodworking, building windows and doors in particular. Bigler Woodworks is in the old Henri Vergez metal working shop building and now produces outstanding custom-made specialty projects that blend wood-working skills and stained-glass, truly a blend between art within architecure.

Bigler, 37, moved into the building in late 2015. He and fellow artists originally started the "Community Beehive," a place for artists to work on individual projects in a cooperative atmosphere. The building has now become the Bigler Woodworks, where artists collaborate on projects sought by the local architectural community.

His grandfather was a master craftsman from Norway, and while Ben didn't follow the family trade for a while (he was more interested in becoming a musician), he eventually understood that woodworking was a skill he could develop and benefit from. "I really enjoy woodworking, especially now that I am doing it from an artist's perspective," he said.

Once he realized his family's woodworking skills were a "gift," he decided to share them on a larger scale, but he wanted to be careful about not identifying himself as just a woodworker. He has many interests, among them music, especially music played for church ministry. 

Clamping a door panel being glued

As an artist, both in wood and sound, he sought a balance between who he was and what he does. "Artists need to be careful about that balance, he said. "As soon as I became a woodworker, I didn't want to identify with that more than what I should. What changed my whole focus was instead of me identifying as what I did for my craft, I allowed my work to help me become who I was becoming."

He feels that no matter a person's occupation, whether an artist, a plumber, an electrician or whatever, none of those is better or worse than the other, since they are just what people do, not the people themselves.

It's also a question that many young people face: "What would I be today if it wasn't for this, or what would I be if that hadn't happened?"  In that respect, we are all "would workers" trying to figure out what would have happened given this opportunity or choosing this different path. "We should stay focused on who we are becoming instead of what we already are," Bigler said. 

Bigler's focus was radically altered two years ago when, during a wood-cutting session on a personal project, he cut off half of one of his fingers. The extreme pain and visual memory of that horrific incident was bad enough, but what really floored him was the sudden realization of how it might affect his woodworking career and his guitar playing. Once he overcame the anguish of those thoughts, he finally called his wife, who told him to call 911. An on-the-spot prayer helped get him through the worst of it. It all happened pretty fast, but it was a lesson he recalls to this day.

The accident helped changed his way of thinking about his future. It was humbling, he said, how losing a finger made him re-assess almost everything he had hoped to accomplish. He can still play the drums so his love of music is ongoing.

The Artistic Challenge

According to Bigler, the challenge to an artist is to balance his views of the creative process in such a way as to realize that the thing being created, while it appears to be an extension of the person who created it, should not be viewed as being "inseparable" from the artist. "The danger in that kind of thinking is that if someone else criticizes the creation, it may seem they also criticizing the artist who created it."

The best response for the artist to that kind of criticism, he felt, is to receive the comments objectively as an opportunity to improve the creation. "The item created does not define the artist," Bigler commented. "And a person's reaction to any created item can continually evolve," Bigler said. 

"People looking at a piece of art today may feel differently about it as time goes on, as their viewpoints, recollections, and personal experiences change," he noted. Art is timeless, but over time people can respond to the same piece of art differently.

Bigler's goal now is to create custom-made tables, doors and windows that people need and want, in as artistic manner as he can, on budget and on time.

He commended that the building's earlier tenant, Henri Vergez, enjoyed a reputation of helping the community in many ways and was someone of integrity people could count on.  He loves occupying the space that was once the Vergez Machine Shop, a community gathering place where people came to talk, have broken things fixed, and metal things fabricated. Vergez was an important person in town, involved in a variety of public service efforts. Bigler is following the tradition of his shop being a place where not only things are created, but a place where people can visit and explore ideas of what can be created.

A few years ago, he invented a wooden block game "Topple Rocks." That was a great exercise in creativity, woodworking skills, and a desire to help people have fun. He found that stacking odd-shaped pieces of wood one atop another teaches patience, develops fine motor skills, and is a competition between the player and gravity. It also teaches balance, in very intricate and entertaining ways.

Ben has been involved in church music ministry for many years, and his wife Kim started a non-profit organization to help foster children. She had a group in Los Angeles helping provide necessary items for children in foster care and those who were aging out of the foster care system, and when they moved to Covington, she started a similar organization here. (jamessamaritan.org)