Monday, July 12, 2010

Sebastian Renfield | Our White V-Neck Communi-Tee | Turning into Grandpa

My work as a designer takes many different forms, and the beauty of working as an artist lies in that very notion; every day is different, every moment allows us to connect with our materials, our surroundings and our history in a new and meaningful way.

The vast majority of the content I post on this blog focuses on what I am looking at, what I think about, and as the subtitle wonders: why any of it matters in the first place. My materials give me good reason to work, and the techniques they respond to offer a means of executing the ideas I dream up. But beyond all this - beyond the bolts of fabric and dozens of scissors and racks of patterns and shelves of manuals and diagrams and monographs - the most genuine driving force an artist can have is his community. Going face to face with other artists is a powerful experience. Speaking directly with other makers and hearing them talk about what interests them, what inspires them, what they have on their shelves and in their hands and heads that keeps them working - that is the good stuff. Not only are those things inspiring and relevant to someone else who makes things, but it is through those conversations that you are able to feel you are somehow a part of this world. For me personally, finding my people - my tribe - offers me more than anything else ever could. If every scrap of cloth were used up and every tool forever gone, I could still go to my fellow artists and craftspeople to make progress and persist in our creative missions. In their minds would be the understanding of what we need to do to make beautiful things around us, and in their hearts is a connection to the handmade that is one of the most amazing gifts a human being can have.

I want to begin taking time on this blog to celebrate and investigate the work of other young craftspeople who interest me and are part of the community I speak of: my tribe.

I originally connected with Sebastian Renfield like we do these days: on the internet. Thanks to the advent of chat devices and email and websites, we've enjoyed sharing our work for a while now and I can't help but feel I have connected with a member of my tribe who to resides in beautiful Vermont.

I fancy myself a lot of things, but the short list usually includes the words "artist" and "designer" and "maker". Add to that list various back-porch credentials as "historian" or "purist" or any number of other titles that lean me in the direction of someone who treasures the past, adores objects that remind us of how things once were. These things bring pleasure and challenge in my modern day life making new objects and garments that give to people in the same way things once did in the past. Upon questioning Sebastian about this very notion, I quickly found someone who was singing a similar song.

"I've always had a really intense fascination with objects, old objects, and that can include a lot of things - musical instruments, old hand tools, even buildings....and the idea that until very recently, if something was worth doing, it was worth doing right."

As a young and spirited artist/craftsman, Sebastian mapped out a path for himself that has allowed him to explore and indulge in a life of doing it right. After years of art school in Western Massachusetts, he stepped into another stream of study at the New England School of Architectural Woodworking. I can only assume that it was this step...from art school to tech school ... that allowed the magical blending of art and craft began in his work. In art school today we learn to conceptualize, theorize, read, write and hunker down in our studios to generate heaps of work. Its not usually in art school that you come to refine your craft.

"Most art professors know nothing about joinery techniques," he reminded me. Amen. Thankfully, they know other things.

Along with this complex blend of educations comes an equally complex understanding of where we are positioned today as young artists.

"My fiddle is 200 years old, and was made in Eastern Europe. I had it repaired recently and the luthier found inscriptions pencilled on the underside of the top listing each repair, who it was done by, where and when - so i actually know where the instrument has been, and that it meant enough to enough people that it is still here. I think that sort of care is largely absent in modern life and i find it frustrating that most goods are so disposable."

His sharing is so eloquent.

"Historically, you have all these trades and skills that produced a quality product, and were far more respectful of the craftsman, the consumer, and the earth. I really want to believe that there is something that can be learned from that. That is really what informs my pursuit of these skills today."

Sebastian's work is truly lovely, offering a glorious gradient of elements ranging from the past to the present.....the non-functional to the beautifully pragmatic.

When discussing the impetus for his work, he explains that he likes "the idea that people living in totally inorganic places, like Brooklyn, would want/need/enjoy/treasure things that are handmade and have a very organic feel." I celebrate this quest, and proudly show you work that comes from the hands of a young man wanting to make a life of his craft, wanting to share that craft with others, and wanting to bring the pleasure of quality from the past to our modern day to day lives.

One's committment to his work becomes most apparent with the philosophy and aesthetic of it all translate to his own lifestyle and his own style. For Renfield this means a personal look that embraces the utilitarian, speaks to the past, and proudly displays the aesthetic culture on which he thrives. To see more clearly he wears glasses made by one of the few companies that hand-makes frames in the US, and on other days he opts for antique frames from the 1860s fitted with modern lenses.

And for his wardrobe, the utilitarian and workerly are paramount. "I am very, very hard on my clothes. I spend a lot of time crawling around in old barns or hauling stuff around, but i do try to find clothing that has its own heritage when i can. I am sort of a stickler about hunting down the last American manufacturer of ___. It's not about patriotism, but the desire to keep these skills alive as close to my home community as possible."

"My work boots are made by a company that has been making essentially the same thing for a hundred years, and it is an item that isn't necessarily attractive, but it's comfortable and protective, and it's a design that works." This exciting collision of form and function are a welcome addition to our modern life and Sebastian seems to wear it all so well.

One benefit of modern life is that we can make decisions in a way we may not have been able to in the past. We choose what to wear. We choose our hairstyles. We choose our careers and our friends and each facet of our lifestyle...drawing from a pool of endless variety. From my perspective as someone who is making a life of thinking about how people decorate themselves and the world we live in, Renfield's active thinking and decision making is incredibly refreshing. We walk the streets and stroll city malls only to be bombarded by someone else's vision of how to look, how to think, how to move and shape our bodies. I find this game tiresome. We shop, purchase and discard at such a rapid pace that we are only left feeling empty and steadily yearning for something more. We want objects that mean something. We want garments that tell us a story. We want the pleasures of intellectual content, artistry, history and tradition in the objects we live with.

Celebrating simplicity and necessity in his wardrobe, Sebastian's stories continue to offer insight into the mind and history of the young craftsman. For him the simple choice is the white tee shirt - quietly embedded with a powerful history that resonates tales of both our American culture and the artist's personal family history.

"I remember when i was a kid, maybe 8 or 9, I was at my grandparents house and for some reason needed to borrow a t-shirt. My grandma told me to just grab something from grandpa's second drawer down. So i opened it up and inside was an entire drawer full of white v-neck undershirts. Maybe 40 of them, all neatly folded. I sort of forgot about it, but starting when I was about fifteen I went on an anti-logo crusade - I was probably reading adbusters and getting mad - and that's when the white t-shirts started. Now I realize I probably just turned into grandpa."

To see more of Sebastian Renfield's work, please spend some time at his website Buffalo Plaid Woodworks. I encourage you to contact the artist directly with inquiries to purchase or commission work.


1. Sebastian Renfield in front of his own work "Coney Island" and a painting created by his mother's sister on the night he was born.

2. Sebastian Renfield with his handmade Appalachian fretless banjo.

3. Montauk, 2005, Salvaged wood, 13" x 9"

4. Coney Island, 2005, Salvaged wood, 19" x 19"

Kanna II salt/sugar, 2009, Mahogany, Wenge 5.25"l x 2.5" h x 2"w

6. Dai Spice Dish Set, 2009, Mahogany, Wenge, Mango 9.25"l x 1.875"h x 2.25"w

7. Heorot, Named for Hrothgar's great hall in Beowulf, the seat of this bench is made of a slab of walnut nearly two inches thick. Horned uprights at each end are oval in cross section at the base and gradually transition to become square where they capture the seat. Four bridle joints attach the aprons to the uprights.

8. Heorot, Detail view.

9. The artist's spectacles, crafted in the 1860s

10. The artist's Thorogood boots

All photographs courtesy of the artist.