Thursday, December 18, 2008

John Haines

I met John Haines in his painting studio in the Noonan Building during Open Studios in October. My return visit for this interview to his blacksmith shop next door, however, involved tip-toeing over broken glass and industrial debris, my path lit only be the glow of my blackberry. Eventually, I made my way into Haines' shop, where I recieved a brief introduction to blacksmithing. Talking about different flame temperatures and the black body properties of the forge reminded me of physics and chemistry class, illuminated in a new context.

Born upstate New York, John Haines' family moved to Texas before settling in Northern California. Having always enjoyed drawing, Haines traces both his creative and technical talents to his parents:

"My father is an engineer - his degree is in flow dynamics, which is actually all that stuff about heating and cooling [....] but he also used to build boats, sailboats. [... My mom] was very crafty, so I think a lot of the making things and the spark came from her"

Growing up in Palo Alto, Haines recalls seeing contemporary paintings, like Jackson Pollock's "Lucifer", in the homes of classmates, some of whom had avid art collector parents. But Haines' knowledge of the art world was still limited and he did not yet see himself in it:

"By the end of high school [...] I had no idea what I wanted to do. I thought about sailing or illustrating. I loved drawing. I had no idea what to do about it"

After a year at a junior college, Haines went to Los Angeles with a friend whose godfather happened to be the abstract expressionist painter Sam Francis. Haines spent a summer fixing a boat owned by Francis and Frank Gehry. As Francis' assistant, Haines was then able to start attending Otis Art Institute, which represented an edgier art school scene in Southern California:

"Sculpture was dead, cause this was '82. Painting was the big deal, so the painting studios were just jammed and I couldn't handle it. So, I started doing sculpture cause the sculpture garden was just empty - it had a big outdoor beautiful sculpture garden [...] I started working with metal out there. I had no idea what I was doing and I remember the tech telling me back then, 'Oh, you should check out blacksmithing'"

Without really knowing it, Haines began using basic blacksmithing in the process of building other sculptures:

"I would go down to the train yards and I would pick up pieces of metal and create these works. As I was working I realized that I needed connecting pieces that weren't the shape that I had found, so I started to manufacture [them]"

After graduating, Haines spent about a year traveling in Europe, doing a lot of drawing:

"Most of the artists I knew of had done time in Europe and there was all the background around that and I just had to go"

When he returned to the states, Haines stayed with friends in Santa Cruz and carved out a business making stretcher bars for customers on the Peninsula and painting and drawing in the evenings. Most of his time, however, was spent carving stone at Cabrillo College:

"I loved that subtractive quality. The carving is just the amazing thing. I can go either way - I can go subtractive or additive. Right now, it's kind of hard to do both because they're both incredibly time consuming."

There was a metal shop next to the stone carving yard, so Haines continued to dabble in metal and developed a collection of hand tools. But the Loma Prieta earthquake literally shook Haines out of complacency:

"That was the last day I ever did stone carving. Not because of trauma, but because that was the end of an era [since] the school closed down for a while [...] I never to even got to finish the sculpture [I was working on that day], so that was this traumatic end to a beautiful period"

In the aftershocks of Loma Prieta, Haines left Santa Cruz and ran Sam Francis' studio in Palo Alto for a few years before going back to Europe, this time more settled in Florence. His lengthier stay in Italy is reflected in his interest in the transavanguardist Mimmo Paladino's assemblage on painting. With limited space, however, Haines mostly worked and painted, but he was able to begin exploring some combined metalwork and painting:

"I did a little bit of bronze casting [...] for the beginning of the hybrid pieces. They were bronze plaques that fit in the middle of paintings"

As Italy faced serious economic challenges, Haines returned to the Bay Area in 1996 and ended up in Santa Rosa. Looking for work, Haines took a job at Waylan Smithy, a blacksmith shop in west Petaluma on a farm with twenty-five years of soot on the floor. Run by master blacksmith, Toby Hickman, the shop was true to the industrial heritage of blacksmithing:

"I came in one morning and he came up to my face and yelled at me. He goes: 'Why are you here?!?' and I said, 'Cause I love metal' and he goes 'That's the only right answer!' and he just turned around and goes, '8 o'clock tomorrow!' and he left!"

While at Waylan, a project for the San Francisco restaurant, Boulevard, introduced Haines to Art Nouveau and Victor Horta. When Hickman sold his business, Haines worked with a colleague from the shop for a while, but moved to San Francisco after he was able to secure his current workshop at Pier 70.

"I started doing the hybrid pieces in Santa Rosa, just kind of touching on them. I started doing some larger paintings with metal in the middle [... Hanging sculpture on the wall] makes it a little more accessible for people [...] There are very few people who actually have pedestals in their home"

When he had to move to a smaller painting studio, Haines began gravitating more towards his metal work, with which he can also maintain a commercial practice. But his lifelong passion for drawing continues to drive his sculptural conceptions and his unique combinations of painting and metal:

"I feel like I'm really still on the front end of it "

See John Haines' work at SOMArts Cultural Center through December 27.

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