Jack in the Box
When you touch a piece of artist Jack Gates’ work, you can feel the passion of a man who believes that in addition to creativity, successful art involves critical thinking skills and thoughtful decisions.
Article By Barbara Leader | Photographs by Brad Arender
While Shreveport-born artist Jack Gates, 71, considers himself primarily a studio furniture artist who uses a combination of fine woodworking and sculptural skills, he’s also dabbled in photography, ceramics, music, three-dimensional wall art, drawing and sculpture. His chosen art form isn’t easily categorized by the art community. “We used to call it sculptured furniture – it’s furniture made by artists, and it’s usually one of a kind. When I would enter my work into a sculpture show, they would say, ‘that’s not sculpture, that’s furniture.’ When I would enter a furniture show, they would say, ‘that’s not furniture, it’s sculpture.”
The unique design aspects of Gates’ work allow it to be accepted in either genre. Most of his furniture pieces are a blend of fine-furniture skills like dove-tailed joints and sculptural elements like furniture legs that angle from the piece to the floor in an unexpected way. “There are some things that I might use that are used in fine woodworking and there are some things that aren’t,” Gates said. “There are things that a sculptor might use. But, my work cannot rely solely on fine woodworking, because there are images and things that can’t be built that way. They have to be built in different ways.”
IT ALL STARTED IN CHURCH
The seeds of his life-long career were planted early in his life. “My mother once told me that my first work was done drawing on church bulletins while sitting on her lap during church services,” Gates said with a laugh.
While Gates continued with drawing while he attended elementary, middle and high school, it was at Northwestern State University that he discovered his passion for studio furniture, almost by accident.
“I was in pre-engineering, which I probably wasn’t smart enough for, so I decided that I was going to major in either art or music. It’s one of those ‘believe it or not’ things. I flipped a coin. If it had landed on music, I probably would have eventually gotten into art but art came up first ,so that’s what I did. I continued to play in the band, but eventually I realized that I needed more time outside of class to make art,” he said.
Northwestern State University didn’t have a wood-working program at the time, so Gates considers himself mostly self-taught. “All they had was a mallet, three gouges and a handsaw that nobody used but me,” Gates said. But it was there that he produced his first wood carving in a 3-D design class in 1964.
“I always made furniture while I was at Northwestern. There were many pieces that I made on my own, outside of class, and sold them to get through school,” he recalled recently. “I sold a few things to the professors on campus. I sold a cookie jar for $50 –at that time that would buy books for a semester. I sold a wood carving one time for $250 when tuition was $300.”
Gates briefly taught high school art near New Orleans, and then he entered a graduate program in sculpture at Tulane University.
“When I graduated from Tulane, I stayed for a while in sculpture, but I drifted into furniture. It didn’t take long for me to determine that it was my strength. That’s what you do, you go to your strength – mine wasn’t sculpture; it was furniture.”
For most of his life, Gates has produced some form of art – even in his sleep. During one particularly prolific period, he says he slept with a drawing book by his bed.
“I’d dream art all night long,” he said. “They say when you dream, the emotional part of your mind is at total rest. I’d wake up and draw during the night because most of the time you’re not going to remember what you dream.”
Gates’ work usually begins with a drawing.
“From there, I start and then put the drawing aside and pay attention to the piece,” he said. “I only go back to the drawing, when I have a problem on where to go with the piece. Then I draw the area of the problem and try to work it out. You can see a lot of different views through drawing. But sometimes you can’t. You just have to dive in and do it – physically build and make decisions –it always comes down to that.”
“The way that I usually work is to start with a whole idea and make parts and those parts go back together to form the whole,” he said. “There is another way to work and I’ve only done it one time. You start with all of your scraps and see what you have. You don’t have a whole, an idea, but you take the parts and you create the whole.”
“Working drawings can tell you a lot more about the thinking of the artist than just the finished piece because each piece goes through a lot of things. I may have 50 drawings of how I’m going to make one joint. If you look at drawings, you can see how an artist thinks and where he goes from one step to another in hopefully some kind of logical progression. I make choices, but I like to have lots of things to choose from. So when I make a choice, it’s not ‘this is what I do’; it’s ‘you can do this, but what else can you do? That’s a type of thinking– critical thinking. You can’t just say, this is the answer, because there may be a better one. “
SHARING HIS PASSION
Gates joined the faculty of Indiana State University in 1980, when it had one of only 10 collegiate woodworking programs at the time. He eventually was awarded tenure and the title of Professor Emeritus.
According to Gates, teaching isn’t easy, “if you do it the right way.”
“Two and two aren’t always four in our business, and that’s why some students get frustrated,” he said. “They want it to always be the same, and they want rules. We make rules in art, but we make them to be broken, and they can’t deal with that, because traditional education is not that way.”
Gates says it was challenging to encourage students to think about their projects from many directions.
“You have to make decisions about certain things. And when you do that, you have to think of a lot of ways to do it,” he said. “You can’t just land on one thing and say, this is the answer, because it may be the wrong answer.
“Art makes no sense, if you make no critical choices – if you throw everything in. Anything that has 3 dimensions has to exist. It isn’t an illusion, like a photograph. If it’s going to be furniture then it has to have limitations. That I find challenging. I like to have limitations and then work around them and try to deal with that instead of being totally free.”
“If you want art to be furniture, it has to do certain things to be functional, but then how far can you push it away from that to make it sculpture? Or what else can it be?”
AN ALTERNATE POINT OF VIEW
“I’ve found over the years that many times if you have a question about how to design or to put something together, you have to pay attention to the physics of the piece,” Gates said. “It’s like you don’t know what you want it to look like, but if you pay attention to the best way to put it together, then the aesthetics fall into line ,because you can’t separate them.”
Gates has a mirror in his studio that he uses to problem solve.
“A lot of times you’ll be looking at a piece and you can’t figure out what’s wrong or what to do. Then you look in that mirror and you see the reverse and ‘bingo’ it pops right up. I don’t know what it does, but it makes you see things from a different light. It’s not just the angle. I don’t know how to explain it, but it works for me. It may not work for everybody.”
KNOWING WHEN TO STOP
“When you’re working on a piece, there is a time when you have to walk away. When you come back, the answer will be right there. You will have been right on top of it and never have known it, because you’re too close.”
Gates says that creativity is vital to art, but he says it’s something that you can’t force. “If you force it, it’s impossible. It’s just not going to happen. It doesn’t matter whether you take five minutes on a piece or five years, it can be either good or bad. Time has nothing to do with it. There have been times when I’ve tried to convince myself that a piece was good when it wasn’t. If it’s not good from the get-go, forget it. It will never get any better. It’ll only get worse.”
WHEN IT’S MORE THAN ART
Over his career Gates has made art objects ranging from weapons to crosses. On commission, he made a processional cross for St. Mary of the Woods Catholic Church in West Terra Haute and an 8-foot cross for the Mother’s House at St. Mary’s Dominican College.
His processional cross is made from a Linden tree that had grown and died on the grounds of the church.
“I had the strangest experience with that cross,” he said. “I went to church there and saw the cross while they were having services and then I didn’t see it. It was still up there, but lying down. People were actually walking up there and praying and kissing the cross. The person that I was with told me what they were doing and I just froze. It was the symbol of course. It’s a precious item to them, but to me to some degree it was an art object – and art objects are not to be held in that esteem. But, of course, by being that image, it was. She asked me if I was going to do it, too. But, it wasn’t something I could do. I didn’t seem special enough to go up there and do it.”
INSIDE AN ARTIST’S MIND
“I think passion is the key to art. You probably need more passion than just for one person. A friend of mine once told me that I had enough passion for five people. And you probably do need a little extra, so it doesn’t run out. It’s just that you have to be overloaded with passion. You really do.”
Gates believes a successful artist can still be growing in his work. “The thing about making art is that it never gets easier,” he said. “If you’re not just stuck in a rut making the same thing continuously, each step up the ladder gets a little bit harder.”
The only place where there is a large concentration of Gates’ work is at his home and the homes of friends and family. Presently, there is no formal exhibit of his work, although he has displayed at the Masur Museum of Art in Monroe and has pieces of his work in the Terra Haute Children’s Museum, Tulane University and at Indiana State University. He’s also been featured in national art publications.
“Sometimes people will ask me how long it took me to do something, and I’ll say, ‘Let’s see…. I’m 71 years old…so, 71 years’. Everything I’ve known since I was born, I’m going to use some of that somewhere. It’s all information and experiences.”