Natural Wonder with Pontus Willfors
With his alluring sculptural works, Pontus Willfors not only takes inanimate objects and breathes new life into them, he challenges our very assumptions about everyday objects. Familiar forms like tables and chairs are transformed by hand into wild and lyrical compositions or brutally minimalist constructs, a process that entails as much mental focus as physical exertion.
These days the Swedish-born, California-based artist can be found at his Inglewood studio, immersed in raw materials and miniatures of works-in-progress. We caught up with Pontus after his latest solo exhibition to learn why he abandoned a career in finance for art school, the intricacies of working with wood and how his tree-like sculpture was a perfect fit for our Beverly Hills showroom.
Tell us about where you grew up. What did you want to be as a child?
I was born and raised in Sweden. I moved to the US when I was 23 years old. As a child I wanted to be in business; in particular it was the stock market that intrigued me. I had a grandfather who was a full-time painter. He was also a socialist so it probably hurt his soul a bit when I asked him to get me a subscription to a business magazine for Christmas. I had a lot of exposure to art through him as a child but it wasn’t until much later [that] I got really interested in art.
I was surprised to hear that you originally studied finance. What was the turning point of wanting to do something different?
In college I studied economics and afterwards I worked for ten years in finance, on Wall Street for a couple of years at Goldman Sachs and then for a small investment company in New York and later in Texas. During this time I realised how interested in art I was so when there was a natural point I took the big leap and went to art school.
You completed a Bachelor of Fine Art at the California Institute of Arts. What was the biggest lesson you learnt there?
CalArts is a very conceptually focused college and it was that conceptual focus that I felt I was lacking. In hindsight, that period at CalArts became really important to me when it comes to thinking of my art conceptually.
Tell us about your first solo exhibition out of college.
I had my first solo show a week after graduation from CalArts. It felt like a great accomplishment and I thought to myself that maybe working as an artist wouldn’t be that hard after all. Well, only one piece sold and six months later the gallery was out of business. I had no idea what to do next. I didn’t have anything else lined up. When you’re in school there is a system around you that you can always rely on, teachers to talk to, projects to work towards, etc. So with that support structure gone, no gallery to work with and no other projects to work towards I was really lost. It took me over a year, I think, until I found my footing again.
What was the LA art scene like back then, and how has it changed?
That year was 2009 and the art business/market was going through the same trouble as the economy as a whole. A lot of galleries went out of business. Today, new galleries are opening at a fast pace and LA has also gained new institutions, most importantly The Broad Museum.
You work mostly with timber and metal. How important is it to you where your materials come from?
I did a 90-foot long wooden relief for the Los Angeles International Airport which was made from Douglas fir planks that had been reclaimed from teardowns in the LA area. [With] those planks lined up and installed along the wall I carved and sanded out the shape of a full-size Douglas fir tree. Most houses in Los Angeles and elsewhere in California are made from Douglas fir timber, and in that project the source and material itself was an integral part to the piece. In other pieces, the source is not as important and I use many types of wood, sometimes based on aesthetics and other times based on the nature of the wood – if it’s hard or soft or if it can withstand the outdoor environment.
Give us a little insight into your design process.
I often use small models (maquettes) where I can experiment and which later form the basis for the larger piece. I’m not a good sketcher so I prefer to do these three dimensional “sketches” instead, usually in scale so I can use them to plan the bigger piece. Usually when I start I know pretty much how I want it to look like in the end. At times I work on several pieces but that is not my preferred way of working. I’m not a great multi-tasker and instead prefer one project at a time. The time it takes to complete pieces varies greatly. I make some pieces that take me a day to finish and others where I spend up to half a year.
There’s a lot of pressure with your style of work, using just a single piece of wood. When you’re peeling or carving, there’s no going back – it’s not a forgiving material! Do you ever get anxious or does that need for perfection inspire you?
There is a difference whether I’m working on a more abstract piece versus a figurative piece. The pieces you are referring to where I turn a plank into a “tree”-looking shape falls somewhere in between. With an abstract piece there is not necessarily a right or wrong so the viewer can’t usually detect an “error”. With a figurative piece, especially a carving like the one of a full-size car I was working on last fall, the viewer can easily detect an error since there is a point of reference. When you use a subtractive method like carving in wood you can’t just simply add more material if you go too far, which makes the process a lot more nerve-wracking.
If you happen to make a mistake, do you roll with it? Or is your vision for the piece fixed to a point that you can’t?
Again this depends on the type of error and how figurative and life-like it is. Last winter I finally finished a bicycle in wood. By far the hardest part on the bicycle was creating the wheels, which are made from bending a single piece of wood sideways into a round shape of a bicycle wheel. It took me a few times to figure out how to make them stay in place as the wood wants to move, but in that case they had to be perfectly round. Other times I can live with the mistake or it might even add something interesting to it.
You recently installed a beautiful sculpture in our LA showroom. Can you tell me a bit more about the piece and how you feel it interacts with the space?
Nine years ago I created a tree-like sculpture called Organic Form. Using random branches I started to assemble them together with a trunk in the middle. In the end, it became a sculpture of a tree that measured 20 feet across and almost 14 feet high. It’s made from avocado wood that was gathered from an orchard close to Ojai outside Los Angeles where a fire in 2003 killed all the trees on the farm.
For the showroom it seemed like this piece would be perfect, just the earthy colours of it that very much resembles the colours used in a lot of your products, the recreation of organic and unique shapes that forms the structure of a tree, and the hopefulness the sculpture inspires. However, since your showroom is only 26 feet wide, there was no way to fit it in there. What transpired was a couple of weeks of creative trial and error, trying different setups until I felt I had a combination of branches protruding from the wall that would work for the showroom.
Our rugs are made from natural and sustainable materials too, so it seems like there was some synergy there. When you were approached to create a piece for us, how did you feel your work married with our brand story?
I love how all your products are handmade. Although I use power tools in the studio, a lot of my work is created using hand tools and in particular in Organic Form, the piece installed in your showroom. Primarily I used Japanese hatchets to shape the pieces so they assembled seamlessly and also Japanese handsaws to create the surfaces in between the pieces.
Do you ever struggle with creativity?
Creativity has never been an issue, if anything I constantly have ideas for what I want to do next but since time is limited the struggle is to choose wisely and make sure that I have a
Your work is quite physical. How do you look after yourself, especially your hands?
I guess nature took care of that. I nowadays have quite thick calluses on my hands!
Can you share what you’re working on now?
Right now I’m working on a functional piece of sculpture for the first time in over ten years. It’s a design for a chandelier I created as a proposal for a commission last year. It never came to fruition then but I’ve wanted to try it ever since.