Craftsman Profiles: Sun Valley is not commonly known for its down-to-earth quality. No surprise given its outward appearance, yet, actually, it is down-to-earth. Very hands-on. The thing is, these hands are the quiet ones, usually not the ones with standing appointments for manicures. Meet the hands (and their owners) that garner calluses and broken nails to create the fine touches in our environments. Then, take a closer look at the person next to you at the market. Say hello to a master.
A designer in glass, Bordeleau has made a 30-year career of showing people that he can do what they think can’t be done. He has developed a laminated glass countertop that looks like transparent stone. The shimmery, opaque surfaces of his cabinet doors created from laminated, fused, and slumped (molded) glass, sometimes etched with sayings from family members about food, would appear at ease on a dais in a museum. And even when using centuries-old techniques, such as classic leading for a window fashioned with handblown European glass, Bordeleau develops untraditional designs, achieving a freedom of line uncommon in the medium through the use of innovative methods to support the panes.
Although he’s scheduled several months ahead with commissions from across the country, Bordeleau finds the most pleasure in creating for local clients. He recently designed a panel for a friend’s front door by laminating handblown antique glass to dichroic glass, a product of the space-age with a metallic coating that transmits two colors and reflects a third. The finished piece flashes with tiny, brilliant accents that suggest prayer flags
waving in the wind.
All of Bordeleau’s work—from The River Sculpture on the façade of Boise’s Grove Hotel to an assortment of customized walls, sculptures, windows, and doors—emerges from a south Ketchum studio/home consisting of three ragtag structures (they could more tactfully be called “unassuming,” but Bordeleau doesn’t countenance such political correctness). Inside lurk three kilns, some large-scale glass-beveling equipment, multiple worktables, four computers, “a gazillion” hand tools, and crates and crates of handpicked glass. “Instead of buying furniture,” he laughs, “I buy glass.”
Bordeleau modestly describes himself as “a ski bum who makes glass when off the hill.” But the interior of his studio tells a different story, regardless of the 116 days he spent on Baldy last winter. Drawings, tools, molds, CDs, books, odd glass pieces, drawings and more drawings collage the drywall from floor to ceiling in what is clearly the domain of a glass bum. This artist has been wildly prolific ever since graduating in 1972 from the California College of Arts and Crafts, where he focused on technical disciplines: printmaking, photography—and glassblowing, at a time when only a handful of brave souls were attempting glass as an art form.
A native of Great Falls, Montana, where his father practiced architecture, Bordeleau had passed through Ketchum many times on his way to and from school. He moved here after graduation and immediately started taking commissions—promising results that he had neither the equipment nor the experience to produce. But produce them he did, building a kiln and developing proprietary techniques to get the job done.
Bordeleau’s work has evolved dramatically over the years, and with each new project. He enjoys merging the geometric lines of Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie style with the organic fluidity of art nouveau. To this process he brings virtuoso technical skill, an imagination that races from point to point with the improbable adroitness of a movie hero leaping from car to car on a speeding train, and “ample amounts of enthusiasm.” (His enthusiasm hasn’t dampened since, as a 13-year-old, he took ten dollars out of his savings account to buy a propane torch. He learned very quickly that molten glass was a lot of fun to manipulate. He’d come a long way since he learned by mistake at the age of five that the curtains in the family room were flammable.)
In a recent installation, a wall composed of individual glass doors depicted a timeline of art in famous faces, including the Mona Lisa and a Van Gogh self-portrait. Each large tile had been painted with a thin layer of enamel and fired at over 1,000 degrees, altering the appearance of the enamel, and then painted and fired again—as many as 30 times to develop the final imagery.
“Mona Lisa terrified me,” admits Bordeleau. “Van Gogh terrified me.” But he says this in much the same way a child would claim to be afraid of the rollercoaster, and then beg to go again and again.
He has, however, learned to stay away from the curtains. >>>
Take a hard left at Tenth Street just north of town and then the first hard right, and you’ll find yourself in a long, paved alley lined with workshops and studios. From this unassuming, light industrial neighborhood have sprung many of the precious, well-lit objects that stand in pristine Ketchum galleries and in grand homes around the world. Visitors are welcome here. And if you stroll in under the number A3-L, Jack Burgess will brush the wood chips off his apron, bend to shake your hand (he’s six-foot-four), and be more than happy to show you around.
The tools of his trade—three hundred chisels—bristle from a rotating rack beside a honey-colored basswood panel from which he’s carving a section of a woman’s torso. It’s 70 percent done.
“The shapes have been established but there’s no refinement,” Burgess says. “I want the feeling that there are soft tissues underneath.”
The torso is part of a new series of carved reliefs in which the composition has removed the section of a figure from a larger context. The curves and textures must hold their own, as almost abstract designs.
Burgess, who studied anatomy as well as drawing in college, also has a deep love of the outdoors. Most of his commissioned pieces have centered around trees, fish, birds, and bighorn sheep. All of his work reveals a deliberate craftsmanship, a deep knowledge of anatomy, a pitch-perfect sense of composition, and an instinct for beauty. Given the tightness of the composition and the tediousness of the carving process, one would never guess that Burgess is “surrendering to the process in order to allow a state of chaos to reconstitute into some other form of expression.”
Up the narrow studio stairs, a stark gallery displays a variety of Burgess’s work. A full-size ram’s head, its horns spiraling realistically, gazes out at a freestanding salmon with a blond wood tail that catches light in a thousand facets, lending an illusion of movement and light rippling through water. Several whimsical balance sculptures made of bronze, horizontal branches resting on vertical branches, invite you to touch them, to make them rotate. Burgess finds the raw materials for these sculptures on his frequent hikes, and considers each branch for several weeks before deciding to cast it.
When some clients recently requested a theme indigenous to Idaho for their grand carved doors, Burgess turned to Shoshone Indian blanket designs sewn with trade beads. A consummate researcher, he used a painstaking technique called “chip carving,” removing an eighth to a fourth of an inch of wood at a time to evoke the weaving and beading of a native blanket.
Another set of doors was designed to “pop the entry” of a modern home. In keeping with the building’s contemporary lines, Burgess stylized the human form in an African motif, then used several different stains to create a dark, rich surface.
Burgess, a fifth-generation northern Californian, discovered Sun Valley in 1974 while on a driving adventure after college. “My first impression upon seeing the Sawtooth Mountains was exhilaration,” he recalls.
He soon made Ketchum his home, continuing to work as a carpenter, as he’d done in California. Although, in the interim, he has literally sold art out of the back of his van (a woman spotted a man-sized vase he was transporting to a gallery in Scottsdale, AZ, and had him deliver it right to her house), he didn’t start supporting himself as an artist until 1989. Even after that, he figures he averaged about five dollars an hour for several years.
Art runs in the family: his great-grandmother, Della, painted portraits of wealthy California families in the early 1900s. Burgess remembers, as a very young boy, loving the smell of her oil paints and turpentine. His preference for wood as a medium lies in “the sheer physicality of the process.”
When he’s not carving, Burgess is out in nature—minutely observing, taking thousands of photographs, and “just looking at the texture of rocks, bark, and trees.” He is first an observer: of himself, of nature, of his medium.
“You have to know and understand the medium, and then try to understand the client,” he says. “And then, you must still be true to what you know will work.” >>>
Tommy Richardson answers his phone every six or seven minutes. The conversations are short and to the point. His team is pushing to complete a stucco project because it’s the end of October and the forecast calls for plunging temperatures, which would keep the mix of sand, water, and limestone from spreading correctly.
When winter arrives, they’ll begin interior work, plastering walls to create the soft, rich, mottled surfaces that have appeared in homes and palaces for thousands of years.
The walls will serve as backdrop to antique French armoires, to Robert Kelly paintings, to 15-foot noble firs at Christmas. But, like a flawless complexion, a hand-plastered wall doesn’t need adornment to emanate sumptuous opulence—and, unlike perfect skin, the hand-plastered wall will last a lifetime, and then some.
The man who creates this sultan of wall surfaces is a no-nonsense fellow who’s been practicing the art of plaster for 28 years. Richardson hardly looks old enough to have been in the business so long, and the statistic conjures a vision of a five-year-old wielding a trowel. But he’s 45, and was 17 when he took it up, beginning in the traditional way: hauling bags of sand around and watching his supervisors closely. He left his native upstate Pennsylvania for New Jersey and then for a six-year apprenticeship with the Plasterers Union in the San Francisco Bay area.
Richardson’s hazel eyes crinkle with humor when I ask if that was long enough to learn everything. He relates the favorite adage of his old boss, a man named Franco DeFazio: “The day you think you know it all about plaster is the day you should quit, because that’s the day you’ll become ignorant.”
Most people are pretty ignorant about plaster. The short story is that it’s a mixture of lime or gypsum, sand and water, with pigments and sometimes fiber added. Plaster grew to popularity several millennia ago because it could be made of cheap local resources, and it lasted well. (The color is more in danger of being obscured by air pollutants than of fading—think of the Sistine ceiling.) It must be applied by hand, quickly and evenly.
These days, it’s not cheap, and the variations in color and texture stagger the mind. Richardson delights in experimenting with the new plasters that are constantly being developed. For a recent project in a home on Warm Springs Road, he came up with the idea of finishing the interior with base-coat plaster, which is usually, as its name implies, hidden by a finish coat. He and the homeowners were thrilled with the result; the surface was different from anything they’d seen.
“What I love most about plaster is the endless possibilities,” he says. “With time, money, and mud, you can make just about anything.”
Richardson left San Francisco in 1993 and ended up in the Wood River Valley as a result of “lack of work, divorce, and a stroke of luck.” Finding the jobs plentiful and challenging, he also took up skiing. He now skis over a hundred days a year, going from job site to slope and back again, with a cell phone constantly bleating at his hip as interior designers, architects, and contractors ask questions or discuss details. He grins impishly when he mentions his impressive slope-time, and I realize that I might be shortsighted in my practice of mentally cursing people who talk shop on their cell phones while riding the lift. Maybe.
When I asked him when we could meet, Richardson told me there wasn’t a good time—he was slammed with work, trying to get the stucco done. (According to Richardson, stucco refers to exterior plaster. With a shrug, he said that others would tell me different, but he didn’t care.)
His straightforward approach matches the honesty of his materials and the integrity he brings to every project. As head of his company, Peak Plastering, Inc. Richardson directs a team of fourteen, retaining maximum control by training his laborers personally and making all his own pigments, mixing the colors in his Hailey shop. He considers his personal involvement in developing the colors and textures used in every job the most important feature of his work.
What does he like most about the art of plastering?
“When a job is finished,” he says, “I’ve left something in the world.”
“Something beautiful?” I ask.
With a look that says, “What else?” he nods—and answers his phone, which is ringing again.
Betsy Andrews earned a degree in art history from Mount Holyoke College. Researching this story, she enjoyed learning about the art of craftsmen who are actually still living.