Patternmaker: A Conversation with Julia Campbell-Such

Julia is a Toronto-based furniture maker with a graduate degree in History and Philosophy of Religions (2010). She has studied restoration and traditional cabinetmaking techniques, and has a particular interest in material culture and the history of work. In 2014 she began collaborating with artist Carey Jernigan and they have since exhibited their work together at Harbourfront Centre and at Hamilton Winterfest. Julia is currently preparing for a career in art conservation, with a focus on the preservation of wooden art and artifacts.

A.F. Since I’ve known you, you’ve written and published short stories, followed the activities of a cult whose members were hunger-striking, ran a silk screen printing service, started up a literary anthology (with me!), and now you’re a furniture-maker. If you were to consider your life from, say, the passenger seat of a helicopter in flight, would you see the aforementioned as distinctly separate parts, like plots in a farmer’s field, or more like a mandala, the continuum of your life as an artist.

J. C-S. Wow. When you write it all down like that it sure sounds exotic and interesting. To be clear: I didn’t follow the cult in the way that fans follow the Grateful Dead, but in the way that a graduate student follows their research subject (so, not as cool as it sounds).

Most of the time I’ve just been trying to find something that I liked to do that I thought I might be able to make a living at eventually. I’d be lying if I said it was all part of a grand plan. Every time I worked a lot on intellectual stuff I missed working with my hands, but when I worked with my hands all the time I missed thinking about things more deeply so I’d switch back to a more intellectual kind of occupation, and so on, never really satisfied with either.

But there’s a happy ending to all of this. I’m back in school now studying Art Conservation at Queen’s and I think I’ve finally found the thing that lets me work with my hands and my head. All these varied experiences have helped me to be accepted into this competitive program. It turns out each little piece was really valuable. I just needed a key to link them all together.

Now, from the helicopter, what seemed like isolated plots in a farmer’s field begin to take on a suspiciously coherent pattern…like those crop circles aliens make.

A.F. We met because your father was my undergraduate Advanced Fiction mentor back in the day. What was it like growing up with a dad who happened to be a prolific Canadian author?

J. C-S. Oh boy. It was nice! It was fine. As a kid I loved my dad because he knew how cars worked and what kind of bird that was in the sky and how to get ketchup out of the ketchup bottle. He made me really good waffles with Lyle’s Golden Syrup on them and bought me toys at Honest Ed’s. He was fun. I didn’t care about what books he wrote, and I didn’t read any of them until recently (they are really good! I was surprised!). I have some interesting memories of being at loft parties with Tomson Highway when I was 7 or 8, stuff like that, but nothing too crazy. I mean, my dad was just CanLit famous, he wasn’t Beyoncé! I guess I knew my parents were kind of weird but I didn’t take it too seriously. They never seemed so fancy to me. I’m glad my dad introduced me to you, though!

A.F. Tell me about Patternmaker. I can’t wait to see it! I’m especially curious about the collaborative aspect.

J. C-S. Patternmaker is a collaboration with Carey Jernigan, a talented woodworker/artist friend of mine. We met working for other people in a very busy furniture-making studio that her boss shared with mine. We really connected because we both loved wood and woodworking and working with our hands, but we also were stressed out by the tight deadlines and tight budgets we are always working with. Even the most skilled makers really struggle to earn a living at it.

patternmakerSo Patternmaker comes out of us dealing with the pace of our work—the quickly spinning sharp blades, the deadlines, the noise—and wondering how different it was for guys who did similar work in the past. We focused on patternmakers because they were some of the most talented woodworkers but hardly any of them exist anymore because manufacturing methods have changed. We started out trying to do the work patternmakers do, making the wooden patterns for cast metal machine parts, and things kind of snowballed from there. We ended up making two giant wooden pulleys with a wooden mannequin/robot figure riding one of them. Parts of that piece are 3D printed. There’s also some kinetic stuff and a sound piece that consists of interviews with people from a variety of occupations about their experience of pace at work. And a film. It’s a whole thing—it’ll make sense when you see it.

The collaborative stuff is hard to explain. We tend to hash out ideas together, just talking, and then Carey goes off to explore how those ideas feel and I go off to work out what they mean. I tend to get more into the heady theory stuff so it’s good to have Carey to ground me, and ideally I’m able to help her articulate some of the more visceral things she feels. We make a good balance.

Doing the actual work is just like working together in a furniture shop. We divvy up the tasks, usually take the lead on different parts but also stick around to help each other work problems out. There are always a lot of problems to work out and what a nightmare if there isn’t someone there to help talk it through!

This was a really tough one. We really pushed ourselves to the limits of our abilities as woodworkers. It was super stressful, and super rewarding. We almost didn’t make it. Basically this is the collaboration: Carey is the motivated artist. She drags me along behind her kicking and screaming and then I take a bunch of credit when it goes well.

A.F. Do you ever secretly think, “Hellz yah! I’m a living the artist’s life.”

J. C-S. Hellz nope. Being an artist is kind of the worst. The part where you have a show up and people like it is great, I won’t lie, but the part where you never make any money and have to always worry where your next meal is coming from is terrible. Since I grew up with artsy parents the artist’s life is just normal life to me—it’s not so glamourous. I would never recommend it to someone. Doing really well in school and getting a good job that serves your community and reflects your values: Hellz YAH!

A.F. What’s the worst life advice someone has ever given you?

J. C-S. I grew up in the 80s and TV told me to follow my dreams, because I could be anything I wanted. That was the worst advice I ever got. How do you make a decision without any limitations? Sometimes I wish someone had just forced me into the family accounting business or something. That’s the definition of “white people problems,” I guess, though: What other obstacles will me and my giant penis face as we move through the world?

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