Mariah Nielson & JB Blunk

On the occasion of Father's Day, Permanent Collection co-founder, Fanny, spoke with her partner, Mariah, about a favorite object in her personal collection, a piece made by her father, artist JB Blunk (1926–2002).

Fanny: Mariah, tell me which of your father's pieces most makes you feel 'at home.' 

Mariah: There's a little soy sauce pitcher that comes immediately to mind. My father made this ceramic pitcher in 1975. It epitomizes his approach to ceramics inasmuch as it, like so much of his work, willfully confuses the boundaries between art and design. It has a smooth glazed base, supple body, hand-pinched nozzle, and well-worn cork stopper. It does not suggest an object intended for everyday use.

Fanny: Why did you select this piece?

Mariah: As a Blunk original, it’s a piece that embodies the humor and considerate craft of my father’s best work. I wouldn't feel at home without it.
Fanny: Do you feel at all anxious about using it? It seems precious!

Mariah: When first handled, the pitcher is usually treated delicately; friends worry that a wrong move will shatter it. In fact, the nozzle has snapped off more than once, but with a little epoxy and patience the pitcher is easily enough repaired. Amazingly, this playful and durable object has been in constant use for over thirty years. And, besides, my parents never encouraged me to feel precious about belongings or objects—even favorite, beloved pieces were meant to be used.

Fanny: What are a few of your fondest or most significant memories of watching your father create and live in the house he built in Inverness?

Mariah: My father was a prolific artist and spent most days in his studio. He always listened to music when he worked – Leonard Cohen and Willie Nelson were some favorites. Bruno and Rufus, my older brothers, helped him with commissions so if I wanted to spend time with him it usually meant starting my own project in his workshop. I would construct restaurants using redwood scraps leftover from his furniture and sculptures and serve sawdust-based dishes or make ceramics for my dollhouse whenever he was loading the kiln. Our home is his masterpiece, a total work of art. My father made everything in the house from the furniture to the ceramic tableware. Growing up in such a unique, creative environment was all I knew; it was normal. The home and studio were densely layered with artworks, furniture, textiles and raw materials. Funny that I’ve turned out to be a minimalist!

Fanny: What were the most unusual parts of his creative process?

Mariah: The most intriguing parts of his creative process were his curiosity and determination. He referenced art history, anthropology, archetypal forms, mythology, science fiction, and poetry in his work. He always talked about being “open” and the importance of surprise. A classic JB Blunk adage was “my time is precious.” He worked hard and was very protective of his time in the studio but he also took breaks for tea every day at 4pm and was an attentive and loving partner and father. It was his determination to create that I remember so clearly. Like many artists, he was possessed and compelled by an inner force. He spoke about how we should only do “what we have to do.” In an interview from 1973 with Mimi Rogers he said:

"There is really no time in life to do anything else. There are two very well known figures in the field of modern art who made very good statements in regard to this. One was Picasso. Someone once asked him 'How do you possibly have time to do all the works that you have accomplished?' He replied, 'It’s very simple. I just don’t do the things that other people do.' That’s what he lived for. Marcel Duchamp once told a friend of mine that he should only do the sculptures that he felt he had to do. 'Don’t waste your time doing all the things that you think you should do or you want to do, but only do the things that you have to do.'"

Fanny: JB Blunk’s affinity with the natural world is a leitmotif of his practice and is central to the 'maker lifestyle' he created. Do you have a sense of the point of origin of his fascination with natural forms and materials?

Mariah: My father lived and worked in Bizen, Japan, in the 1950s and was deeply influenced by the Shinto religion. In the same interview with Mimi Jacobs that I cited above, he describes the Shinto philosophy:

"The potter that I lived with [Japanese National Treasure Toyo Kaneshige] practiced Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan. The traditional Shinto religion was his way of relating to the world. Shinto has to do with reverence for what came before, not only in the animate and human form, but also in all of nature in a very complete way."

I think my father’s reverence for nature stemmed from his years in Bizen and his time working as an apprentice for Kaneshige. The potters in Bizen source clay from the surrounding hills and allow the inherent qualities of the clay to affect the final work. Stones that are embedded in the clay body are left and the lack of glaze brings attention to the natural color and finish of the material. My father applied this way of working to all his creations. For example, when he carved redwood burls he usually left naturally occurring details within the sculpture. Often these organic forms became important features of the piece. This translation from ceramic tradition and technique to wood carving, jewelry making and painting is what I think is unique about my father’s work and what I hope the book clearly presents—the synergy and cross-disciplinary nature of his art and life.

Fanny: Tell me a story about growing up in Inverness!

Mariah: All of the ceramics in our home were made by made my father. He used clay dug from around our home to hand-build plates, cups and bowls. The color palette always consisted of dark brown, white, black, blue and occasionally gold. My father had studio visits twice a week in the late afternoon. When the guests arrived, he would give them a tour of our home and then ask them to pick a cup from our “cup nook” for tea. The guests would study the shelves built into a corner of the kitchen lined with handmade ceramic vessels, and choose their favorite. This tradition continues. Our cup nook is still lined with ceramics – some made by my father and others gifted to us by friends over the years. It’s a pleasure to watch guests select their favorite cup. I often think the piece people gravitate towards tell something about their personality.

Fanny: How did your father’s work influence your creative experience? As a child, were you involved in his creative work? Did you ever help source driftwood, or other objects?

Mariah: My father never wanted me to help him with projects—he had my two older brothers for that—but I did join him on road trips going north to Mendocino and Eureka to source large redwood burls for commissions. The trips were usually two or three-day excursions and I remember eating at greasy spoon diners and exploring logging sites, crawling around massive redwood logs and burls, the smell of the freshly milled wood, and listening to my father chat with the loggers. His work deeply influenced my creative experience. He built our home by hand, using all salvaged materials, and the fact that the domestic environment was a total synthesis of art, design, craft and daily life informed my values as a curator, design historian and founder of Permanent Collection. My belief that art and design should be lived with, not made precious, comes directly from my father who always encouraged visitors to engage with his creations. We still live with and use his furniture and ceramics.

Mariah and JB, ca. 1982

Mariah and JB, ca. 1984

The interior of the Blunk House, Inverness 

JB sourcing a wood burl, Point Reyes National Sea Shore, 1970

Interior of JB's studio, Inverness, with works in progress, ca. 1970

JB Blunk monograph, published 2020

JB Blunk monograph, interior, featuring his soy sauce pitcher

Permanent Collection's 'Sun Moon bracelet,' a reproduction of a piece designed ca. 1970 by JB for his wife (and Mariah's mom), Christine Nielson