Interviewsand Articles


A Visit With John Abduljaami

by Richard Whittaker, Apr 2, 2007




Early last December I found a message on my voice-mail from contributing editor Mark Bulwinkle, “Would you like to go see John today?” He was talking about Oakland sculptor John Abduljaami.
     Over the years I’d seen examples of Abduljaami’s carved wood sculptures in Bulwinkle’s own studio and in Marcia Donahue’s home and garden in Berkeley. Both, I knew, were great admirers of his work.
     A few hours later, Mark and I were heading down West Grand towards the sculptor’s open air studio in West Oakland, an older part of the city which includes a mix of industrial, commercial and residential buildings. It also includes the Port of Oakland with all the rail and trucking operations for distributing the huge volume of freight handled by the port. The old residential neighborhoods of wood frame houses there are  populated, mostly, by African Americans, although this is now changing. This is the part of town where sections of the Nimitz freeway collapsed in the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, an event which has permanently changed the area. The disruption caused by new freeway routing, along with other factors, initiated a spiral of redevelopment in which increasing economic pressure is driving low-income families out of the area.
     Nowadays, whenever I find myself in West Oakland, it’s usually because I’m visiting an artist. Years earlier, I’d find myself driving down West 7th street towards my wife’s garment business which was housed in Oakland’s old brick Firehouse No. 3. Right next door, in another converted commercial building, the glass artist John Lewis had his studio and home. The two buildings shared an area at the rear where I’d often watch Lewis loading his glass furnace or sitting at his bench shaping the molten glass into one of his famous moon bottles.
     As is the case in similar areas of other cities, artists had moved in, attracted by the low price of housing and studio space. Bulwinkle, in fact, had lived in West Oakland for well over twenty years.
     Still, a trip to West Oakland always brought me some uneasiness. I remembered occasions in the past when one of my wife’s employees was mugged on his or her way to work, and it was always unsettling to witness the evidence of unemployment and other hardships endemic to the neighborhood.
     These things bothered Mark, too. In talking about Abduljaami, he had remarked, “The story of John’s life is to look at the story of Oakland and my neighbors, and what happened to them in any large American city, particularly coastal cities; what happened to the African Americans all the way up to today. They came up from the south and now they are just getting pushed the fuck out of here. Nobody tells that story, but that’s what I see. Where are they going? I think if you asked Angela Davis, she would tell you they’re going to jail. I don’t know that, but California is building a lot of prisons. Some of my neighbors participate in general culture, but man!, a lot of them are left out!”
     There was something else that bothered Bulwinkle. In all his years of living in a black neighborhood, he’d had a great deal of time to watch his neighbors. As he put it, “They are constantly inventing art.” He’d watch the kids playing in the street and see the living process of creation of which the larger culture has been the beneficiary. “One of the main creative forces in America, and maybe in the world, has been the African American,” he mused. “But then, the dominant culture comes along and, sadly, they steal it. They dilute it; they bastardize it and commercialize it, and turn it into drivel. But my neighbors just keep on inventing.”
     Certainly Abduljaami is a singular example of this intimate embrace of the creative impulse. He continues working year after year without a dealer or gallery representation, and without concern about the art world in general. “John is his own man,” as Mark puts it, “Can you imagine what the students at some university might get out of watching him? I just don’t have a lot of faith in what’s going on today. Everything just seems to be incredibly academic. Watching John would be to see a human being create something brand new. Any artist is like that. They give birth to something. It comes out of them, and you don’t know how it happens.”

Pulling up in front of Abduljaami’s place, he’s nowhere to be seen. It turns out he’d left that morning for Detroit. Mark had warned me that we might miss him. It had started to rain, and so returned to Mark’s studio. I followed him into his small kitchen where everything had been painted over with figures, faces, words, designs. Unexpected objects abounded. It was the site of an art blitz, an exuberant overflow of expression, the giving in to that, something that any artist who has ever experienced it will easily recognize, the joy of that energy finding its way into form. Kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, office, all of his living areas were simply different chapters in the same story.
     But all that was the record of other moments. Today, the mood was more reflective. “What kind of culture would we have in America if it wasn’t for the African-American?” Bulwinkle asked, “—certainly in relation to popular culture. What the fuck would we have going on, German folk dancing?” There was the visual side, too. “Modern art has a tremendous debt to African art, which I don’t know if they even thought of as ‘art’ in Africa. It was much more a part of their whole life. I think that’s why they could part with it so easily. ‘Yeah, I’ll sell you this for a few bucks,’ and it would end up in Matisse’s studio! Because they could just make more of it!”
     A couple of weeks later, Abduljaami had returned and Mark and I drove over to see him. The artist worked in an area behind a chain link fence that had once been the parking lot for an old industrial plant for producing oxygen, of all things. That explained the steel tanks, pipes and the odd structure of some of the buildings on the site. The current owner of the property, Paul Discoe, a builder/designer specializing in traditional Japanese joinery, is a fan of Abduljaami’s work and makes the space available to him at no cost. Discoe also contributes material—timbers and portions of whole tree trunks unsuitable for his own projects—for John to use as he wishes.
     Out in front on the sidewalk stood a carved wooden elephant maybe seven or eight feet high next to a couple of ten-foot long painted alligators. Behind the fence were dozens of other carved wooden figures.
     Mark and I walked into the open yard where John put his chain saw down and greeted us. He had been at work on a huge section of log which he was turning into a cow. Looking at it, I could see that the ears had been roughed out, but I couldn’t figure out how he was going to make the front part of the cow’s head. There didn’t seem to be room for it. As Mark once told me, often he’d see John working on a piece and think, “Man, I don’t know how he’s going to work that out!” But inevitably Abduljaami would pull it off leaving Bulwinkle marveling at his sheer formal ingenuity.
     Abduljaami was obviously pleased to see Mark—they were old friends—and he extended a friendly hand towards me. I couldn’t help noticing the sawdust from his chainsaw stuck in the wool of his watch cap, his eyebrows and beard. While he and Mark chatted, I took the time to wander among a collection of carved sculptures in various states of finish unlike any I’d seen in one place before: carved dogs, apes, turtles, monkeys, horses, birds, and compound pieces of two or more figures—a cowboy on a rearing horse, two apes intertwined, and others. There were two throne-like chairs with bas relief portraits, a coffee table with a round glass top supported on the legs of a huge, cartoonish purple spider, multiple human figures, busts, even a clasped fist and arm. There were other pieces, too, which crossed into abstraction. No order was apparent among this collection other than a simple imperative: make room for the next one.
     Wandering happily among these carvings, camera in hand, I was attracted to a carved head which evoked something of Guernica. “It’s a dragon,” Abduljaami told me. It had been a larger piece which had fallen and cracked while he was working on it. Unwilling to complete the piece with a crack through it, he had simply cut the head off. “There’s the body, over there,” he said, pointing. Another piece I spent more time with was a black angel. It appeared to be a self-portrait.
     Mark, I knew, owned another of Abduljaami’s self-portraits, a piece with a kind of quiet dignity which I’d noticed sitting on one of his work benches. He’d also showed me a carved figure of a woman about seven feet high. “That’s John’s wife,” he told me. “Look at the expression of her face.” The piece demonstrated one of the things Mark admired most about Abduljaami’s work. “It’s heartfelt. You feel what he’s feeling. Anybody who really sees this stuff has to feel that. That’s why his pieces work so well when they’re separated, say in an exhibition space. You can see the shape of it, the beauty of it. It’s stunning.” 
     Talking with Paul Discoe, I’d learned that originally Abduljaami had used only an ax for his carvings, and that he was very particular about the wood he used, only black walnut, a very hard wood and difficult to work with. I’d mentioned this to Mark who told me it was true. He went on to describe an ax he’d fashioned for Abduljaami over twenty years earlier, “just a regular double-bladed ax, but I took one side and made it into a much sharper curve [gesturing]. I tempered it and sharpened it. But over the years John’s loosened up. Now he uses anything that comes his way, even chunks of palm tree.”
     The day we’d visited, as mentioned, Abduljaami had been at work with a chainsaw. Talking with Mark later in the day, I mentioned the chainsaw and my inevitable association with the redwood bears so popular in Northern California as roadside attractions.
     Perhaps I’m just imaging I saw a flash of outrage, but whatever passed across Mark’s face, he quickly recovered. “Well, it’s the difference between a craftsman working and an artist working. There’s something else going on in that man’s mind which he is going to reveal to us.” Of course, the tools that Abduljaami uses are not the point.
     Six or seven years ago I remember wandering around in Bulwinkle’s half-acre lot among hundreds of his steel sculptures. On one piece, painted along the edges of a figure, I noticed the words “I am not a folk.” Although Bulwinkle’s work often exhibits an aggressive, confrontational edge as well as a sophisticated sense of design, to the careless or uninformed viewer his work can appear untutored. Moreover, his work possesses the direct force one often feels in folk or outsider art. It might be a good time, I thought, to broach this subject. 
     He paused before responding, “If someone refers to me as ‘a folk artist’—and they have over the years—I ask, ‘Does that mean I’m a folk? As opposed to what…?’” His objections boil down to one simple point. Such work is not accorded the same degree of respect as the more fashionable work which finds its way into the major museums and galleries. This is reflected not only in the lower prices, but in the smaller amount of text such work generates on the part of critics and curators, not that there aren’t some significant exceptions to be found. Folk art, the best of it, Bulwinkle readily agrees, can be “real art.” And that’s the measure: Is it real?  
     Mark recalled how a friend had come by and had talked about considering the purchase of a drawing from one of the better-known Bay Area artists. The drawing was priced at fourteen thousand dollars, and the friend had passed, albeit reluctantly. After further talk, the friend bought a piece of Bulwinkle’s work for well under a thousand dollars, and was quite pleased with it. The whole transaction rankled, however, because what were the factors accounting for the great difference in prices between the work of the two artists? Did it have anything to do with the intrinsic qualities of the work itself?
     In any case, what about Bulwinkle’s question. “Am I a folk? —as opposed to what?” Mark has an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute. Popping into my mind suddenly is Kris Kristofferson and his song performed so memorably by Janice Joplin “Me and Bobby McGee.” Who would guess it was written by a Rhodes Scholar? A lot of people probably thought Kristofferson was a folk.
     Ever since I first heard it, the term “outsider artist” has always produced an inner tweak whenever I’ve run across it. The term makes possible, logically possible, a complementary phrase, “insider artist,” although this is a term I don’t remember ever having come across. “Who’s your favorite insider artist?” This phrase, in the art world at least, would have a distinctly unpalatable ring to it, I’m sure. “What kind of artist, did you say?”
     On the other hand, the impulse to categorize is understandable in the face of the bewildering variety of phenomena to which the word “art” is routinely applied. It’s difficult not to have names to help one navigate this shifting landscape. And there’s the business of marking out the territory of the “professional artist,” too. As a favorite art school credo goes, “art has to be about something.” It takes training in the academy to understand what “being about something” means. Credentials are given to identify those having the requisite training to recognize the presence of such attributes in a work of art. Would a ten-foot long, painted alligator cut it? Have to call in an expert.
     But Abduljaami, in the mid-seventies, was included in a figurative sculpture show at Paula Anglim Gallery [San Francisco] along with Bay Area luminaries Robert Arneson and Viola Frey. As Mark related, Thomas Albright, probably the most influential Bay Area critic of that era, was a fan of Abduljaami’s work and wrote about it admiringly in the San Francisco Chronicle. For awhile, Abduljaami found himself in the world of “insider artists,”so to speak, but for whatever reasons, did not find his way in this rarefied atmosphere. John once told Mark, ‘What really happened to me is that Thomas Albright died. He’d been in my corner for me, and he died.” Abduljaami did not find his way to big prices and a wider presence in established institutions. It’s true that he does have admirers among Bay Area artists and locally, Phil Linhares of the Oakland Museum keeps an eye on him. Linhares is responsible for adding a couple of Abduljaami’s pieces to the museum’s permanent collection.
     Over the years of their relationship, Mark heard various stories from Abduljaami about his life. There was more than a little hardship. He’d done time in prison, and when he got out, he’d gotten a job shoveling grain out of a boat in Louisiana. When he nearly got buried alive by the grain, he decided he was never going to work again. “I think that’s when he started seriously carving wood,” Mark told me. “He set out to be an artist, and he became one.”
     As I stood looking at the Abduljaami self-portrait that Bulwinkle owns, he told me that John had wanted to do a lamp with him. “I looked at that piece and I thought I would like to do it with that one. I could make a lampshade to go with it where you could see through the cut-out parts. I’d just do a ‘story of his life’ on the lamp that way.” The imagery for the narrative had been thought out, but Mark was waiting. “I want to have a place where it would go. It would be nice to have a piece done by two people. I’d be doing what I do, but it would be serving his sculpture.”
     I said I hoped he’d follow through with it.
     “Well, I don’t know. There’s so little opportunity to be exhibiting stuff that’s…I think the sculpture I envision could be a really hard one to take. I know a lot about John’s life, and it’s a tough life.”
     A couple of weeks later I got an email from Mark. “Was over at John’s today. He’s started on a figure of Malcolm X.” A few days later I got the following email. “Saw John today. Malcolm was all undercoated white. I suggested Malcolm might not like that. We laughed. This piece should look good.” Not many days later I got the following message. “The piece is finished. It’s fuckin’ incredible!” 
     On my most recent visit, Abduljaami showed me the first piece he had ever carved. He was eleven years old at the time. One of his jobs had been cutting firewood for his family. It occurred to him that he could make the task less of an ordeal by taking some time to carve something interesting just for himself. He realized suddenly that his mother’s heaviest cutting knife, something like a cleaver, would be just the right tool. “And it was!” he told me. While carefully at work on this first carving, he didn’t notice that his sister had appeared, and then had run off to tattle. “I’ve kept that first piece. There it is, over there,” he pointed. “You know, that was before child abuse laws,” He’d gotten quite a whipping for his first effort. It had stopped him for a number of years, but he’d tasted something so special that later on it would become a life’s work. 
     Abduljaami continues to make whatever he pleases, sometimes just for the challenge of making a particular piece, but with many other pieces there’s much more to it, work that opens a window on deeper waters, work that can speak to anyone.  ∆

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.  


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