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Good Bye Garry
I lost a friend and mentor recently, and the woodworking community has lost an icon.
Garry Knox Bennett’s accolades are far more than can be mentioned in this article, but I’ll share a few: a 2004 Award of Distinction from the Furniture Society, he was a Fellow of the American Craft Council, and received the James Renwick Alliance Master of the Medium Award. His work is in museums and private collections around the world, and his influence and perspective in the Art Furniture and Craft fields will have everlasting effect.
I first met Garry in 2001 at a Furniture Society Conference in Philadelphia where we were on a marketing panel discussion, Turning Sawdust into Gold Dust, along with Michael Fortune and Mark Levin, moderated by Andy Glanz. Garry had a bottle of gin in a paper bag under the table and I watched him add it to his water on the table. Then at one point, he turned to another panelist and said, “F**k that! If they don’t like what I make, then they don’t have to buy it,” or something to that effect. I liked him instantly. Garry spoke his mind always, but behind his brash profanity there was great insight and wisdom.
His bottom line on that statement was: make what you like, don’t make it for anyone else. And he always made what he liked. In fact, the more HE liked it, the higher the price he put on it, which is a great marketing strategy that I use to this day.
Since that memorable first meeting, I had the honor of becoming his friend and have had many wonderful moments chilling over a glass of gin talking shop, football, art, and the good ole’ days of smoking pot while enjoying many dinners and yes, more gin.
In 2004, I gave a presentation about his life and compared him to Wendell Castle, another friend and legend we lost in the past few years. It was kind of an east-coast-meets-west-coast thing, and I learned a lot about Garry that I didn’t know. His story is right out of the screenwriter’s guild; you can’t make this stuff up.
Garry’s first claim to fame was in the early sixties where he actually designed and sold roach clips. He created the mechanism where a spiral of wire slides up two wire prongs, like tweezers to pinch a roach and started selling them in the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene in San Francisco. By buy the early seventies, he had formed Squirkenworks with 60+ employees and was selling them all over the country. Bam!
During this phase, he developed a precious metal plating process that was used in the nascent computer industry. His company allowed him to pursue his artistic endeavors and still exists today. But his big jump in woodworking fame came after he made a Padauk display cabinet titled “Nail Cabinet”. Garry felt the craft furniture movement was spending far too much attention to “the wood” and going for “intricate joinery” etc. and far too little attention to overall design or visual excitement. After completing this fine piece of furniture, he nailed a sixteen-penny-nail through one of the doors. Hence the Nail Cabinet. Although Garry was satisfied with the piece since it pushed his limits as a furniture maker, he hated it for having to explain it to those who did “not get it. He broke new ground artistically with its creation.
Garry’s design approach was unique. It was irreverent. He told me that he would often start with the punchline and then work backward to fill in the joke. He said, “There is much more to making an interesting piece of furniture than just fancy wood and joinery.”
He never admitted he was a skilled master craftsman, (although he was), and nothing was off-limits: materials, technique, color, and boy could he crank it out. He never stopped creating and while he made many one-of-a-kind pieces, they would typically be in a series with a particular theme. He’d get a design idea and run with it. For example, he made a chair a week for something like three years! Each one was unique, as you can see here. Think about that, a unique one-of-a-kind chair every week. Astonishing.
Garry was such a generous person with his knowledge, time, food, drink, and his work. Every time I visited his shop, he’d show me what he was working on, and say, “Pick one!” I’d gratefully take a piece of his artwork home, leaving me figuring how I would explain this through a carry-on scan. “It’s art. Yes, really not lethal, really!”
Once he sent me a solid block of cedar, just that, no note, nothing with it. A few days later he called me and said, “Scott – did you get the wood?” “Yes,” I replied. He said, “Split it.” and hung up before I could say anything more. I took the cedar to my shop, split it open, and there was a wonderful personal gift, hidden inside a pocket that he had bored out before gluing it back seamlessly together again. It was genius, and so fun.
One of the collaborations we did was his “Woodworker’s Eraser” which for me, epitomizes his irreverence. It was a large match. We made a 1000 of them for gifts. I still chuckle when I see this on my office desk. I was in my Garry-lookalike phase when we made them.
His house is a fanciful museum; groovy art everywhere, displaying his own work as well as a collection of many of today’s contemporary furniture masters. He had an eye for talent too, often supporting upcoming makers and friends by buying their work suck as Judy McKie, Tommy Simpson, Wendell Castle and many more.
He also freely mentored Alison McLennan; with her he referred to himself as the “BIG Cheese” and he had several nicknames for her, ranging from “Gruntette” to “Mentee” as well as the more flattering “protégé.” Alison worked side by side with him for over twenty years, where she helped him create while developing her own voice in the art furniture world.
Garry had many Garry’isms that he often said and wrote down on an old storage locker which he insisted Alison take when he closed his shop a few years ago. She shared a few with me like, “You need three things to make it all happen: skills, knowledge of shape and design, and creativity to make it again and again and again.” “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” “Technoweenyism is a refuge from creativity.”
His shop: It was wonderful! Funky, eclectic, inspirational, tools and supplies scattered everywhere. Serious 3-phase equipment (OSHA would have had a field day with some of them), and you could make anything in it. Wandering around in this space was like a fanciful journey into Garry’s head. I would lose myself there, and every time I visited, time stood still.
When Garry moved to this place in the 70’s, the building was next to a junkyard in a sketchy commercial warehouse section of Oakland, California. Perfect for Squirkenworks and his art studio. In 2003 they wanted to build a third story after their home burned down, but their original building couldn’t take the load. So, he built a steel structure over the whole building with the third story free standing over the top. Nuts, right?
His complete story is available in his self-published book Made in Oakland, it served as the catalog for Garry’s 2001 traveling Retrospective Exhibition. Garry “signed” my copy by tracing his left hand that shows where his left pinky finger is missing, lost on a joiner. He also let me make two castings of his hand: one resides in his entrance hall and one is on the wall at Marc Adams School.
His story isn’t complete without mentioning his wife, Sylvia. She was his muse, his love, his foundation. She is a wonderful person, hardworking spokesperson, administrator. Softspoken, with a chuckle behind every story. My heart goes out to her, their children, and their community.
I’ve posted an interview I had with him and a tour of his shop in 2019 to my YouTube Channel. You won’t want to miss it to get a better view behind the curtain.
Goodbye, Garry. I’ll miss you greatly. Your inspiration will stay with me forever, and I’ll do my best to pass it on. F that! You are part of me.
Garry was scheduled to teach at a rather conservative school, I happened to visiting Garry and Sylvia shortly before the assignment. I tried as tactfully as I could to suggest he tone down his often colorful language. He did get the message – and became even more “descriptive”.
Yeah, I loved his irreverence and his ability to inspire others to follow their own instincts regarding furniture and object designs. One time he had a piece of furniture in his studio with a crack in it that was shipped back to him by one of his clients in NY. He took a sharpie and wrote “This crack OK, GKB in Oakland.” I f-ing loved him for that one!
In a word, Garry’s work freed me from convention and opened the doors to following my own instincts rather than being tethered to traditional designs. He would say things like, “I don’t want to make some dead guys’ designs.” which provoked a round of laughter from his students because that’s what attracted most of us to him.
I don’t know if one can attach any notion of design theory to Garry’s work. It was more akin to breathing. To be near him when he was creating was to witness intensity of the moment. Free form jazz would be a greater fair comparison to his design method. He was a beat poet at heart.
Michael Hosaluk – a good friend and twirler as Garry would refer to woodturners:
“Just before I heard of his passing, I was remembering a moment when he was at a conference in Saskatoon with Judy McKie, Wendy Maruyama and Wendell Castle skipping together down the street. Made me laugh seeing Garry skipping with his entourage, skipping, something you wouldn’t associate Garry ever doing, but again he would often do the unexpected.
Garry inspired people to break the rules. During a conference in Saskatoon, Canada, in the middle of the night, Michael Hosaluk and Russ Baldon installed a chair up in a tree outside Garry’s room window just to mess with Garry. Garry’s response, “Far out, Mikey.” The chair is still there.
Mark Sfirri, another twirler:
Garry brought a fresh perspective to studio furniture with his vast knowledge of metalworking combined with woodworking. He was fearless. Every show seemed like explorations into new areas. He was very colorful and, at the same time, quite accessible.
One day I bumped into him on the Oakland Ferry into San Francisco. I went to say hello and we chatted. Then Garry says, “Don’t tell anyone you’ve seen me going into Frisco.” (San Franciscans don’t like it being called that.) It would be bad for his rap to be seen going into the city. But it was too late. I said, sorry, I’ve already texted everyone. Garry was Mr. Oakland through and through.
He was such a loveable character. But where outwardly he could seem gruff or tough, he was a sweetheart. I feel such a huge hole in my life without him. Garry always had a gadget that might help solve the problem. I wonder what he would come up with to fill this hole?
Popular Woodworking interviewed Gary Knox Bennett in 2016. Watch that interview here.
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