Bits and Pieces

A pair of Texas artists collaborates on unique marquetry projects.

By Ann Gurley Rogers

Spider Johnson and Lora Hunt from Mason, TX, have been collaborating to produce fine art wood marquetry for 22 years, adding a unique touch to walls, furniture and even ceilings in both public and private spaces.

Marquetry uses veneers to create designs, using the diverse tones, colors and grains of the wood to achieve dramatic and subtle effects. The veneers are cut out and pieced together very closely so that from a distance, a marquetry piece often resembles a painting, silkscreen print or other graphic art form.

     
 
“Journey from Cuzco” is a 7-foot by 8-foot marquetry piece by Spider Johnson and Lora Hunt that covers an entertainment center in an Austin, TX, home. The vertical and horizontal lines are the spaces between the cabinet doors. “Cuzco” refers to the Peruvian city that the client is fond of visiting; ancient Peruvian burial dolls inspired some of the imagery of the design.  
     

Johnson and Hunt are self-taught woodworkers who started their business by designing and making hardwood boxes in the 1980s. Through the years, they developed set procedures for working together on their projects and sharing duties.

For commissioned pieces, Hunt and Johnson do an in-depth interview with the clients to draw out what part of their lives and what sort of legacy they want the piece to present. They collaborate on the design and Hunt then makes a line drawing, after which the two consult on specific elements. Sometimes this part of the process can be quite time-consuming.

“In the case of a mural that we were commissioned to do for Boston University’s Biological Sciences Building, we spent about seven months doing research,” Johnson says. “The mural depicts Earth’s 11 major biomes [the complex communities characterized by a distinct type of vegetation, such as a desert] with 46 plant species, 74 animal species and more than 5,000 separate pieces of wood. The biggest challenge was that the different animals and plants had to be appropriate to the biome and at the same time work as far as the design was concerned.”

A Division of Duties

It has become Hunt’s responsibility initially to choose the different veneers, but the final selection is made collaboratively. Until two years ago, the pieces were cut with two Hegner scroll saws, which was primarily Hunt’s job. However, when they acquired a Kern 50-watt C02 laser saw, Model Ker4848-50, Johnson took over the cutting.

The laser saw is used in conjunction with computer software. Johnson uses a combination of proprietary software that he has developed, along with Corel Draw, Adobe Illustrator and CAD Vector Works. Hunt and Johnson work together to assemble the piece. Then Johnson glues it up using a VacuPress from Veneer Pressing Systems Inc., sands and finishes it. He also does the installation work.

Johnson says that having the laser saw has made it possible to do larger pieces and that it is easier to assemble pieces cut with a laser saw than pieces cut with a scroll saw. “The laser saw has opened up lots of possibilities,” he says. “By hand, the work is tedious and time-consuming. Before, we could not produce as much work. Also, now we can do limited editions.”

“The laser is like our foundry [for sculptors]. It allows us to focus more on our designs,” adds Hunt, who is working on a project that lends itself well to limited editions. It is a deck of marquetry tarot cards; there are 72 in a complete deck and it is her goal to design and create 12 a year, she says.

     
 
This rambling 25-foot Texas wildflower marquetry motif is featured on the reception area wall at the Austin, TX, Omni Hotel.  
     

The pair also anticipate being able to take advantage of the laser saw’s capabilities by contracting for cutting jobs with local companies that market paneling and veneered products.

Residential Commission Offers Unique Perspective

Hunt and Johnson recently completed their largest job since acquiring the laser saw — a mural installed on the ceiling of a home in Longview, TX. The piece is 8 feet by 56 feet and is 22 feet off the ground. It consists of 1412 panels. Special halogen track lighting was installed to illuminate the piece.

“The design has unique challenges,” says Hunt. “First, because it is a ceiling, the viewer is looking up instead of straight ahead as you would if you were looking at a painting. Also, the design has to pull the viewer from one end to the other, and there is no right side up.” The piece has an American Indian motif, with a woman sitting at a loom, weaving a dream.

The project was conceived five years ago. “That was when we first approached the clients with the idea of doing a marquetry panel on their ceiling,” says Johnson. Hunt and Johnson have known the couple that owns the home for many years and had sold them another piece in the past.

“They are avid art collectors. We wanted to sell them another piece and the ceiling was about the only place left [for an additional piece of art],” Johnson adds. “This last year, the time was right and they were ready to give us a commission to do the ceiling.”

       
 
The “Strength Card” is one of the images in a series of marquetry Tarot cards being designed by Lora Hunt. The entire 72-card deck will be created in a 9-inch by 16-inch size as a limited edition; regular deck-sized paper reproductions will follow.  
       

Now that they have completed the commissioned ceiling, Hunt’s priority is to focus on designing the Tarot cards. In addition, they have another commission they expect to start before the end of the year for a client in Austin, TX — a wall piece above a large aquarium.

Hunt and Johnson operate out of two studios which are 1,600 square feet each. Their gross revenue for last year was $85,000. Prices for individual pieces range from $500 to $100,000 and up. At present they have no employees, but they may consider hiring both an administrative person and someone to do routine laser cutting in the future.

The majority of work for Hunt and Johnson comes from commissions. About 15 percent is sold through galleries. They say that until recently most of their marketing has been a hit-and-miss affair. “Every social situation is an opportunity to sell,” says Johnson. However, last year the two consulted with Katharine T. Carter, who heads a unique public relations and marketing firm for artists. That experience motivated Hunt and Johnson to be more proactive in their PR and marketing efforts.

While they were working on the ceiling project, for example, they had the whole project professionally videotaped. They will use the tape as a marketing tool and also hope that TV stations in the Texas market and, eventually, nationwide will air it. Johnson also took digital pictures of the project to use for publicity.

Hunt and Johnson also established a Web site two years ago — www.huntjohnson.com — and Johnson says that it has had many visitors. “It has generated a handful of telephone calls and two orders,” he says. “We view it as a portfolio that we can use with prospective clients. It gives people the chance to ‘kick the tires’ with art, so to speak. Buying art online is not popular for fine art yet, but it will come.”

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