Gavin Grant's Journey in Wood, One Sculpture at a Time

Gavin Grant standing in front of his carvings (photo by Pendarvis Harshaw)

Every once in a while, I meet someone who reminds me that the key to success is overcoming obstacles—and if you can overcome those obstacles and incorporate them into your work, then it opens up a world of new possibility.

Last week, I interviewed Gavin Grant at his minimalist home in North Oakland. Grant is a conceptual wood sculptor. I hadn't met any black wood sculptors—let alone one in a Living Legends T-shirt.

Turns out Grant has been honing his craft in the Bay Area for almost two decades. He makes these sleek futuristic-looking woodcarvings, roughly three to four feet in size, that can either stand alone or mount to a wall. It wouldn’t do justice to simply call his creations "s-like" figures—they’re more dragon-like. Some look like an ampersand; others look like a cousin of the Prince symbol.

One of Gavin Grant's sculptures, fresh off the press (photo by Pendarvis Harshaw) (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

Grant makes his pieces by hand, using thin 4' x 8' sheets of light tan poplar cut to shape and scored diagonally. The process allows him to slightly angle the sections of the wood up and down, creating a jagged aesthetic.

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When the cut-out scored shape is paired with another piece of wood cut in a symmetric style, he seals them together, using a piece of wood to create a spine between the two symmetrical sides—propping them up and making his creation three-dimensional.

None of this would be possible if Grant didn’t use pinky-fingertip sized wooden braces to support the scored and angled sections of wood, an innovation created on his own from trial-and-error.

“I took all those small pieces and glued them together like boom, boom, boom,” Grant tells me as we stand in his apartment-turned-studio, his house seemingly solely used to produce art. But it didn’t happen overnight. “Even the way I came up with these braces," he adds, "was a journey.”

The braces Gavin Grant makes to support the inner-lining of his works (Photo: Gavin Grant)
The braces Gavin Grant makes to support the inner-lining of his works (Photo: Gavin Grant)

Grant's upcoming show Continuum, at the downtown Oakland office of the Gensler architecture firm, is a manifestation of that journey—one that's about more than just cutting wood. It’s about him staying disciplined as he embarks on his personal path to mastering his craft. He’s taken small steps, like finding a way to brace his angled wood cuts. And he’s taken large steps, like turning his apartment into a functional workspace that he likens to a computer.

“This is like the hard drive, where everything is stored,” Grant says, pointing to a wall of curvy creations, all of them past experiments that inform his more recent sculptures.

“This middle room is like the operating system. I have my tools over there, and a table if I need to sand, and finishing products,” Grant says, noting that the front and final room of his apartment is like a computer desktop—that’s where all the nice looking finished pieces are shown.

How did he land on this three-room system for creating sculptures? In the same way he learned how to create the sculptures themselves: largely self-taught.

“Sometimes I figure it out for myself, like figuring out the braces thing. And then, sometimes, I’m like, ‘Let me just go on YouTube and watch a bunch of videos about woodworking, and craftsmanship, and guitar making, and architecture and design, and soak it up and see what I learn from it,’” says Grant.

Artistic since childhood, Grant's work with wood has allowed him to create more abstract visions.

“I’ve always been drawn to psychedelic, curvy lines and shapes that are sinuous, and that move fluidly. But, going from that idea to actually building what’s in my mind—I didn’t realize that it would take so much work.”

A finished example of Gavin Grant's work (photo by Pendarvis Harshaw)
A finished example of Gavin Grant's work (photo by Pendarvis Harshaw)

Grant has that “You’re 40, really? Nah, I don’t believe you,” kind of thing going for him. You know, the thing that makes you want to drink more water. He graduated from Westchester High in Los Angeles 1996, and came to the Bay Area right afterward, pursing a degree from the Academy of Art. He dropped out, and took time to work before going back to school at SF City College and then, eventually, SF State.

When he was a few credits short of graduating from State, a counselor suggested he become a TA for a couple shop classes, wood and metal. You could say "the rest is history," except Grant didn't rush right into it.

“There were certain tools I was hesitant to work with because they’re dangerous," said Grant. "You know, like the band saw, table saw, the lathe, the planer—all these different tools, they’re not forgiving at all. You get your finger caught up them, or a little piece of hair cut up in them, it’s a wrap!”

So he says he worked with the machines that were more manageable, like the belt sander or the disk sander, and then graduated up to more dangerous tools.

Gavin Grant's tools (photo by Pendarvis Harshaw)

Fast-forward to now, two decades removed from college, and Grant is about to have the second major showing of his art.

When I got word about the event, I thought to myself: I don’t know any other black people who are wood sculptors. When I asked Grant about it, he said, “There’s a lot of black people that do industrial design... when I was in school, there were quite a few people—black students, black instructors. It wasn’t like, flourishing, but it was sprinkled throughout.”

I was kind of surprised. I mean, I’ve never seen African American sculptors promoted, and he agreed: they aren’t promoted.

“People aren’t out in the streets talking about, ‘Hey, I’m a carpenter!’” Grant said, laughing. “There’s a lot of spaces (African Americans) fill that aren’t ‘popular.’ We’re there, it’s just a matter of finding us and cultivating these conversations, so more people can be informed about all the different dynamic skill sets that black people have.”

Gavin Grant standing in front one of his mounted pieces (photo by Pendarvis Harshaw)
Gavin Grant standing in front one of his mounted pieces (photo by Pendarvis Harshaw)

Grant’s story transcends race.

“I could have this conversation, and be like, ‘Me, yeah, I’m a black carpenter.' But that’s not my whole story," said Grant, as we walked from one room to the next. "I don’t just make chairs and tables. I have this journey of creating these abstract expressive forms and I’m teaching myself how to do these things.

“I’m figuring out how to tell my own story through the art of woodworking.”

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Gavin Grant's 'Continuum' opens Thursday, Nov. 15, at 5:30pm at Gensler's downtown Oakland office. Those interested in attending can RSVP at OaklandParty@Gensler.com.

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