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A New Show at the Oakland Museum Salutes an Artist Everyone Knows but Few Have Heard Of

Hint: He’s the guy behind The Planet.

SLIDESHOW

The Inverness home of J.B. Blunk served as his residence, studio, and gallery.

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J.B. Blunk.

Photo: Courtesy of J.B. Blunk Collection

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The Planet has been on view at OMCA since it opened in 1969.

Photo: Courtesy of OMCA

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The bedroom in Blunk’s home features a handmade headboard.

Photo: Mimi Jacobs

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A hand-carved sink in the bathroom at the Blunk home.

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The exhibition at OMCA will feature pieces, such as this stool, made by Blunk over his lifetime.

Photo: Courtesy of OMCA

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A sculpture outside Blunk’s studio was made by Bruno Blunk, Blunk’s son, as an homage to his father.

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The home’s second story is accessible by a ladder.

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The heart of the Oakland Museum of California is made of wood. It weighs two tons, measures 13 feet in diameter, and has been sitting in the same spot since before the museum had windows or doors. Kids climb on it. Weary museumgoers sit on it. And almost no visitor passes it without at least running a hand over its polished, knotty hull. The piece is called The Planet, and it was commissioned almost 50 years ago, back when the museum was still a blueprint. For two months, artist and woodworker J.B. Blunk worked to tame a colossal piece of burled redwood using his tool of choice: a chain saw. The finished piece was so large that it had to be installed before the building was completed. It hasn’t moved from its berth since.

The Planet is both familiar and mysterious to people visiting OMCA. While its presence has long been appreciated, most know little—or nothing—about its creator. The museum hopes to amend that with the exhibition J.B. Blunk: Nature, Art, and Everyday Life, opening April 21 and running through September 9. “What is fascinating about Blunk,” says Carin Adams, the museum’s curator of art, “is not just the objects that he left behind but the way that he lived.”

Blunk lived and worked on a plot of land in Inverness that was unofficially gifted to him by the artist Gordon Onslow Ford. Between 1957 and 1962, Blunk labored tirelessly on the property, building two structures by hand: a 700-square-foot home and a dual studio consisting of a “clean” area for ceramics and an open-air space for woodworking. The exhibition will feature many examples of the ceramics, jewelry, and wood sculpture that he created over his lifetime there—Blunk died in 2002 at 76—but it will also offer a glimpse into his remarkable home itself.

“The house is really his masterwork,” Adams says. “So much of what is magical and special about Blunk came from that place.” To allow museumgoers to experience some of that magic, Adams worked closely with Blunk’s daughter, Mariah Nielson, an architect and designer herself who has spent the last 11 years restoring her childhood home and hosting various artists for residencies and creative retreats. “Before he died, [my father] told me to take care of the house and make sure there was always art being made onsite,” Nielson says. She has spent the months leading up to the exhibit tracking down her father’s old friends, collectors, and collaborators to gather additional works for the show.

The hunt reunited her with relics familiar from her family’s past, from ceramics to smaller, one-off woodworks and even the first piece of jewelry her father ever crafted—a necklace fashioned from silver, amethyst, clay, and leather. These small personal pieces paint a nuanced portrait of a man whose greatest legacy isn’t personal at all, but cosmic: Adams calls The Planet nothing less than the museum’s “physical and metaphorical heart.”


Originally published in the April issue of
San Francisco

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