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The Tree Man of Amagansett

Tue, 09/19/2023 - 09:14
Jonathan Shlafer, at his home in Amagansett, where he is surrounded by his artful sculptures as well as several functional pieces like chairs, benches, and tables that he creates out of leftover wood.
Jonathan Shlafer and Judy D'Mello

It's entirely plausible that Jonathan Shlafer came to us from a forest. He stands tree-trunk sturdy, his skin deeply brown, knotty, gnarly, rugged, windblown. He doesn't need to tell you he spends most of his time outside. 

So, the mind will be forgiven for believing that he could have sprouted from an American beech and only morphed into a man's shape after seeing that we humans have turned into a moronic race, no longer connected to the earth or trees, with which we share 50 percent of our DNA. 

Into our plague-infested and burning world this tree-man came, wielding a giant toolbox of chain saws, angle grinders, and chisels to create sculptures out of felled and discarded trees. With each piece he hoped to reconnect us to our symbiotic partners.

Of course, none of this is true. He's from New Jersey. He arrived not from a fairy-tale forest but from the cutthroat jungle of New York City advertising agencies. He has a wife and a college-age son. Probably a mortgage, too. Yet, his art -- wood sculptures that range from tall and sinewy to tribalistic totems, biomorphic forms, squat abstractions, and fiercely charred works -- does seem to be alive with conscious intent.

The outdoor pieces, which are scattered about his Amagansett driveway, or lanced into the earth in his backyard, appear as though in dialogue with the environment, commenting, as they might, on the constant shifting of light and wind, or whatever the northeastern climate might throw at them. Stand there long enough and stare at one of them and it would hardly seem strange if it spoke back to you.

"They're reductive," Mr. Shlafer said, looking up at a slender, eight-foot-high pair in his driveway that he said reminded him of a flower's piston and stamen. "I get a piece of wood, look at it, and decide what it's going to be. Is it going to be a short fat thing, or a tall skinny thing? Or part of a group? A lot of my tall skinny ones are in groups, which is good because then they can have a conversation. They're botanical, tall, sexy, and sinewy, so the more of them you put together the more energy you get, as opposed to just one piece."

As we wandered past a Fred Flintstone-looking chair, some cannibalistic pitchforks, and tree stumps, there were many more mentions of "energy" and "positive vibes." When he inherits a piece of wood, he said, he usually waits for the wood to "speak to me." He's also prone to anthropomorphizing each piece: "Look, there's the head, the belly, and the butt," he said, pointing to what looked like divots in the top, middle, and bottom section of a 10-foot pole he was busy carving. 

For some, a piece of wood is simply a piece of wood, and for them, such talk might seem like a bunch of New Age hot air. But for a growing number of others, his aesthetic and spiritual connection to wood is clearly appreciated, because commissions are coming in from all corners of the United States. What is certain is that it would take a sad and hardened soul to spend time in the midst of his figures and feel nothing. 

Although his sculptures can live handsomely indoors -- standing sentinel-like in a corner or as bookends on a mantlepiece -- the ones that are rooted outdoors, exposed to nature, are the most compelling. Almost all are raw and unfinished -- only a few are minimally treated -- which means that change is inevitable. The same way that time weathers and works the natural landscape, it weathers and works his sculptures. They age, the color of wood turns, it cracks and splits, the knotted holes get filled with fungal growth, beetles might colonize it, woodpeckers might think they've hit the jackpot.

"It's going to crack, beetles will climb in," he said, patting a giant slab of walnut bark as though it were the rump of a horse. "It's all part of the evolution. It's not a piece of marble that will be perfect forever. It evolves."

Not all his clients are on board with this constant evolution and call him back to fill in the holes that develop. "And that's fine. I'm happy to fill it up with some wood putty and Aqua-Resin. I just don't want to produce outdoor pieces that look sealed up, like a shellac. I want to preserve the beautifulness of its natural qualities."

Mr. Shlafer, 56, first moved to New York City as a college student at the School of Visual Arts. After graduating, he spent two decades at various ad agencies, reaping financial dividends but less so artistically. His wife had "a real job," he said -- today she's a veteran financial technology executive -- so after their son was born 19 years ago, he decided to quit advertising and become a stay-at-home dad. The young family moved first to Maplewood, N.J., for his wife's job, and later to Brooklyn. He became a manufacturer of sorts, producing items such as changing mats for surfers that he made from old kites; he was an avid kite surfer. At the time, he sold them for $80 each.

"Coming from the ad game, I was tired of selling other people's stuff. I wanted to make my own shit," Mr. Shlafer said. He owned an industrial sewing machine so he made small fashion bags, some in the shape of guns -- "all super rock-and-roll-y," he said. He also made book-shaped holders for hairdresser's tools and Bedouin tent-like coverings for cat litter boxes out of scraps of upholstery fabric.

"That really goes to the heart of my art. I like throwaway scraps and found treasures. Art stores hold no interest to me. I just need materials, I don't need art materials."

Fifteen years ago the family bought their Amagansett house, which, he said, "changed our lives." He discovered foil boarding -- "I ride the energy of the waves" -- and his son joined the junior lifeguard program, from which he graduated and worked as a lifeguard over the last four summers.

Mr. Shlafer began experimenting with wood right before the pandemic hit. "I found fence posts on the beach that were all warped and twisted, so I took them home and massaged them." When Covid eventually descended, the family moved to Amagansett and he began his sculptures in earnest. He befriended Mica Marder, of the local tree and landscaping family, from whom he receives much of his supplies, not only wood but also monolithic boulders that he uses for architectural flourishes and smaller ones to create outdoor benches. 

Last year, Mr. Shlafer's son graduated from high school and left for college, so they sold their Brooklyn brownstone and moved permanently to Amagansett. "I'm super happy to be in my driveway working for days. Sometimes I forget to eat. I just get into a rhythm and it's so much fun. I can't wait for the winter," he said.

His wife, however, would like him to vacate their driveway and free it of the jumble of two-by-fours, discarded fence posts, chopped tree trunks, carved toadstools, chairs, tables, and an assortment of works in progress. When it was mentioned to him that it looked a bit like a "Mad Max" sculpture park, he grimaced and said, "Oh great, she'll be thrilled to hear that."

Now, high on his immediate wishlist is finding a studio to rent, and he expressed frustration over the dearth of available work spaces on the East End. "I can give you a list of a dozen artists out here who don't have a place to work. I just need an empty barn or a garage that I can rent." Until then, he occasionally uses Mr. Marder's studio. "But it's his studio, not mine, and when I'm woodworking it's messy as hell. There's stuff everywhere." 

Indeed, the sleek, ethereal beauty of Mr. Shlafer's sculptures belies the violence often involved in their production. "Either I leave wood alone, bleach it, or burn it. I chisel, I chain-saw, I use angle grinders, saws, whatever is needed," he explained. 

Perhaps this is the "energy" that he talks about, this masculine force that his collective work seems to emit: the giant phalluses, the blackened, menacing shapes that form against a brilliant sky, the arsenal of tribalistic weapons. Even the kitschiest sculptures in his collection -- garden mushrooms -- he called "tiny tree dicks." 

Well, for the tree man of Amagansett, such ancient, talismanic energy seems fitting. This is for you, his sculptures say, for your protection, contemplation, and renewal.

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