MOUNTAIN CITY: WORKING THE GRAIN
EYES + EDGE is proud to welcome a new member to our family of contributors. Mountain City is a new weekly post each Tuesday highlighting the connection of nature, art, passion and pushing limits from the deep mountain wilderness to the depths of the city. Learn more about the very talented Willie McBride, the writer behind Mountain City here.
Working the Grain: The wood creations of Matt Helms
The southern portion of Portland’s beloved Wildwood Trail weaves its way serpentine through Washington Park, slithering through the trees above the Japanese and Rose Gardens. It was in that section of the Wildwood, while running along with a small group of fellow trail enthusiasts, that I met Matt Helms for the first time. It was strange but somehow, possibly due to my own years as a carpenter, I just knew that Matt was a wood worker before I even asked. He seemed like a cool guy so I struck up a conversation
“So,” I started, “what do you do?”
“I’m a woodworker,” he responded between breaths, shaggy hair jostling, feet dancing amongst the roots and rocks. Yes…I nailed it: a woodworker.
It takes a different kind of person to work with their hands, to make real, tangible, three-dimensional, utilitarian things that people can truly use. Like a chair, a book shelf, or a table. I need to sit down, need to place my cup and bowl somewhere when I eat, need a space to put the books I read or the clothes I use to cover my body.
Matt Helms is one of those people. Artists are like that; you won’t find those folks sitting at computers all day, punching numbers, doing things with no immediate, felt outcome. They want to see and feel the fruits (or at least the progression) of their labor right then and there. Tangible. Like trail running.
Time passed, we became close friends. I attended an art show of his at the Stumptown Coffee on Division and got to see his fine work and meet his beautiful family–a wonderful wife and two adorable young daughters. His work was as impressive as I’d imagined, his creative and artistic sensibilities earth-toned and humble, mirroring the natural spaces that he loves to explore on foot.
He called me recently to help on an install of a 12 foot long “live-edge” Walnut countertop out in Beaverton. It was simply stunning. Working material like that borders on a spiritual experience, the breathtaking nuances and complexities of a piece of wood like that render even “dead” matter alive and kicking. I knew Matt’s work was great but seeing him in action during the install cemented him in my mind as a truly masterful craftsman. The finished piece was just wonderful and the homeowner was thrilled; which is always good. I felt cool by proximity and privileged to bear witness to his expertise.
I wanted to know more about his inspirations, how time in nature and on his feet running relate to it all. He agreed to answer my questions and share his work with EYES + EDGE readers. Thanks Matt and keep up the good work! See you down the trail…
Mountain City:How did you get started woodworking? And making art in general?
Matt Helms: I was introduced to basic woodworking when I was a kid by my dad, who is very handy at all sorts of things. I also took a class in 8th grade called Junior Engineering where we designed and built scaled down versions of houses, bridges, and a wooden CO2 powered race car. In college at Chico State I took 3 semesters of sculpture classes. A lot of the work I did there involved cast bronze, cast aluminum and welding, but that’s also when I started getting more familiar with woodshop machinery and combining wood, metal, photography, and other mixed media in my work. After college I worked as an actor in Los Angeles for five years, but I continued making things in my spare time and started to feel more drawn to working with my hands than continuing my career in acting. My wife and I moved to Portland in 2004 and I was fortunate to get a job working as an apprentice under a master woodworker for a few years before striking out on my own.
MC:What types of projects inspire you most?
MH:It’s always nice to work on something a little different than I’ve done before. It’s also great working with a customer that has some idea of what they want but is open to my design input and trusts me enough to give me some creative freedom on the project.
MC: What do you like about working with your hands? What do you like about working with natural materials?
MH:Something happens to me when I’m working with my hands that is similar to what happens when I’m running trails. It’s a calming, centering activity. People talk about running being like meditation, and I relate to that. You can get to a place where thoughts of past or future are few and far between and you’re focused only on the present moment, whether its keeping your feet moving quickly over rocks and roots on a steep downhill, or keeping your fingers away from the table saw blade while making a cut.
MC: What role does trail running and spending time in nature have in your creative process?
MH: Starting my day with a run in Forest Park or Mt. Tabor just sets the stage for me to be open creatively to whatever may come in terms of inspiration when I start working. And just being in a beautiful place in nature is inspiring in itself. One of the places my thoughts may go to while I’m running is a project I’m working on or trying to figure out. I’ve come up with key design elements for several pieces during my time on the trail.
MC: Tell me about one or two special, beloved projects that you want our readers to know about.
MH: One of my favorite pieces of furniture I’ve made is a credenza for my good friend Al James. He gave me an idea of the rough dimensions he needed and I worked out the design and chose locally sourced Oregon black walnut and quarter-sawn white oak for the wood species. I found some really gorgeous walnut veneers with curly figure that worked out perfectly for the doors. It was one of those pieces you look at when you’ve finished it and think, I want one of these!
Check out Matt’s website! Thanks for reading!