“There is nothing like the feeling of someone responding strongly
to something that you have created.” —Karina Steele, woodworker
interview NANCY GORDON
photography courtesy KARINA STEELE
Tell us a little about your artistic background.
I’ve spent most of my life in Colorado with plenty of time on the trails, hiking, skiing or camping in the Rocky Mountains. I’ve been fortunate to live in places where nature is the dominating factor. I got a degree in biology thinking I would be a wildlife or conservation biologist living in a cabin amongst the animals, but I ended up moving to Crested Butte, Colorado, in my early 20s where the emphasis is on an alternative rugged lifestyle rather than career goals. In some ways, this prepared me for the skill sets needed for what I’m doing now.
In 15 years, I worked many, many jobs—retail, landscaping, restaurant work, office management, event coordinator with a lot of manual labor mixed in to all of it. Essentially, I’m a PhD in jack of all trades. It’s a bit like “‘learning how to learn quickly,” but you also learn that you’re not above any job.
What does being an artist mean to you?
Being an artist requires the wearing of many hats. Not only the creativity of whatever you are making, but also the marketing, the accounting, the selling, even the shipping of the object. And although the final object is (hopefully) a thing of beauty, there’s quite a bit of grunt work that goes into it (like using an orbital sander that leaves my hand tingling), but there is nothing like the feeling of someone responding strongly to something that you have created.
Artistically, what drives you?
To condense it in the simplest of terms, I’d say my artistic drive is to bring the outside into the home in a modern way. I never would have guessed that I would be making sculpture out of a studio in Maine, but now that I’m here it feels like I’m where I’m supposed to be.
Your art takes many forms—wall hangings, spoons, furniture… Can you explain your design process?
My design process is hard for me to explain. It usually just pops into my head, often while walking in the woods, or in the time that I’m waiting to fall asleep. It just appears and I think, “Oh! I want to make that.” It’s at least a starting point, but sometimes it just comes as a shape and I often go through many layouts or iterations before the hanging looks right. It’s really just evaluating how my eyes are responding to it. It’s not a terribly cerebral or intellectual process. It’s extremely visceral and visual.
The wall-hanging shapes are very organic and seem to float on their own. How do you come up with the shapes?
Shapes come to me sometimes just in a “thought puff,” something I see in nature, or sometimes more thinking of how the shape will look like in multiples, or pushing the way I think the wood will bend... It’s a lot of experimentation. I get a lot of inspiration from mid-century design, Russel Wright housewares, Eva Zeisel ceramics, Wharton Esherick figurines. I also have a deep affinity to Scandinavian design, which I’ve been exposed to by my Danish stepmother, who is herself an amazing designer. She is an accomplished interior designer but her skills reach beyond that, from cooking and presentation to designing iron sculptures for her garden, as well as personal style.
How are the shapes created?
I design in CAD and cut pieces out on a CNC machine. This is intriguing to me because so many people are extremely off put or dismissive of the CNC, considering it the antithesis of “creativity” or “craft.” But to me it’s a tool and, if anything, to make something organic and sensual out of it is a challenging design feat. There is also something in it that I can have repeated shapes in such precision, but that each piece bends a little differently... It’s very much like what we see in nature. All those birch leaves are essentially the same shape, but each comes out and curls in its own way. It also feels very representative of my personality. In many ways I like precision and pattern, but too much order can feel stifling. I guess it’s a bit of “order in the organic.”
What time of day is most productive for working?
Midmorning. I’m an early riser, but I have my coffee, do some reading and, if it’s summer, do a little garden tour. In the winter I start a fire in the woodstove. After I warm up, then I get going.
What do you love about your art or what drives you to create?
I like the process of seeing an obtuse idea become an object. But at the end of the day, I am a very practical person (a bit of a true Capricorn). There is a lot about the business end of it and how I can successfully get pieces into people’s homes that drives me. I like seeing what people respond to, focusing on efficiency and working toward a reasonable price point, marketing and ultimately making a sale. If I have a lot of pieces sitting in boxes in my house, that’s not very satisfying for me. With my wall hangings, I like working with (what I think is) a unique concept. It took a couple years of working with this process and technique to get to what I’m making today, so that development has been a really interesting evolution for me.
How do you decide what to create—wall hangings, spoons—on a particular day?
Part of it is mood, sometimes just what needs to be done or getting an order out. Sometimes I need to give my body a break and work on painting pieces. I give myself goals to work toward every three weeks or so and see what can be done in that amount of time.
What do you love about working with wood?
It seems like a bit of a natural fit for me, and that covers everything from the feel of it, [to] the different species of wood, the smell of a woodshop (love the smell!). When I started off learning furniture making, there’s a lot about working with machinery that I found really fun and intimidating at the same time. It’s a bit like backcountry skiing: You need to know what you’re doing, the consequences can be high, but mastering the fear can be really satisfying.
It’s also important to me to see women’s design voices being shown in male-dominated fields. My very first instructor (fortuitously) was Ashley Eriksmoen and I’ve had a lot of fellow female students who are now makers on their own. I think it’s crucial to have a woman’s design sensibility and craftsmanship in the market.
What do you love about creating?
I love that my day can be so many different things. I can go from drafting a new design in CAD, to doing an hour of just sanding in the sun listening to a podcast, then in the workshop for a couple hours, then maybe doing a layout/composition for an Instagram post, or taking photos for a shop update. There’s a lot to master, and always something to learn or improve on, and I am the one responsible for all of it. It can be a little overwhelming at times, but when someone lets me know how much they love a piece in their home, or how much they use one of my kitchen tools, it’s everything.
Favorite music to work by?
I mostly listen to podcasts or books while I work. Pod Save America and The Daily are what I start with. For books on tape, I listen to a lot of history or historical fiction. Harry Potter is a great listen, as is the Outlander series. And anything narrated by Simon Vance—he did all the Stieg Larsson books. For some reason, it helps for me to be following a story while I work.
. . .
Comfort food and time of day or night you enjoy eating it?
My comfort meal is a dish from a Bon Appétit article a couple
of years ago on pasta—kimchi udon noodles with scallions.
It is so easy to make and so delicious.