Working against the grain
As the salty ocean breeze mixes with the peppery aroma of fresh sawdust, woodworker Brent Comber stands in his studio near Lynnwood Marina, examining one of his recent works of art.
The piece — a solid, smooth sphere made from a huge slab of wood — is from what might have been one of the oldest trees in Canada, he says.
About a year ago, Comber got a call from a staff member at North Vancouver’s Capilano Suspension Bridge, saying the park had just toppled a giant Western Red Cedar and needed to get rid of the hulking trunk.
The 1,100-year-old tree had been dead for quite some time, recalls Comber, but it was still a thing of natural beauty.
“I rushed up there and sure enough it was swinging down into a dump truck,” Comber says. “I put my hand on it and felt it... then I had it directed down here to my shop.”
The eye-catching spheres he’s created from the wood are meant to explore the relationship between one’s perception and one’s curiousity of how wood is formed.
“I wanted people to look at all the sides of the tree, everything from the early beginnings of the tree to what was once the active growing layer,” he says.
“I wanted to reinforce the idea that all parts of the tree have equal importance, whereas furniture makers traditionally cut only certain parts out.”
Next to Comber is a large bowl, standing roughly waist-high, amidst other finished works and prototypes.
That bowl concept, he says, has a dual meaning. In part, the shape symbolizes community — a place where families and tribes would come together for nourishment.
The bowl also honours the historic nature of the tree, he says. As onlookers peer into it, they can watch the rings in the wood spiral inward, right back to the origin of the tree.
“In that way, it almost allows you to be transported back in time,” he says.
Born at Lions Gate Hospital, Comber has lived on the North Shore for practically his entire life.
His family, he notes, has called North Vancouver home for four generations, and that deep connection to the community and landscape is what inspires his work as an artist and designer today.
“Growing up I loved the woods, and I loved chopping wood,” he says, recalling summers spent at a family property on Vancouver Island. “I loved the smell and I loved the noise. I wanted to get back to that.”
As a young adult, Comber’s first business was a landscaping company; he designed “Pacific Rim-influenced” gardens with rock, wood, soil, and other natural materials.
Then one day a client asked him to design some furniture to go in the garden.
First he started with some blocks, meant to be used as tables. Then he moved on to a saddle bench. Needless to say, it snowballed from there.
Twenty-six years later, Comber’s furniture and artistry is world-renowned. In recent years he’s taken it on the road as far as New York City and Japan. He’s currently working on a bench for animation film giant Pixar, while another one of his pieces is on display at the Yahoo! office in Switzerland.
But despite all the success, Comber still hesitates to call himself a furniture maker or an artist (and he’s had no formal training in either field). Instead, he considers himself a storyteller.
“I love wood and I love telling stories,” he says. “Sometimes those stories can be as esoteric as how the sun makes you feel, or how you feel when you’re walking through a forest. They’re nature based, but it’s a little bit fuzzy.
“Wood is like this connective tissue we all kind of share as human beings,” he continues. “Everyone has their own reasons. That’s why I like to present it in a simple, elegant kind of way that allows people to connect back to it.”
One of the key aspects of Comber’s art is finding ways to use wood and lumber that would otherwise end up as landfill material or wood chips.
“I’m constantly looking at ways to champion under-utilized material,” he says.
When he first began scouring mills and lumber yards, Comber says he was shocked by the “mountains of materials” being chipped up, deemed unusable because of minor cracks, knots, and uneven grain patterns.
“Sometimes it’s almost a challenge for me: how crappy of a piece of wood can I work with and make it beautiful,” he says with a laugh. “I love that idea.”
And in some cases, it’s the most flawed wood that ends up creating the most striking pieces. By turning the wood into art works that people will look at and talk about, Comber is able to tranform something that had no value into something nearly priceless.
“It’s funny how we perceive something of value. That’s what makes me crazy about industry sometimes. They need perfect, straight grain, clear, or else it’s rubbish,” he says. “But how many of us have characters that are flawless? That are straight grain and clear? Our shortcomings are what make us unique and what make us interesting.”
A few weeks ago, Comber was walking along a beach in Tofino when he stumbled across an eddy of water that had drawn in a smattering of driftwood.
“I felt like I had just stumbled across Disneyland. I still get goosebumps just talking about it,” he says, running his hand along his forearm. “It was incredible for me to see all that material gathered there in one place. I felt like just scooping it all up.”
For more information and photos of Brent Comber’s work visit www.brentcomber.com.