Jeff Balaschak, owner of Artisan of Wood, has been creating unique wood pieces for as long as he can remember. “I’ve been a hobbyist all my life, even as a kid, and it probably started as carving in Boy Scouts, in Cub Scouts, and even just working with my dad on projects around the house.”
However, it wasn’t until he entered high school wood shop that his skills really began to develop. Along with basic woodworking he progressed to a furniture making course in 11th grade where he dove into the basics of assembly and style: “I got to learn Queen Anne Victorian furniture styles, made a coffee table with cabriole legs, and learned a lot of style and technique, and of course there’s a lot of technique in traditional woodworking. The jointery, the assembly, dovetails and mortise and tenons, and doweling and learning grain and the best ways to work wood dry and so it just took off from there.”
He did this all while keeping up a hobby shop in his childhood home in New England, building small projects such as speakers for his stereo and cutting boards for relatives. Unfortunately, as Balaschak was nearing graduation, a fire tore through his family’s house, damaging their antique furniture. When a restoration company came through to assess the pieces and see what could be repaired, they saw Balaschak’s work and were so impressed that they offered him a job on the spot as a furniture repairman the next town over. At this job, Balaschak became a woodworking apprentice, learning everything from installing hinges to detailed replication. He says, “At my first big job in antique restorations, they taught me all the things that I would find valuable to learn in woodworking; reproducing parts for antique furniture, how to refinish using different stains and paints; and so that just was a total valuable resource in learning.” The knowledge gained at this job expanded his experience and knowledge in woodworking, something which is evident in the skill and attention to detail that he affords each of his pieces today.
The art that Balaschak makes is full of variety, all while displaying a spirit of originality, humor, and life. Some popular pieces include winged Buck Owens guitars which can often be found at the Icehouse Gallery downtown, a tin man clock where the pendulum is a small red heart, and whimsical lamps depicting his folk art characters juggling the light bulbs. Another popular series is his collection of painted cat clocks, for which he frequently receives requests for custom colors to match beloved family pets.
And how does he get the ideas for his pieces? He says he often gets inspiration from things he sees, or ideas from his friends, girlfriend, and family members. From there he says, “A God given picture gets glued in my head on exactly what I want to make. I am very picky about assembly techniques, drawing plans to get portions just right, and sculpting things to give a sense of movement and life in the piece. Specific colors are used constantly, nothing too abstract… Finish coats are soft and satiny, hardly ever glossy!”
Balaschak travels around California and as far away as Reno and Vegas to go to art shows to sell his work. And while he often makes these trips, he would much rather sell pieces closer to home. “If I can’t do this for my community, who can I do it for?” he says, “I want the people I live with to have and enjoy my art.” This love of community has led him to be involved in the local Haggin Oaks Farmers Market which takes over the Kaiser parking lot on Ming Avenue every Sunday between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. At first he had to stretch himself to come up with interesting smaller pieces that the average budget-conscious local would be interested in, leading him to make a line of magnets, coffee scoops, and spoons. He says that sometimes these small pieces can lead to customers asking him to bring in his larger works or even to doing custom commissions. When asked by some egg vendors at the farmers’ market to make chicken signs, this inspired him to complete a whole collection of chicken-related pieces, including one humorously painted to look like a Campbell’s chicken soup can.
Over the years Balaschak has continued to pick up many skills which have helped him develop as an artist. “I learned electrical throughout all my jobs in construction, which was in the Air Force as a heavy equipment operator, even learning how to fix machinery that needed maintenance on it as you go.” He’s also expanded his skills beyond only working with wood. “At first I was just a woodworker, now that I’m multimedia there’s still always a woodworking element to it. It’s a lot of sculpting metal now.” He goes on to say, “I developed my talents as they were. Back as a teenager we’d take apart radios.” Something about which his mother wasn’t always as appreciative.
Using the skills gained from years of experience and being self-taught is reflected in the folk artist label that Balaschak accepts. He says, “I’ve learned all these techniques on my own. I wasn’t taught by a particular woodworker or sculptor or another kind of artist; it’s a free form of art and it really marks what I am. I do what I do.”
And he’s still learning new skills today, saying that if he doesn’t know how to do something, he finds out how. “YouTube has helped me a lot these days. Just to learn how to wire a low voltage with a regular 120 voltage. So I’ve learned how to teach myself to do things.”
Balaschak has also taken an interest in giving new life to found materials, partially out of necessity as living in Bakersfield has presented its own challenges. “I’ve found it very hard to find wood resources out here and they’re so plentiful in New England. I never had a problem buying wood. I’ve had to be resourceful here but it’s gotten me into green. Recycling pallets, barn board that I might find on the side of the road… I collect it. If we see stumps on the side of the road we look to see if it’s worth grabbing to either burn in the wood stove or carve into a bowl.”
Even though he is passionate about his work, running the business side can be challenging. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he says, “I’m an artist and I just want to woodwork and paint and not do bookkeeping and making sure I’m putting enough money away to pay the taxes at the end of the quarter.” And while he doesn’t know what the future holds, he remains dedicated to his work. “I’m just an artist,” he says, “I’m just a folk artist and I’ll be doing it for the rest of my life and if it’s just a show here and there and staying connected to the community, you know that’s all it will ever be, that’s fine with me. I would like to get to a point where I can just give more. Where I’m not asking myself, ‘Can I do this to make a living?’”
When asked about what he loves about his business, Balaschak responds, “There’s just the satisfaction of using tools, I guess, doing things with your hands.” You can easily see Balaschak’s love of his art not only through the small details that he includes in his pieces but also through the spirit of fun and playfulness that radiates throughout everything that he makes. He says, “The meaning behind my work is to keep it fun, keep joy in it.” Thankfully, customers recognize this. “The biggest statement I get from people is that my work makes them smile.” And that’s enough reward for him.