Our Interview with Mike
Tell us a little bit about you, where you live, your training and education
I'm 32 and just moved back to Grand Marais, MN. I studied philosophy and anthropology in college. I was always interested in the way people interact with the environment and especially enthralled with the skillful use of natural materials in pre-industrialized cultures. I was launched into the world of craft through an Internship at North House Folk School in 2011. After that experience I worked as farmer, and then as a carpenter. Most recently, I've had the opportunity to study Grindbygg timber framing and am really thrilled to continue exploring that. I also recently became participant in the Artisan Development Program at North House Folk School which will provide an exciting period of incubation.
When did you start woodworking?
I started playing around with wood carving when I was 15-16. I was intent on learning about wood working, but intimidated by the amount of machines and associated price tags of all the conventional shops I was familiar with. It was exciting to discover green woodworking and find a way to get started with a handful of inexpensive and simple hand tools.
Where do you get your inspiration for the bird bowls?
I can recall a specific moment when a nuthatch perched, facing downward on a tree trunk, ready to dart to the bird feeder and it looked exactly like one of the beautiful kuksas I had been admiring. That's what got the idea brewing. After looking into it further, I found examples of stunning Fagalskalar (bird shaped ale bowls) and they inspired me to keep exploring.
Why do you make them?
Woodworking, especially green woodworking, is a unique way to connect to the landscape. Many of my bird bowls are modeled after species that live in my home region and I'm able to gather the materials I need from local forests. I also appreciate that there is a tradition of bird bowls that I'm able to plug into. In their traditional use these bowls were ceremonial drinking vessels delivering ale to thirsty mouths in times of celebration. But their meaning extends beyond their functional role as a vessel for liquid. Like many of the objects of wood culture these pieces were made and rarely bought. They were reflections of regional aesthetics, personal abilities, and the natural materials available to the maker. These objects tell a story of people in forested landscapes.
I am fascinated by the celebratory social interactions that these bowls facilitate. They are objects that connect people to one another through shared experience. To understand what I mean by that you need a bird bowl full of aquavit and a circle of friends.
What is your making process?
I used to carve the bowls entirely with hand tools. After spending some time trying to make them as production items I quickly realized I needed to find ways to be kinder to my body. I start with whole green logs, typically birch. The logs are halved and cut into blanks with a band saw. I turn the inner portion of the bowl and then carve the outside using a modified shaving horse and draw knife. After the rough carved blanks are dry I do the detail carving. Finally the bowls are painted with milk paint and soaked in walnut oil.
What is your vision for the future?
In the upcoming year I have plans to create more large scale one-off pieces to keep myself pushing into new territory. I also have some small furniture prototypes and more grindbygg projects in the works.
I do have a few thoughts on a more macro level view of Craft.
The identity crisis resulting from an increasingly automated digital world will result in people with a deep craving to connect to real human experiences. Craft has a grounding effect. It provides learners with a unique way to connect to the landscape via raw local materials, their own bodies through handwork, and a community of fellow learners as well as a cultural community at large. I see craft as powerful agent for connectivity and a necessary sanctuary in this uncharted cultural context.
What are your challenges as a maker?
The economics of craft as livelihood is always a challenge. It's difficult to price things in a way that compensate for the time one has invested in an object. It takes support from people who understand the story behind the craft to keep things a float.
A funny/surprising fact about you
My last name, Loeffler, is a German occupational name that was given to spoon carvers in the middle ages. That little factoid motivated my initial push into the spoon carving subculture. Years of border line obsessive spoon carving have really provided a basis for my understanding of working with wood and the inspiring community that it can create.
A limited number of Mike's bird bowls can be found in our Highlighted Makers Shop. For more on Mike visit his website www.mike-loeffler.com