Giselle Gyalzen: How did you pick wood as your medium?
Katie Gong: I didn’t really pick wood as my medium. I kept coming back to it, it’s this thing that I always go to, the thing that I knew how to use or manipulate and then it became “everything wood”. It would recur and present itself and then I knew this is my thing. I know how to use this, I want to use this, it’s exciting to use this. I want to do something similar and at the same time push it further.
GG: How long have you been working with wood?
KG: I like to do a little bit of everything, but I’ve been using wood as my medium for at least the last 10 years. Both my father and grandfather were woodworkers and so even at a very young age, I used to make a mess in their garages or their shops. I would make forts and teepees with all their stuff. My grandfather used to carve bears and gnomes out of the big trees and my dad worked in construction, making cabinets, so I’ve always had wood around me.
GG: Did your grandfather sell the animals that he made?
KG: No, he just made it for himself and his house.
GG: I’d love to see this house!
KG: Oh yeah, my grandma’s house in Los Angeles is pretty amazing. She’s got a ton of land at the top of a big mountain and there are bears and gnomes everywhere. My grandfather was an engineer so he built his wood shop under the house. To get in, you press a button and the doors would open and then the stairs would pop down. So that’s the entrance to my grandma’s ceramics studio and then you get through that to my grandpa’s wood shop. They were quite the pair.
GG: Is the house still in your family?
KG: Yes, my grandma is still around but she’s 96 so she’s not making a whole lot of stuff
GG: What special considerations do you have to have when working with wood? Things like safety, space or tools? I know you had an accident and cut the tip of your thumb.
She shows me her thumb, which has a scar.
GG: I remember hearing from Rachel (Robertson, RD’s creative manager) that you cut your thumb. Did the doctor re-attach it?
KG: Yeah. It was hanging on by a bit.
GG: And I remember it was around the time of West Coast Craft?
KG: Oh my god, yeah. Brett (her fiancé) put up a picture right before both our phones died. It was this picture of me in the emergency room, with blood all over me and I had my bloody thumbs up and the caption said something like, “One thumb down, but we’ll be there to sell you cutting boards, don’t worry West Coast Craft!”.
A few of the tools in Katie's studio
KG: Safety is definitely important. It’s hard in the city because to be really safe, you have to have a lot of space including outdoor space and ventilation. So we try to make it work the best we can for the space that we have. The problem in San Francisco is trying to afford a space where you can put your roots down and then build out a proper shop. That’s what we try to do here at this space, to give people the opportunity to really grow and have affordable rent. We have this space for 10 years. We’re just trying to really give that to artists.
Katie's work table
GG: That’s great. You could have chosen to keep this to yourself. Does this feel like
enough space for your work?
KG: Sometimes, depending on what I am working on. The space we’re in now also doubles as a gallery hallway. This work table is out here, I primarily use it but other people can use it as well. There’s a leather maker here that uses the table to stretch her hides out. We have a funny little family. Yesterday, I went downstairs to close and 3 of the artists with studios here were collaborating, hanging out, making art. It was cool. It’s been really nice to see how people use the space and when given the opportunity, what they can produce.
Katie working her magic
GG: Where was your studio before this?
KG: My first studio in San Francisco is where SF Skate Club is now, on Divisadero Street, in 2012.
GG: Oh, that’s right across the street from us! I didn’t know that. That’s the same year we moved into Divis also.
KG: I had that for about 6-8 months. Then I moved to the East Bay in Richmond for a while. Then I came back and got a space at 1564 MRKT which is an artist’s collective in the condemned space on Market and Gough. I shared that space with Aleksandra Zee and that’s one of those spaces, that when it comes to safety, it was so unsafe. The ceiling felt like it was going to collapse, the floor would flood a lot and we’d get mold. It was terrible. I was there for 2 years. And then Ally and I moved our space to Oakland thinking that it would be more affordable, and it was for a year but the landlord raised our rent to double and a half after our first year.
At that time, Brett had his coffee shop across the street and our current landlord lives upstairs of this building. He was seeing the improvement on the block and he told Brett about this space and asked if we were interested in leasing it and fixing it up. So we worked with the city to negotiate a good lease, we wrote a business plan.
GG: Isn’t there a program specifically designed to revive the Tenderloin?
KG: Yeah, we went through a non-profit, Urban Solutions now called Working Solutions and they helped us. They listened to what we wanted, no matter how crazy and outlandish it was. And then they went to talk to the building owner and asked the same questions and then helped us meet in the middle. When we were negotiating the final details of the lease, we met with the building owner at the donut shop in the corner. At that time I was thinking, we were here, we’re in the neighborhood, how can we make this happen? It felt very much like the meeting of the families.
GG: Tell us more about this space, your studio, Get High On Mountains.
KG: This is an artist studio. This is my woodshop and we share the space with a lot of different artists. Each one has their own studio space. There is a floral designer, hat maker, leather maker, fiber artist, dancer, painter and more. It’s important to me to share the opportunity of having affordable studio space to other artists and makers.
GG: We all know that becoming a working artist in San Francisco is not easy. Can you briefly talk about your journey to get here?
KG: I’ve had so many different jobs and so many different freelance gigs. When I first started, I just used to say yes to everything, because any opportunity is a good opportunity in San Francisco and they don’t always come very easily. I just tried to do whatever I could to make stuff and I think that’s why, now, wood is my medium but I still want to experiment with these other different arenas. I just love experimenting and trying different things and trying to figure out how to make something work and how I want it to work.
I used to measure trees for a landscape architect, I did retouching for a clothing company. I did what I could and gave myself 2 or 3 days a week where I could make stuff. And then I just lined up 3 or 4 really good opportunities and just kept trying to have one in the hole - complete one and have another one scheduled.
GG: Do you have a degree in art?
KG: I went to UC Santa Barbara, I did installations and painting and some sculpture and paper. I did a little bit of everything. I like to be that lady spinning the plates, keep them all going no matter what they are.
GG: I love that you sell your pieces directly to people, have gallery shows, do
commissions and also work with bigger companies like Anchor Brewing Company. How have you chosen which projects to say yes to?
KG: I try to be selective about projects, and I keep my aesthetic in mind. I pick the projects where I can have my aesthetic at the forefront. So I try not to do anything where people have a very specific idea of what they want because I still want to drive it with what makes sense to me. I try to only do projects where I can be driving the aesthetic.
GG: You featured your staff on your Instagram recently. From my experience as a small business owner, having a staff is the most rewarding, scary and challenging part of owning my business. How has your experience been?
KG: I’ve gotten super lucky with the people I have. I’ve worked with Nick in the last 8 years, Carmen and I used to work with at Anthropologie way back. They are both reliable and pay attention to quality. I’d say the hardest part is trying to explain what’s going on in my brain in a constructive way to the people trying to help you. Especially with my art, I can’t always explain. For example, I showed up with the pieces of acrylic the other day and they’re like, “What the hell are you doing?” I said, “Don’t worry, it’s going to be fine, we’ll do this, we’ll stick it in my oven .. “ I just try to over communicate. I let them know that they are appreciated and that I couldn’t do any of this without them.
Carmen and Katie working in their studio
GG: Who inspires you and why?
KG: Aleksandra Zee has always been super inspirational and a really good best friend to bounce ideas off. (George) Nakashima is one of my old time favorite Japanese furniture maker. I love neon sculptors, I think that’s where I get a lot of my acrylic inspiration. Meryl Pataky is out of Oakland.
I draw inspiration from everything that’s going on. I like to have people around me that are always making amazing stuff. Brett makes amazing photographs, all the people with studios here inspire me. I just try to surround myself with people making interesting things, because it makes me step up my craft as well.
I also draw a lot of inspiration from mother nature and natural environments like these huge trees and natural sculptures that exist only in nature. For example, this crazy tree at Trouble (Coffee), it grew apart from each other and grew back again together.
GG: What future projects do you have lined up that you can tell us about?
KG: Anchor Brewing will be wrapping at the end of September. There’s going to be a lot of really cool pieces there. We made a huge anchor that’s 12 feet tall by 10 feet wide and suspended in the air. We also made the bar, it’s so beautiful you just want to touch it. We used the wood from their old water tower to make the tables and benches.
After that, I’ll be working on making furniture for The Assembly, an all-women co-working space, it also has a juice bar and yoga studio.
For the holiday West Coast Craft, I’ll be making a big installation hanging from the rafters. It’ll probably be a combination of the braids and chain that I’ll be showing at Rare Device. I also want to explore making coils and spirals.
I’m also working with SF Parks and Recreation at John McLaren Park, in the Philisopher’s Way; I want to do a sculpture walk. They are saving me some of the downed trees from the storms this past winter. So I think I’m going to get them propped up on a walkway and make chainsawed sculpture. Those are all my crazy ideas.
I’m really excited for the show at Rare Device, I thought about the different treatments for the windows (yes, she is also taking over our windows!).
The wood knots and braids are the culmination of different experiments. I saw this
handrail in a house in Mendocino and there was this staircase that had this banister that was crazy twisted. That one was pieced together but that sparked the bending wood idea. I tried a lot of different methods to bend the wood. Then I found the wood that bent the best. I honed in on the right time and the right temperature. I started making Phases, which are spirals that I would cut down, those had a lot of bends and stripes. And then I saw this gourd that was tied in a knot in a farmer’s market. After I saw that, I knew I had to tie some wood in a knot, I had to figure it out no matter what. I wrestled with it for a while. I now have the technique down, but it took time to figure it out.
Wooden braids, on view at Rare Device
Katie’s show, Woodknot, opens at our gallery at 600 Divisadero on Thursday, September 14, the show will be up in our gallery until November 6.
All photos are by Kayla Conyer.