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Throughout history, humankind has struggled with the brevity of life. In an effort to understand and cope with the last enemy, we’ve cloaked it in rituals, traditions, and myths. To give ourselves some sense of continuity and even permanence, we’ve devised beautiful and often elaborate vessels to contain the remains of those who have passed. Think about the exquisite artifacts of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Or the pyramids themselves. Or custom wood urns.
On that subject, Random Notions interviewed Oregon artist Luke Thornton, owner of Custom Wood Urns.
RN: Luke, tell us about your background.
Luke: My grandfather was a woodworker and my family had a company that made coffins; they eventually turned it into a cabinet shop. But much of the influence came from my mom. When I was a kid the toys she gave me were little hammers and saws and chisels instead of cap guns. But I didn’t really take to it right away.
I grew up on the east coast in a heavily suburban area of New Jersey and the school I attended had a wonderful industrial arts program. I started with more of an interest in silk screening and drawing than anything else. Then when I went to high school I went into the foundry.
The instructor there thought I might enjoy woodworking and sent me over to the woodworking teacher to talk to him. The school had state-of-the-art equipment and the instructor was very knowledgeable. That’s where it sprang up that I realized this is a lot of fun and I thought this is really cool.
RN: So you began artistic woodworking then?
Luke: No. One thing the instructor said was, “Don’t be a romantic about this. You’re never going to make a living doing that kind of stuff. You need to do production.” Which was just the opposite of what I had in mind! For the longest time I kept saying, “Damn, he was right,” because it’s really tough to make a living as a wood sculptor.
At that point I got into studying architecture and of course people like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. My mom wasn’t a concert pianist but she was of that level and she used to play Chopin and Beethoven when I was little so I always had a sort of romantic feel for the classics and the Renaissance period, history, and architecture. That interest led me into my own designs for furniture and I spent about ten years out of high school doing Queen Anne reproductions, from scratch.
I never really wanted to be labeled as The Urn Guy, which I am now, but it was one way I could continue honing my skills because, just like a surgeon, I can’t just make one carving. I’ve got to continually work at it, like a tennis swing or a golf swing. You’ve got to stick with it to get the skill level up.
RN: What problem do you see with the field of artistic wood sculpting today?
Luke: You find that more and more people who call themselves wood sculptors are using CNC machines to make their art and then they go and run some sandpaper over it and call it “handmade.” But then you go to another art gallery thirty or forty miles down the road and you see the exact same duck that you saw in the last one. You’re told it’s handmade, made in the United States by a master craftsman, and you do some research and find out that the guy who made it worked at Ray’s Food Place his entire life and now he’s retired and suddenly he’s a “master craftsman.”
I contact people all the time and I call them on false advertising. I speak to the manager or the owner and I ask if these things were made on a CNC machine. They admit they were and I say, “Then you’re lying because you’re saying these things are handmade.” They say, “Well this part is.” So now everyone’s just using the term because it doesn’t matter anymore. Handcrafted, handmade, one of a kind. I see “one of a kind” on production runs all the time.
The word “custom” has become just a marketing gimmick. Twenty or thirty years ago you used to be able to say something was “custom” and it meant something. Fifty or sixty years ago the word “craftsman” really meant something. That’s all gone.
RN: How do you feel about the value of art?
Luke: Art is not a necessity, it’s a luxury. But it’s also an investment. At the time there was no one running down Pablo Picasso when he was a kid saying, “I want to buy that from you, I want to have that, you sign it and when you die it’s going to be in my family, and it’s going to have some value.” Now they wish they had because it’s worth millions. But no one does that until someone dies. That’s why we should have bought that Picasso when we could have for twenty dollars.
It’s the same thing with the urns that I make. You’re going to have this piece of art work in a niche in a mausoleum or in a mosque, and in a hundred years no ones going to know who that person was, even in that family. It’s just going to be a name at that point. I didn’t even know my own grandfather. My great-grandfather, I had no clue that he even existed, what happened to him, what he did. But you’ll have this box that, after I’ve passed away, will maybe gain some value.
When people realize that, that this is not just run of the mill, it’s art, they understand that it could gain in value. I don’t think anything I’ve ever done or do will be worth millions, I don’t think it’s that unique, but it will be worth more.
RN: Is it difficult handling the emotional aspect of your art, making items so closely linked with death?
Luke: I’ve coached gymnastics at the highest level, world class Olympians, and I’ve worked with thousands of children and their parents, so I have a very good slice of things. You have injuries, sometimes catastrophic injuries, kids that lose their scholarships. So I understand loss.
And I’ve seen my own parents die, so I’ve gone through the whole family ordeal, where you’re a functioning family and all of a sudden this happens and you’re dysfunctional. Everyone wants something different. There are a lot of arguments over what style the individual may have wanted because most people don’t say, “When I die I want this and this.” Usually there’s no will, so it can be really difficult for people.
If I had a storefront with people coming in, there may be more pressure or negativity, the type of thing that a funeral director has to go through. But since I’m not meeting them in person it’s easier. They start off going to my web site and they’re immediately calmed because they relate to what it is I do. It’s a relief to them. They don’t have to think about it anymore. They’ve gotten to the end and then when they’ve got the piece, it was exactly what they were thinking of, even though they didn’t know what that was.
RN: What process do you go through in creating the urns?
Luke: I ask questions. I understand people’s ins and outs and I have the ability to discern their needs from the questions I ask them. How is it going to be viewed? What’s your decor in the area where its going to be viewed? Those kinds of things. I pick up on things they enjoy.
Then, when I start work on the piece I take videos with my iPhone and I give them updates. Here’s a board, and they may say, “Well, we’re not sure if we like a dark wood or a light wood.” So I may pull out two or three boards and scan it with my phone. Or I’ll send them a picture and say, “This is going to be the carving top.” So they’re already into it. It’s as if they’re in my shop, in my studio. They get updates from beginning to end, and the updates are as often as a couple of times a day, depending on what’s been accomplished. By the time the piece is done, if they were unhappy they would have already let me know.
Obviously, through pictures you can’t communicate everything but when they get it in person it’s more than they had expected and the value climbs to the point where they say, “Yeah, this was worth that money.” That’s what I get in the testimonials I receive from clients, that it was far beyond what they expected. And they usually tell me how this has helped them through the whole process.
RN: The pieces you produce are not cheap. How do you determine the cost?
Luke: I don’t talk about the cost, I talk about the value, because with artwork you can have more or less detail.
Let’s say that you’re a pet owner and you want an urn for your dog. You can have an urn that represents the canines, or you can have a carving of your breed, or you can have it look exactly like your dog. The more detail, the more time, the more value. The less detail, the less time, the lower the value. Of course it also depends on how big it is and all those kinds of things.
In the end, I want to create something I’m going to be able to sign, as opposed to craft. It’s artwork that I create, that I have to create for myself. I have to love it. I have to want it.
But by the time someone calls me, they’ve gotten to my web site and if they’ve browsed through it there are no surprises.
RN: You do work other than urns as well. Tell us about that.
Luke: My work is so different from one piece to the next that I’ve had a few shows and I’ve had people that know me who have brought their friends to art galleries and they’ll say, “I know this isn’t Luke’s work but this is,” and they were completely wrong.
RN: How would you describe the satisfaction you get from wood sculpting?
Luke: To me, it’s the process itself I enjoy. I don’t pat myself on the back when I finish a piece. I look at it like someone that has just played a piece on the piano. The next time I play it I want to play it better, not because it’s bad, I don’t measure it that way, it’s more of an awareness than an achievement.
Whatever the piece, my intention is to always have it be the best work I can do.
If you’d like to know more about Luke and his art, check out his site at