About the Artist/Craftsman

My name is James Harris. I live about 35 miles southeast of Austin, the capital of the state of Texas, with my wife, Bette. We live at the southern edge of the Lost Pines of Bastrop, Texas, an isolated stand of loblolly pine trees. Our lives unfold in a rural area on some acreage 6 miles east of the small town of Red Rock. Together we built all of the buildings and improvements on the land of which we are stewards.

My start in working wood came in the construction trade as a framing carpenter. Moving on to more refined work, I built cabinets, did finish carpentry, built furniture and ended up working with my wife making hardwood boxes for the arts & crafts show circuit. Looking for a new challenge, I took up lathe turning in 1982.

I became acquainted with ornamental turning in 1987 through a book by John Jacob Holtzapffel, a gift from my mother-in-law, Elizabeth Stockbauer, a talented and accomplished artist in her own right. This turned out to be the "Bible" of the ornamental turner, the famous Vol. V of his series of books on turning and mechanical manipulation called The Principles and Practice of Ornamental or Complex Turning. After studying this information, I made a rough device to hold a high-speed grinder on my small wood lathe. With its 24-hole indexing device, I began to apply some rudimentary ornament to the series of polychromatic laminated vase forms which I was then producing. This beginning only whetted my appetite for more complex ornamental turning capabilities.

In 1990 I bought a 12" x 36" machinist's lathe from Grizzly Tools in Bellingham, Washington. This machine has served as the basis to construct ornamental turning apparatus and as the ornamental lathe itself. It has opened up vast panoramas of new possibilities for the development of my work. In 2000, I acquired a Cler Lathe, made by master machinist Paul Cler. This lathe offers new technical capabilities, such as rose engine and curvilinear work, and makes possible entirely new design opportunities to explore.

I am interested in doing polychromatic designs, that is, pieces created from various different woods to create contrasting areas of color in the piece. Having earned a Bachelor's degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin in 1969, I have always had an interest in the architecture of building systems. I have studied the aesthetics of many kinds of architecture from around the world and am now applying those influences to the design of my ornamental turning pieces. The domes of antiquity, the lively eclecticism of Russian church architecture, the graceful curves of oriental pagoda roofs, the minarets of the Taj Mahal, the classical formal aspect of Texas county courthouses, all of these and more speak to the variety of architecture the world has to offer. By blending these influences, I hope to create work that has at once the feel of something familiar in our collective consciousness and a freshness of interpretation and use of materials that imparts a sense of wonder in the beholder–much the same wonder I have always felt in the presence of great architecture, if only in photographs.

Inspired by a small personal library chronicling the work of the great Fabergé firm of jewellers in Russia of 100 years ago, I have explored the possibilies of incorporating semi-precious gemstones into my work. To work on a scale of such miniaturization requires great exactness in all the details, so I work to the same standards of accuracy, to a precision of 0.001", as a machinist might. All of my work is first designed by drawing to scale on graph paper and working out proportions and details before starting work with the actual wood. This allows for the proportioning and balancing of elements of the design beforehand, though sometimes the design changes in the actual production as a new or better idea becomes obvious or a mistake or uncooperative wood forces a new direction.

My latest work combines the technique of thin wall hollow turning with ornamental turning. I enjoy the technical challenge of freehand turning the hollow vessel, quite a counterpoint to the exacting, meticulous and machine-controlled ornamental work. This eclectic combination of styles results in plain turned vessels with an ornamented lid. It is satisfying to work with beautifully figured woods in the vessels and then to create an architecturally inspired lid that complements that natural beauty.

I have also designed some computer spreadheet programs to calculate the mathematical elements of design, such as determining the amplitude and period of a wave pattern based on the diameter of the workpiece. Ornamental turning is nothing if not an eternal challenge--the endless possibilities of new designs and techniques make it an incredibly rewarding, satisfying, and ever-stimulating endeavor. I hope to share some of my enthusiasm for this work with you in this website and perhaps share some information about ornamental turning if your interest is piqued.