Long curls of blonde wood streaked with pink piled around Atascadero woodturner Barry Lundgren's feet as he held a fluted steel bowl gouge to a spinning wheel of boxelder maple. "I do this all day," he said as he stepped back to assess his progress, his face splitting into a huge grin. "It's just fun."
Watching Lundgren in his element, it's easy to get swept up in his enthusiasm for his craft. A commercial sea urchin diver by trade, and fine craft artist and photographer by choice, he transforms simple blocks of wood -- black acacia, olive, oak, walnut and more -- into salad bowls, vases, burial urns and other elegant vessels.
Lundgren, 57, will open his workspace to the public during the Open Studios Art Tour, running Oct. 10, 11, 17 and 18 at artists' studios around San Luis Obispo County. The annual two-weekend event, organized by Arts Obispo, the San Luis Obispo Arts Council, will showcase the work of 219 professionals plus four students -- a significant increase from 2014, when 187 artists participated.
Born in Detroit, Lundgren moved to California with his family just two weeks before his second birthday and grew up in Woodland Hills.
From an early age, the artist pursued two passions: photography and the Pacific Ocean. He first entered the water at age 6, started surfing at 13 and began diving at 16.
After high school, Lundgren spent the summer attending the Academy of Art University in San Francisco before enrolling at the Brooks Institute in Ventura with plans of studying underwater photography. But the call of the sea proved too strong, and he started working on a friend's fishing boat in Morro Bay after just a semester.
"It changed my life," said Lundgren, who started out fishing for rock cod and albacore in 1979. He switched to sea urchin diving in 1980 because, he said, "I really love being underwater... going down there and picking riches."
When the weather permits, Lundgren harvests the fertile kelp forests along the Channel Islands off the coasts of Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties.
Despite encounters with elephant seals, orcas and other creatures, "I've been really lucky," he said. I've always said that I love my job. It's just a blast." (His underwater exploits -- and those of fishing boat captain Mark Brubaker -- were chronicled in the short film "Harvester," which won best student film at the 2008 Santa Barbara Ocean Film Festival.)
As comfortable as Lundgren is in the water, he's equally at home on land on the Central Coast. He's lived in San Luis Obispo County since 1979, settling first in Morro Bay and Los Osos before moving to Atascasdero in 1990.
The artist's introduction to woodworking came when he decided to make his own wooden frames for his photographs."I didn't like the generic metal frames that you put around a picture, so I thought wood would be cooler," he explained.
Lundgren began making, and later selling, furniture ranging from pine magazine racks to maple Morris chairs in the Arts and Crafts style. While at a woodworking conference in 1994 in San Jose, he watched a demonstration of natural edge bowl making, which showcases the original lines of the tree, by master Tennessee woodturner John Jordan.
"The light bulb went off," Lundgren recalled. He was immediately struck by the ease and speed at which Jordan worked -- especially when compared to the often lengthy and laborious process of making furniture.
"I was like, 'Uh oh, that looks like fun,'" Lundgren said. "It became what I call a really bad addiction," he added with a chuckle.
Decades later, Lundgren still relishes the relatively rapid pace of woodturning, which allows him to create artworks in as little as a single day. "I just get a chunk of wood, throw it on a lathe and go to town," he said.
More specifically, the artist starts with a rough, raw log, ages it for six months to a year, then gradually shapes it using a chainsaw, bandsaw, lathe and sharp tools. "Every piece is different in texture, hardness and smell. Every piece has a different personality," said Lundgren, who said he looks for a harmonious blend of form and function.
"When you get a pleasing shape, you know. When you're a little off, you know," he explained. "To me there are only a few shapes that are really pleasing to the eye. If you don't get that subtle curve, if it's just a straight line, it doesn't work for me."
Lundgren, who has studied with woodturners David Ellsworth of Buck's County, Penn., and Mike Mahoney of Mount Aukum, crafts his creations in his 20-by-25-foot workshop, a converted two-car garage attached to his custom-built home. It sits on two and a half hilly acres dappled with live, red and white oak trees.
In addition to wood he's salvaged from his property and his neighbors' land, Lundgren gets much of his materials from local woodcutters and suppliers such as Pacific Coast Lumber in San Luis Obispo as well as friends and fellow artists. For instance, he received "a lot of locust" from Realtor Jim Irving, who sits on the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission, and his wife Anne Laddon, painter, printmaker and founder of Studios on the Park in Paso Robles.
"I've turned some spectacular bowls out of that one," Lundgren said. "He (Irving) was going to cut it up for firewood. Some of this stuff isn't great firewood but it sure makes pretty bowls."
Lundgren's "best score" came courtesy of a city maintenance crew assigned to clear a large, diseased elm tree from a San Luis Obispo neighborhood. The artist had just a half hour to haul away the wood, including a round burl that weighed at least 800 pounds, in his pickup truck.
"That was some of the most beautiful wood (I've seen)... And they were going to take it to the yard and chip it. I just couldn't believe it," said the artist, who estimates he's made thousands of dollars worth of artwork using that elm wood. "I had a big grin on my face, climbing up over the (Cuesta) Grade that day."
Another prized possession is a piece of olive stump salvaged from Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. "Olive is one of my favorite woods," Lundgren said. "It has this marbling to it. It has this great smell. It's just real pretty stuff."
In general, Lundgren prefers fragrant, richly colored woods that are relatively easy to work with. "It's got to be fun and kind of peaceful. Some of the pieces you fight because it's the nature of the piece," he said. "I would rather turn a piece of wood that turns nice than try to fight it."
That easygoing attitude seems appropriate coming from the genial Lundgren. "Once you really start making a connection, he's someone you want to hang around with more because he's such a nice individual," said his friend and collaborator, San Luis Obispo silversmith and sculptor Crissa Hewitt.
According to Hewitt, Lundgren approached her four years ago with the idea of teaming up to showcase his expert woodturning and her skillful work with metal and stone.
"His work is so exquisite. I just knew that I would be inspired by his response to his material and his level of talent and craftsmanship and ideas and everything else," said Hewitt, who interviews artists, curators and gallery owners as the co-host of the KCBX public radio show "Ears on Art." "The fact that he was approaching me said that he had full trust (in me), there's something very gratifying... I was honored that he would seek me out and say, 'Let's try it.'"
"I've always been a big fan of Crissa's work," Lundgren said. "When I said, 'Crissa, let's do a piece,' her eyes lit up and we just took off from there."
So far, the pair have created three vessels featuring ebony wood and silver lids or handles. They're currently working on a natural edge piece made from honey acacia that will feature a hammered copper lid with a finial, and possibly a gemstone secreted inside. "Crissa just wanted to go way outside the box" in making the container, Lundgren explained.
Asked where he finds his inspiration, Lundgren said he often finds himself thinking about woodturning while under the ocean surface. "That's the one thing that's pretty cool about diving. You can let your mind go and... wonder about anything because it's so automatic," he said. "Once you're comfortable there, then it is really peaceful and really relaxing."
Lundgren experiences a similar sense of calm in the studio.
"I've been really fortunate to have two things I really enjoy doing," Lundgren said. "It's always nice to do the same thing over and over again, (but) it gets really old." Splitting his time between the shore and the sea, the wood and the waves, breaks up the boredom and helps keep his mind and body active, he said.
"It's a whole different skill set. When I'm diving, I'm just a glorified apple picker," relying primarily on physical strength and luck, he explained. While on land, he's focused on transforming a silica-laden chunk of slightly brittle black acacia into an urn or a rich redwood burl into a natural edge bowl.
"It's a good yin and yang," he said.