photograph by Alisha Silver

For an artist, wood can be a challenging medium, with its warping, changes from heat and humidity, knots. Gary Grubbs outmaneuvers all the quirks of wood with his custom-made artists’ canvases.

From joiner to surface planer to table saw to miter saw, Grubbs digs into his carpenter’s toolbox for the canvases he has built for about 25 years at his home in Black Mountain. Grubbs uses lightweight white pine that has been kiln-dried and contains less moisture to help prevent warping.

“You have to know how to read your wood, the grain in it, what it’s going to do,” says Grubbs, 67, a former construction worker who started making canvases by building them for an art teacher at nearby Warren Wilson College.

The table saw — and Grubbs — are covered with fluffy shavings after he runs a piece of wood through. The pungent sawdust sits in a mound under the saw. After he assembles the frame, Grubbs uses a tool to stretch cotton canvas over the wood, staples it in back, and trims excess fabric. He covers the canvas with a priming coat of gesso and sands the surface, then repeats the process.

Finished products dangle on hooks beneath rolls of canvas in Grubbs’ shop. Piles of raw lumber are stacked, and dusty fishing poles hang above the miter saw. With customers around the country, there’s no time to fish.

Ann Dergara and other artists keep Grubbs busy.

“To find somebody like Gary who can build me a quality canvas is incredible,” says Dergara, of Brevard, who sometimes needs frames as big as 5 feet by 7 feet. “He’s such a good craftsman. He can make any size you want.”

Although there’s artistry to his canvases of any size, Grubbs is not a painter. “For me, art is hard to understand unless it’s something that is obvious,” he says. But he has gained an appreciation for art. “The calmness, the peacefulness, it brings you that,” he says.

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Jess Clarke is a freelance writer and editor based in Asheville.