Call Carl Pittman the wood whisperer — his ability to read the energies and flows of wood allows him to craft the medium into sleek pieces of art, such as the wooden vessel sink that was the Overall Winner of the 2017 Made in NC Awards. Following the old adage, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” Pittman’s company Blue Mountain Bowls works with local arborists to purchase trees that have been cut down to create products that replace ordinary household items with statement pieces.
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Engaging with and understanding the medium is key to his creative process. By absorbing the energy of the wood, Pittman can decide what particular sculpture will come out of it.
Continue on for Our State’s interview with Pittman about how he fell in love with woodworking and the yearlong process it takes achieve his one-of-a-kind creations.
OS: Tell me about how you started Blue Mountain Bowls.
Pittman: I’ve always been a woodworker. I started with my grandfather when I was young; he was a finish carpenter. I kind of swayed back and forth — I started building canoes at 16, furniture at 18, and then I kind of moved away from [woodworking] and started doing a lot of rock climbing. I really connected with wood in the first place, and then I started really connecting with rock. I owned a rock climbing, rock-guiding business for multiple years, but I more enjoyed doing it myself. [It was] the connection with the rock and not so much with the people; it took about six years to figure that out. I was at a party, and I ran into a fellow named George Peterson. He does sculpture and bowls in wood, and he asked if I would like to start working with him, learning to turn bowls as he worked on his sculptures. I was immediately drawn to it. I started working for him, and day one, it was… Whew. I found my true connection with wood again. That was in 2004. I turned with him for three years. Into that second year, I started doing shows and doing mainly just bowls, and it evolved from there. I started doing my own work full time. Now it has grown into a multitude of things — if you can think it, I probably make it — but it all started from running into George Peterson.
OS: Have you ever been drawn to working with materials other than wood?
Pittman: Most definitely. I dated a girl during school that was in the ceramics class, and immediately fell in love with that earthy material. It wasn’t a super hard connection, but it was a connection nonetheless. After about two months, Gary, the guy who ran the class, said that I was the best student and I wasn’t even enrolled in the class! I wasn’t shaking or turning pottery, I was slabbing and creating just about anything. At that point it was not about function, it was just purely decorative. I’d make a lot of stuff.
OS: You submitted a wooden vessel sink into the Made in NC Awards. Do you make other products as well?
Pittman: The larger part of my business is not bowls; it’s more jewelry. Jewelry is a huge part of my business. Lazy Susans count for a quarter of my business at least. They’re elaborate; they feature copper, and ammonite in the center, and fossils from the Jurassic period… You look it and think, “Man, I don’t even want to put anything on there.” But most of them [Lazy Susans] you can serve directly off of. You can put thin cheese crackers on them and wash them just like a bowl. I’d say 60% of my business [is] second-time buyers, and they all know that I do a lot more than bowls.
OS: What does the timeline look like to make a sink like the one submitted in the Made in NC Awards?
Pittman: Sinks are 11 months start to finish. [It’s] just the drying time. I’m unlike many turners — I learned this from the guy I started turning with — I turn the bowl when it’s wet and then just finish it, I don’t return it and don’t sand out the turning marks. 95% of all wood turners will turn a bowl, let it dry, and then return it and sand it until it’s dead smooth, I mean dead smooth. But to me that’s part of the process, having the tool marks in the bowls. I like texture on my pieces, like turn lines on the outside. So I don’t want to sand away any of that, I don’t want it to look like it came off of a machine. It was handmade; it’s not perfect. Even with special orders, I’m not so concerned about where it starts, and I’m not so concerned about where it ends. It’s that space in the middle that excites me immensely, to the deepest depths of my core. I don’t play the lottery because I love that process even though if I won the lottery, I would still do it.
OS: Do you use locally sourced wood for your pieces?
Pittman: It is all sourced within an hour of my house. I’ve got 17 local arborists, they cut down trees for a living, mainly to clear out a lot or make room for sidewalks. But they know what I want, and they will call me when they get a load, and I’ll buy it from them if I need it. Another way that I get wood is by watching trees. The big knots that grow on trees are called burrows, and they’re beautiful, so when I see those trees I will watch them. I don’t want them to come down, but if they ever do, I buy them immediately on the spot. One tree I watched for eight years on Main Street before it came down and I bought it for $3,000.
OS: As an artist, your work is rooted in understanding how energy flows through wood. Could you explain that process?
Pittman: Everything has its own vibration or own energy resonance, you could say. I first noticed this a long time ago. What I mean by that is it’s kind of a heartbeat, like a thump-a-thump or a faster. Often I will have an idea about what I want to do with it, but after sitting with it for more than five minutes, it all of the sudden becomes apparent through the energy exchange what it wants to be. So I could have a bowl cut out, and I mean just rough cut with a chainsaw, and start to realize that this huge bowl wants the top cut off and it wants to be a Lazy Susan. Or it needs to be cut down the middle and it wants to be jewelry.
OS: Why should North Carolinians be aware of Blue Mountain Bowls?
Pittman: Everything is one-of-a-kind by one maker. I’m not hiring anybody; I make every piece, and every piece has a certain energy in it. Everyone can and should resonate with something. I don’t mean with wood, I mean whatever people are making, but I think that there’s a deeper connection in what I do, and that’s why it does so well out in a market place like the Grove Arcade. You can see my work online, but until you actually touch it… It’s like looking out the window and seeing rain for the first time, and actually walking out in the rain. It is like night and day between seeing it and actually being with it. So, if you want something that is deeply connecting, and a maker that is deeply connected with it, like on a blood level, then come check it out because that’s where it’s matters most for me.
Blue Mountain Bowls
118 Little Bear Lane
Pisgah Forest, NC 28768
(828) 243-9632, bluemountainbowls.com