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My father always said ‘I just do it – that’s all

Mariah Nielson

Birkenstory #16

Mariah Nielson – architect and curator of J. B. Blunk’s works

Mariah Nielson is the daughter and curator of the works of American sculptor and creative all-rounder J. B. Blunk, whose preferred artistic tool was the chainsaw. Mariah grew up in the wood house built by her father, which was an ever-changing work of art. She now lives in London, where she spoke to us about her father’s legacy – and how Birkenstocks became an integral part of the family uniform.

Back in the 1950s, Mariah’s father traveled to Japan on the trail of the Japanese artist Shoji Hamada who he admired so much. He returned to California four years later, where he met the surrealist artist Gordon Ford. The two men became close friends. Ford recognized Blunk’s creativity and invited him to build a house and a studio on 4,000 m2 of land near Inverness. What resulted was a unique and never-ending art project ...

Life in a handmade environment – with the “master of the chainsaw”

Mariah’s childhood was an incredible experience. In the midst of nature, she was surrounded by her father’s many paintings, pottery pieces, objects, and sculptures. “My father crafted every single thing – from the doorknob to the plates that we ate dinner from,” she reminisces. It goes without saying that Blunk came up with the house architecture himself, too, using nothing but natural materials he found locally, such as felled timber and jetsam found while out beachcombing. A sculpture of great significance to Mariah is the entry arch carved out of a single piece of redwood.

J.B. Blunk’s favorite tool was the chainsaw. “In the 60s, he became an iconic artist because of the work he did with a chainsaw – no one at that time was making the types of artwork he was,” relates Mariah. He used the chainsaw for anything and everything, and it was always to hand. “He used it very creatively,” says Mariah, “and people began to call him a ‘master of the chainsaw.’”

The Inverness legacy

Blunk’s house stood empty for a number of years after he passed in 2002. It was only toward the end of her architecture studies that Mariah turned her attentions to it again. “There needed to be a distance between myself and the home and my father’s death,” she says. In summer 2005, she began to go through all of her father’s work – and this was the basis of her present-day work.

The work radiates and makes an even stronger statement

Mariah initially found it difficult to put her father’s work on public display. Seeing these personal works outside of their usual context felt odd. When the Blum & Poe gallery organized an exhibition in Los Angeles in 2010, Mariah saw the sculptures in a gallery setting for the first time. This was a profound experience for her, as the new context transformed the objects and made their creative statement more powerful and more precise.

A functional object or a work of art?

Mariah gradually came to understand the immense value of her father’s work. Her architecture and design history studies and her travel experiences helped her greatly here. “For my father, it was important that there was no distinction between decorative and functional art,” explains Mariah as she excitedly points at her father’s washbasin from 1962: “The sink is a really lovely piece. It’s a playful piece. It’s a completely functional object. It’s a sink. You can brush your teeth and wash your face in it. Yet, it’s a sculpture. It’s hand-carved!”

Inverness is art in situ – to this day

Blunk’s house is a work of art in itself. He himself described it as his “masterpiece.” He wanted his home and his art to be shared with many people even after his death. And Mariah complied with his wishes – she regularly invites artists to come to the house to absorb the special atmosphere there while they work on their own projects, including her German husband, the designer Max Frommeld. The two of them love the close ties with nature that make Inverness a regenerative refuge: “It’s a place of reflection and respite,” says Mariah. “Considering how fast the world is moving, this is a place in which you can slow down and take a breath and collect thoughts and collect ideas.”

Birkenstocks, an integral part of the family since 1968

Mariah’s grandmother wore Birkenstocks. Her parents did, too, as did the family of her German husband: “Birkenstocks have been in the family ever since I can remember,” says Mariah. “I bought my first pair when I was in my early twenties and they’re basically part of the Blunk-Nielson uniform.” As a design historian, she appreciates the sandals’ pure functionality and clean lines. “I like Birkenstocks because they’re comfortable. It’s such a simply designed shoe, a well-constructed, very basic design,” she says. “Wearing them simply feels familiar – like an extension of our home in Inverness, in a sense.”

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