Working in a shared studio in Red Hook, Jenny tackles the problem of each bend with the training of a research scientist. Meet the designer turned lab researcher turned artist who is making waves with her bent sculptures.
Jenny Wong-Stanley works out of a nineteenth century factory building constructed out of stone and wood on a pier in Red Hook. Her floor, originally used for processing coffee imports, is still littered with beans from the eighteen hundreds. And the original coffee scale, probably seven feet tall, sits idly near her workspace. "I might take them all one day and get them analyzed." She picks a coffee bean out of a crack in the floor. "I want to see if they're still viable, what kind of coffee strains they used to have, how much our current beans are modified, you know? Anyways, I'm geeking out."
Art and science
Jenny comes from a background of design and science, having worked both as a graphic designer and a researcher. She approaches her work with a fascination and intensity that only a scientist could afford.
"I was at an open studio gallery show recently where I met a NASA scientist, and we just sat and talked about wood grain for hours. We were talking about the cellular structure of wood and graining. How much it matters when I bend. It helps to have a scientific background — it's not necessary, but it helps — to understand how the cellular structure affects the bending process."
"I don't tell people this, it's just me. I don't convey this on my website. I just geek out about it, and I don't think people would care."
Standing in her studio, she holds up a sculpture and points out the grain of the wood. "This, this is beautiful. It tells you how much growth was in the wood that year. You can see how if there was a drought or heavy rain, whether the tree had a good year."
Some wood benders use intuition, some learn to acquire the skills through simply practicing the process, but Jenny approaches the practice like a scientific problem. "I was a bit neurotic about it," she says.
While watching her daughter at home, Jenny read an article on wood bending. She got out a lobster pot, a thermometer, found an old ruler, got up to temperature, and promptly broke the ruler.
Determined at first to make a good bend, and then fascinated with the process, she experimented with the lobster pot at home for a year trying out one piece after another. "I kept everything and had a little piece of paper I would write my notes on. Like 'Day 15, number three.'"
Her new hobby took over the kitchen and half of the living room, until one day her husband was cleaning and disrupted her carefully kempt system. "Juniper Number 14 is gone! Where did Juniper Number 14 go?"
At the strong request of her family, she moved to a metal and wood studio (she also works with steel sometimes), and has since moved to a larger studio to accommodate the growth of her business.
When asked how long it took for her to be satisfied with the work she was making, Jenny replies, "I'm still not."
"It's a constant pursuit. The moment it stops, you're bored. There would be nothing left to pursue."
Imperfections in the wood
"A lot of [the sculptures] are never the same, because I can't make them the same. So it's just little pieces of me that I'm shipping out. Me at that moment in time. It will never occur again, and I'm okay with that."
"There are things that I want to be perfect, but that's very contradictory to how I want it to look. I want it to be organic, what I do is very organic. It goes with the grain of how I want it to bend. Is it extreme? Sure. But there's a flow to it."
"If you ask my assistant, or any other woodworker, they would tell you I'm crazy because I try to keep the knots. Even if it means a greater than 50% failure [when attempting the bend]. It doesn't always work out because they do split and break, but when it does work, you have this beautiful texture inside of them. The knot tells you there was a bud or branch on that little piece of wood. It tells a story. So I try to make the wood look like wood."
Working with different woods
"If people say I can't bend it, of course I try to bend it. I was told 'You can't bend soft woods,' but you see this?" She gestures towards a long row of intricate, tightly bent knots and sculptures hanging on the studio wall. "All soft woods."
Then she takes five minutes to describe the biology behind bending soft and hard woods. Cell structures, porosity, grains, growth rates, water content. And the conversation evolves into a lesson on the uses of soft wood trees in forestry and reforestation efforts, and how she is able to use sustainably grown wood by working with softer varieties.
"Walnut, oak, cedar, mahogany — I'll bend anything. People say you shouldn't bend this." She hands me a drastically curved helix. "I figured it out." She turns around and continues pointing to scultpures, "Oak, maple, maple, hacksberry, redgum. As long as it comes from a tree, I'll figure out how to bend it eventually."
"Not too cold not to hot, not too much water not too little. We call it 'the happiness point.' And once you steam the wood, you have about thirty seconds to get the bend that you want."
Jenny tells me about the process of teaching herself, and that she wouldn't have been able to do it if she weren't so close to the medium.
"One of the great things about not having a classical [woodworking] training, is that there was nobody there to tell me 'No.' I don't know 'No.'"
My favorite neuroscience professor told me, 'The more you learn, the less you learn.' And I think, in art, that's so true. Because if there are limitations you might not even try it.
When asked about the Mobius strips on her site and in her studio, she said "It's my mathematician husband. He was obsessed with the Mobius strip after he wrote a paper on forms that was published in a journal. We're both really into shapes, I guess. We had a parrot that we built a playground out of dodecahedrons."
Stepping outside to catch the end of the day on the pier in Red Hook, I ask Jenny about her path to woodbending. About her career changes, and how she ended up knotting wood in a remote studio in Brooklyn.
"I was in the entertainment business for a long time, doing graphic design for Marvel Studios, Entertainment Weekly, a couple publications. And I just wanted to go back to school to study science."
"So I quit my job and went back to Hunter then Columbia, and researched mouse genetics at Mount Sinai. I wore a lab coat — I still have it, it says Wong on it — but it wasn't for me.
"So I decided to use my science background to teach. I taught children with autism and middle school children about the scientific process, which led to learning and teaching experimental design at the Museum of Natural History and the Bronx Zoo to other teachers".
"And going back to the arts was just happenstance. I was always planning to go back to teaching science after my maternity leave, but I realized I need to keep busy. That's when the whole thing happened. I ran into the article about bending wood on Google Scholar."
"The article was misplaced. I was searching for something else, maybe 'reforestation,' and Juniper or Oak came up in the title. So I read it and it was about wood bending. If I had not read that article, I would be teaching right now."
We snapped a few more pictures in the last light of the day, and she invited us to come back to Red Hook on Tuesdays for a nearby outdoor movie screening. She pointed to a nearby pier, facing west, and the sun was setting over the East River. I told her it must be inspiring to work in such a picturesque area.
"It's cold in the winter. And it's like a wind tunnel between the buildings on the pier. But it's an inspiration every day."