Brian de la Tierra: Stewardship of Our Natural Environment

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To typify Brian de la Tierra as a free spirit would not be an understatement, in that he is a sponge, absorbing knowledge no matter where he travels. He is a man that not necessarily aspires to ultimate goals, but takes one encounter at a time to build and use his experiences for the dream of making a difference on this planet that might just make for a better world, not just for himself, but for others as well.

From Brian’s entry into woodworking to his travels beyond The Krenov School, he encapsulates different types of not only woodworking, but also life‘s trials and tribulations along the way. Learned from woodworkers, builders, craftsman, co-students, teachers, apprenticeships, and schools; culminates to currently being a teacher himself. Brian guides new minds in traditional woodworking, but also more importantly in his eyes, “Lessons in conservation, and sustainability in giving back from what we have taken so much from….our Earthly habitat.”

It all began in a small agricultural town, south of San Antonio Texas as a high school sophomore at the age of 16, where Brian was an avid skater trying his hand at making skate ramps. His building-trades construction class at Pearsall High School taught him the basics in rudimentary tool and wood work, where he also created a blanket chest for his mother.

In 2012, Brian took an internship with the outdoor environmental organization, Wild Places through The Wilderness Society’s, Immersed in the Wild Program, located within the southern Sierra Nevada California mountain range. Brian helped lead at-risk inner-city youth in the back country, led by volunteer-driven habitat conservation program educators in the Sierra Nevada watersheds. This program teaches responsibility through the importance of conservation by protecting America’s lands, waters, climate, and energy resources for future generations; inspiring diverse communities to take personal responsibility for being protectors to restore wild and rural places with reverence for nature ethics, and direct stewardship action through art, cultural identity and critical thinking.

It was in Brian’s early 20’s that he met life-long woodworker, keepsake inlay box maker specialist, marquetry expert, and Wild Places volunteer mule packer guide, Ron Zanini. As they developed a woodworking relationship, Ron took Brian under his wing, teaching him his first woodworking technique, marquetry at Ron’s woodshop. Brian stated, “I learned how to joint a board, what a planer was, how to use hand tools, and was exposed to different types of woods from all over the world.”

Ron’s tutelage led to eventually paying Brian for his fine detailed motif work. The left photo is an example of Brian’s marquetry. Right, is Ron teaching scroll sawn techniques to a group of youngsters.

From that experience, Brian was hooked! Going forward, he apprenticed for Marc Daniels, learning to build traditional sea (iqyax̂ or umiak) craft skin boats. It was Marc’s passion, creating The Mind’s Eye Manufactory in Ferndale California, to restore the traditional skin boat building knowledge and education. This craft, originally indigenous to the Unalaskan Aleutian people, was lost after the 1788 Russian-American Company settlement, during the monopolization of the fur trade with Russification of Unalaska Natives in North America. Brian told us, “Marc went on a journey and studied at museums finding old ship logs from the Aleutian encounters, until he understood the craft; building many different prototypes to find a way to resurrect that modality of creating this boat. For many years before I came to Marc, he had dedicated spending half of his life in Alaska, where he puts on workshops, teaching the indigenous native Aleutian youth to build this craft. Any money he makes on boat builds and sales, as well as out of The Mind’s Eye Manufactory, goes into a foundation that keeps the education component alive in Alaska. He is really just giving it all back to them.”

Brian also stated, “The boat’s intricate construction today; there’s a lot of steam bending and the joinery is very beautiful, and simple. Much of the joints require chisel work, fine hand sawing, and assembly is done with an artificial sinew. There is a lot of lashing (rope) with traditional fastening methods, and in the end you have this sea craft that any professional kayaker that has ever come into The Mind’s Eye Manufactory will say; this boat is the best sea craft I’ve ever had the chance to maneuver in an ocean, and I know firsthand, it’s true!”

Brian’s development in woodworking through both Ron and Marc’s endeavors would slowly change Brian’s ideology, as he contemplates how to create with balance to reflect “re-vest, reinvest and replenish.”

In 2017, Brian’s next journey led him to an opportunity as a custom-made furniture designer at Atra Form; a furniture and interior architecture design studio in Mexico City. Brian told us, I worked in a unique position where I was the maker and also had the privileges of jumping up to the design studio where there was a team of industrial designers working on mocking up and digitizing furniture using 3-D CAD rendering programs.” 

Brian added, “While at Atra Form, much of Mexico City was hit hard with an earthquake in 2018, followed by hurricane flooding near the Gulf coast where I grew up, and was now living. I had just come from Ferndale in Northern California, which was experiencing major fires. At this point I asked myself, what am I doing with woodworking; but more than that, what am I doing that is either making a positive or negative impact on the natural environment? So, just a question of re-evaluating how and why I work with wood. Moving forward I deviated my journey down to Ecuador to a program where I learned about bamboo architecture and how it relates to seismic activity and the sustainability component to materials. I wanted to unlearn all that I’ve learned about wood, because I felt in all these years that I’ve been working with wood, no one really informed me on the aspects of it that aren’t sustainable.”

While in Ecuador, Brian compiled his resume and portfolio for application to The Krenov School located at Fort Bragg, California.

He told us, “At that point in time, I was looking for less continued education in technique. I was looking for that sort of poetic philosophy that James Krenov wrote about so eloquently in all of his books. I think a lot of us who went to the Krenov School were looking more for; why did this come into my life and how do we make sense of this manner of creating. For me, it has always been sort of weaving art craft and environmental stewardship as a mode of living, while understanding the world in those quiet moments when I’m working with wood. I spent a beautiful year there, learning a lot about myself, a lot more about fine woodworking, and continued to learn that it’s a difficult road to head if you want to be a spec furniture maker.”

Brian was accepted into the nine-month program in 2018, where he spent two semesters learning design with mostly hand-tool applications. Completion of the first semester included the build of a small chest or cabinet (shown below) using the techniques learned during the first half of the program.

While at the Krenov School, Brian attended a field trip with his classmates hosted by The Redwood Forest Institute. Brian’s interest was piqued, making him realize he wanted to be more than a woodworker and cabinetmaker. Sustainability and ecology were becoming more inclusive of where he wanted to focus his woodworking journey. Brian even tried to have the school in conjunction with the Redwood Institute; to allow students to possibly attain a small amount of forest acreage to maintain as part of the education curriculum, but found it was too expensive for the school to encompass such a program in “how to tend to a forest.” Brian describes his idea as, It’s a perfect opportunity to give back and to learn more about the process, and to integrate that process into the craft. As sort of an ultimate goal, to be at the point where I have a beautiful piece of land that I’m honoring and taking care of, managing well, and using its resources to create beautiful objects that then hold meaning. This credenza, this chair I’m making you; I’ll make it for you, but here‘s the story of how it came to be. I think all objects have the capacity to hold that sort of meaning in today’s industry age. It’s very difficult because no one has their own forest, but I plan on having my own forest.”

Brian’s second semester included advanced techniques, enrichment of skills, patience, and fostering integrity in fine woodworking.  A larger project of the students design in collaboration with staff development is expected. Inclusive of sawn veneers, glass and wood, Brian built this Floor Cabinet.

Brian explained his takeaways’ and summarized his time at the school stating, Creating as a means to understand my life’s particular disposition: one weaving threads of craft, poetry, stewardship of our natural environment, and art as a mode of existing. He learned a sense of community along with his peers, as opposed to being in isolation in a workshop environment. Brian felt a deep respect for James Krenov, and discovered after being entrenched in furniture making and being a craftsman, that he was much more than that. The school time allowed for self-reflection, along with learning to make some cool things, and walking away knowing there is more out there to attain, while realizing it was not all about the creation of objects, but that he was the ultimate piece to be crafted.

In light of Brian’s evolving, and outlook into respecting the natural elements, he created this 2013 video, produced by David Karnowski. We noted that at some point Brian changed his name to mean “From the Earth or Of the Earth.” Brian de la Cerda aliases now as Brian de la Tierra regarding his unique, recycled art. Incorporating natural elements and the organic materials of the deceased, new life through art is brought before the viewer, in this documentary video.

In 2019, Brian moved from Ecuador to San Luis Obispo, where he took a custom cabinet making job with wood artisan, Ken Frye. Ken, class of 1990 and 1992 alumni of The Krenov School, is passionate in the building of fine furniture as well as a devoted cabinet maker.

Brian has since apprenticed for Robert Beauchamp who is known for climbing giant Sequoia trees to collect their cones and specializes in mostly Claro Walnut builds at his Walnut Place in Woodland, California.

Brian continued, “Today, I’m at my own custom woodworking business in Ensenada. I call it, “Thee Tallyer” which means “The Work Shop” in Spanish. I am trying to find creative ways to explore and literally invent new materials. I’m actually working with a group of people down here who are making materials out of recycled plastics from cactus (juice) and from sea kelp.” I would like to go back to school, mostly online to study architecture. Reason being, a lot of the environmental degradation that occurs, has a lot to do with the way communities are crafted and the way buildings are created. The result of that, are people existing in that waste-prone environment, and so I thought well, I’m not going to change the world necessarily at the scale of furniture. Perhaps I can make a difference if I can begin to work at the scale of shaping space in creating buildings with renewable resources, while also exploring materiality that works for different regions.

Some of Brian’s woodworking art includes these pieces.

Brian left us with this to contemplate, “I think as crafts-people, as artists, as even just very basic human beings, we have to begin to re-examine, what it is we’re doing right now. We all have to eat, we all have to keep the lights on, but what else can I do to create a little impact as possible, and for me, I think the next stepping stone which isn’t the ultimate goal, is to be a licensed architect who can have a higher stake at a higher level. There’s a quote that says, “Artists need to create at the same scale that society has a capacity to destroy” and for me, I’m now saying, I’ve done the woodworking thing, I’m happy. I made things that brought me joy, but it’s not going to change much, so architecture is next. After architecture, it’s having space to ask, what’s next beyond that?”

Who helps you attain your woodworking knowledge levels? What drives your woodworking spirit? Where have you gained your best expertise? How are you making a handcrafted difference?

If you wish to share your woodworking adventure, we'd like to know about it! Contact us in the comment section below.

Stay Safe.....Frank

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