James Oleson, a medical doctor and astrophysicist with decades of professional achievements, was nervous driving to the N.C. Crafts Gallery in Carrboro last year to show off his handiwork.
“I was definitely taking a risk,” said Oleson, who was newly retired and dedicating himself to full-time furniture making and woodworking. “I thought, ‘here’s this guy with a cardboard box of cutting boards. Does anybody care?’ ”
The answer was yes. Not only did owner Sara Gress start carrying Oleson’s striking boards with circular inlays of wood, but customers bought them, too.
“That was even more exciting,” said the Chapel Hill resident.
Oleson, 71, was first attracted to woodworking as a boy in Minnesota, where two uncles introduced him to the craft.
“I was totally fascinated with their tools and how they made things,” he said. “I set up a rudimentary shop in our home, and in high school I started to build speaker enclosures.”
Throughout his college years, when he and his wife, Carol, were setting up a household, he built most of their furniture.
“We had no money, so all our furniture came from Salvation Army or I made it,” he said. “When we started a family, I made the children’s bedroom furniture.”
Oleson’s first career was in astrophysics research. He went on to get a medical degree in his 30s and worked in radiation oncology. His most recent position was professor of radiation oncology at Duke University.
While his path to science and medicine started early, art had always been a draw.
“In high school I had this tremendous conflict. I took as many art classes as I could, but finally decided to major in math and physics. I told myself that when I retired, I’d get back to art.”
Making art with wood
Initially, Oleson viewed woodworking and art as distinct pursuits.
“As I approached retirement, I realized I’d been doing art all along, and that my medium was wood,” he said. “I started focusing more on the aesthetics of what I was designing and started appreciating objects more as sculptural. I developed a better sensitivity to the three-dimensional shape, and now I challenge myself to make the designs work in this way – to create interest from different viewpoints.”
Not counting commissions, Oleson makes about a dozen pieces of furniture a year, mostly bookcases and coffee tables. He keeps the designs simple, with curves and inlays adding softness and sophistication.
In theory, his smaller pieces, such as the cutting boards and cheese boards, are easier to make, but Oleson challenges himself by incorporating several types of wood and adding difficult designs, such as a now-trademark circular inlay. Soon after coming up with that design, he realized the famed mid-century modern designers Charles and Ray Eames incorporated similar patterns, and he took their lead in expanding that theme.
Oleson often uses American hardwoods, such as walnut, maple, oak and cherry as well as exotic species. For inlays, he favors wenge from Africa, which resembles ebony but is more available and affordable.
Open studio tour
He participated in his first Orange County Open Studio tour last year, but at another artist’s home. For this year’s tour, the first two weekends in November, he and Carol will open up their house to display not only pieces he has for sale but also those he’s made for their personal use, including the mesquite buffet that was accepted for the 2010 book “500 Cabinets: A Showcase of Design & Craftsmanship” by Lark Press.
It was during last year’s tour that Kay Edgar and Bob Healy saw the breadth of Oleson’s work.
“We’d known Jim for many years, but after going to the art walk and seeing his coffee tables on display, we realized the extent of his workmanship and creativity,” Healy said.
The couple commissioned Oleson to replace their fireplace surround with one designed in the Craftsman style to match the design of their Durham home.
“We were really very pleased with both the process and the product. We designed it as a collaborative effort. Jim spent an immense amount of time with measurements and matching.”
In the corners, Oleson included included dark inlays of wenge, which then inspired the couple to commission a matching coffee table.
Oleson enjoys discussing his art with potential customers and fellow woodworkers he’s met through The Furniture Society, based in Asheville. But his favorite colleague, with whom he speaks frequently, is his youngest son, Mike, now living in Lisbon.
“He decided several years after college that what he really wanted to do was go to graduate school for furniture design and furniture making. I was dumbfounded,” Oleson said. “It’s been a really neat thing. I see what he does, and that stimulates me.”
With the open studio tour coming up and two galleries now showing his work, Oleson is beginning to feel a little pressure, but not too much.
“I don’t view it as the hobby it used to be, but it’s not an unpleasant sort of stress,” he said. “I’m having a good time.”
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