There is probably nobody in Steilacoom, WA, who hasn’t come across woodwork or wood artwork by Jim Anderson. When he first moved there with his family, he was self-taught, and he was already that skillful that he had long customer lists for commissioned wood artifacts. “But I felt like I had hit the ceiling,” remembers the retired veteran of the U.S. Army’s elite 75th Ranger Regiment. “I wanted to hone my skills and acquire more professional ones.” So, in 2017, he entered Bates Technical College and found all the support he needed to realize the dreams that had already shaped in his mind.
But there is way more to Jim Anderson’s story. “I was a train wreck when I left the service,” Jim says. “My body had been through a lot, and I never knew until recently how bad my PTSD is.” Woodworking and glassblowing were creative ways to deal with it. “Hot Shop Heroes”, a program designed to help wounded active-duty military and veterans at the Tacoma Museum of Glass, approached him and offered him a spot in a glass art workshop. That was back in the mid-2010s. Today, he is less and less involved with glass and more and more with wood.
“It takes a lot more time to create a wooden artifact than one from glass”, Jim Anderson says. He pours hours and hours over one detail to get it right. Sometimes a piece splinters, sometimes it breaks. When figuring out a new design, he explores each and every step of the production until he has gotten it right. Only when each step is optimized, Jim begins work on the actual artifact. That way, he created the piece that made him a national byword in wood art only recently: an armillary sphere made from 22 different kinds of hardwood representing the current national veteran suicidal rate of 22 casualties a day. At the 2020 National Veterans Creative Arts Competition, he won first prize with this incredibly versatile artwork that is based on the Copernican astrological instrument for determining celestial positions.
“It took me a year to try out each and every step and then more than 300 hours to make it,” Anderson ponders. “I wanted to create something that combined as many techniques as possible and make something that nobody thought would be possible to make out of wood.” At an estate sale some years ago, he had bought a metal armillary sphere – that became Jim’s inspiration. Construing his own jigs, forms, molds, and fixtures came along with the project. He needed to figure how to steam bend three species of wood into each laminated full circle. Other techniques were woodturning, dowel and rod construction, resawing, beveled joinery, mortise and tenon joinery, miter keys and plugs, inlay, hand carving, and riveting. His precision work and patience paid off; the competitions, one conducted by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs and the American Legion Auxiliary, draws over 3,700 Veteran artists from 120 regional VA care facilities across the nation received 7,000 entries in different categories in 2020.
His artwork then went on to win him the title of 2021 Master Woodworking Artist of the Year – an award hosted by the Oklahoma Forestry Services’ Forest Heritage Center – beating out some of the best woodworking artists across the country. “Now, the sky is the limit”, says Jim Anderson. Currently, he is working on an even more elaborate armillary sphere, something he stated would be “mind-blowing.” But his customers also query for more down-to-earth items with Jim’s unique touch, such as a cabinet for a gorgeous antique Hardanger violin, the refurbishing of antique heirloom furniture, the creation of an amazing bent laminated vanity mirror, or intricately decorated inlaid wine boxes. It is this bread-and-butter wood art and craft that enables Jim Anderson to dive deeper and deeper into the possibilities of wood art. It is also what makes him cope with his PTSD. That and VA classes he came across thanks to his more intense involvement in the National Veterans Creative Arts Competition and Festival.
“I hope that more veterans discover the chance that lies in creativity to heal”, Jim Anderson, owner of J. Anderson Wood Works, LLC, says and shows the finessed shading of his latest project. Next to it lie numerous awards and blue ribbons – awards from the art field he has chosen and add to his decorations as a veteran. “Creativity helps reconnect with a healthier self. And it is simply rewarding to create something new and unique.”
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.