By MARINA WATERS
Most artists use paint brushes, sculpting tools, clay or canvas to create their art. But for wood artisan Brenden Bohannon, all it takes is a hand-carved bowl — and an electric current with enough voltage to stop someone’s heart.
If you’ve perused the Jonesborough Visitor’s Center or a local craft fair recently, you’ve probably seen Bohannon’s hand-carved spoons, bowls and cutting boards with small, black, winding burns swirling through the wood grain. But before it became his passion, Bohannon got his start when his mother put him up to the task of electrifying her table.
“My mom was watching this home improvement show and they electrified a coffee table,” Bohannon said. “I came over and watched it and she said, ‘Do you think you could do that and not get killed?” And I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ I found out I really enjoyed it and kind of stuck with it.”
After working with local wood workers to learn how to carve and work with various wood-working tools — and after blowing the leg off of his mother’s table — Bohannon saw that his electrifying hobby could serve as more than just a pastime when a woman bought one of his first pieces on the spot. Since then, he’s sold his work across the world, added his pieces to galleries and most recently, opened the workshop in his backyard to visitors looking to learn how to make their own wood art.
Last year, Bohannon applied to become a Airbnb Experience host, which allows folks from all over to come and learn about a person’s hobby, skill or trade. After applying on a whim, Bohannon had 64 bookings within five months.
“I only thought one or two people would want to carve a bowl or something, but people are driving from Asheville, Hendersonville, different places,” Bohannon said. “My first booking was a guy who drove nine hours from Florida, came, carved and went back the same night — just to show up and carve a bowl.”
“I think people don’t do it anymore. They don’t make things anymore. So being able to make something tangible and realize that anybody can be artistic, anyone can make something beautiful if they try — I think a lot of people connect to that and they really enjoy that.”
Bohannon has found that carving bowls and electrifying wood at his home nestled at the base of the mountains in East Tennessee is a bit more of an oddity than he might have guessed.
“I think anybody can go to Target and buy a cooking spoon. They see these wooden bowls in places like Pier 1 and they’re like, ‘This is $300 dollars.” Then they find out they can come take a class for less than $100 and make a beautiful bowl that in a lot of ways is a lot sturdier and better built and doesn’t have any harsh chemicals in it. Everything I use as far as finishes are natural finishes.
“Looking at how people who come to my class are from bigger cities and never grew up in Appalachia, to them, someone who carves bowls out in the mountains somewhere, that’s a great adventure. For me, that’s a Monday morning,” he said, laughing. “It’s been really enjoyable getting to meet people from all different walks of life.”
This isn’t Bohannon’s first experience as a teacher or an artist, however; the woodworker taught mixed martial arts and was a dancer before he began carving and electrifying wood. Though the two might initially seem unrelated, Bohannon said he sees the connection between movement art and wood art with each project.
“Movement art was my thing,” Bohannon said. “I danced professionally in a couple of ballets, I have done break dance, I taught mixed martial arts and traditional martial arts. It’s something I really, really loved and enjoyed. I apply all of the muscular control and movement isolation that I learned in mixed martial arts when I’m carving a bowl.
“I’ll lock a hip and move in a certain way and get a very controlled pass and end up with what I wanted. You get very used to feeling minute changes in muscular tension or posture or movement. That same thing applies with the wood. I can feel when the grain in the wood changes. That lets me change where I’m going and move with it and listen to it.”
Woodcarving isn’t the only technique that requires a sort of go-with-the-flow approach; though many artists have found ways to manipulate the electric currents used in electrified wood art, Bohannon believes its best to leave that all up to the current and the wood fibers.
“It’s the same with the electrifying. Once I apply the solution and run the electricity, the electricity decides where it wants to go,” he said. “I always flood the entire surface — I want to see where the electricity decides it wants to be. I don’t try to control it. It’s really just letting it do its own thing. Magic happens. It’s like magic every time. It’s amazing, the same with carving bowls.”
There is a bit more risk involved in Bohannon’s main art form these days, however. Bohannon has two machines he uses to electrify his wood pieces. One of those machines operates on 3,000 volts at six milliamps, which Bohannon said is about seven times enough electricity to stop someones heart.
“The only way I use that amp is with wire clamps and I’m from eight to 10 feet away. I give myself some space. I don’t touch the piece when it’s working,” Bohannon explained. “I don’t trust safety switches and safety lights because all those things can fail. My safety switch is the plug being in my hand knowing that it’s unplugged.
“At all times I treat it like a venomous snake and that keeps me safe. Some people don’t do that. There are experienced people who do this that get killed. At any point that you let yourself lapse and you treat it like it’s not the most dangerous thing you’ve ever done, you’re going to get hurt. I teach (guests) my safe method. I tell them this is really dangerous, but we’re going to do this safely and you’re going to create something beautiful.”
Despite the potential danger, Bohannon said what keeps him heading out to his workshop each day is the beauty that is created from the fiery current pulsing through the wood fibers of a picture frame or wooden spoon — that and instilling the sort of satisfaction that comes from working with your hands in each person Bohannon meets.
“It’s never the same. Anytime the current goes into something, it makes something new and beautiful,” he said. “It’s the same with the wood carving. It’s seeing what’s next, seeing what’s going to happen, seeing what each thing turns into. It’s always fun.
“I like getting to share it with people and hearing them say, ‘Oh, I’m going to give this to my husband for his birthday’ or ‘My little boy will think this is really cool.’ I like thinking that people are going to have a piece of my art. Something that I made is going to bring somebody happiness. And that makes me happy.”
Bohannon will be at Jonesborough’s Art in The Park on Saturday, May 11. For more information, you can also visit facebook.com/artisanbowlcarver, https://www.facebook.com/electrifiedwoodartisan/ or @artisanbowlcarver on Instagram.