The Force of Form
The Force of Form
Jonathan Cross carves a sculptural symphony in his desert studio
The barren valley spread - a vast belly of white sand punctuated by orderly spaced creosote, outlined to the eye’s edge by purple mountains and township lights. The sky overhead hung, blue and wide in the late afternoon, casting that dry desert air making objects in the distance feel farther away than they really are.
Piles of residences lay in a similar spacing and order to the creosote, as far as you can get from one pile before encroaching on another. Ramshackle structures of corrugated metal, broken glass, and dry wood bones in the process of breaking down or being rebuilt—an erroneous difference. People like their space out here, in Wonder Valley, and it is plentiful if you can stand the conditions.
In one such residential pile, in between a cinder block house and a shipping container, a stack of white and black bricks coughed out little plumes of smoke atop an industrial-looking kiln. Stoking began the night before, the wood-firing process soon to be in full-force.
Inside the house, late afternoon sun spilled through the only window in a bare room, filtered by plastic panes. Specks of dust suspended, glittering, outlining Jonathan Cross as he organized a set of kitchen knives, chisels and a machete—the sculptor’s toolkit.
"The sky overhead hung, blue and wide in the late afternoon, casting that dry desert air making objects in the distance feel farther away than they really are."
In a cubic beam, sunlight framed a rectangular block of clay centered on welded stand with creaky wheels. Cross thumbed the surface; “See, this is perfect to carve,” he commented to no one in particular. Arthur stood by my side, shaking his head in awe of the desert light. Ricardo crouched, filming and seemingly holding his breath.
Cross took a moment to observe the form before him, the raw silhouette already a stark interplay between light and shadow. He lined up a ruler alongside a plane, found an angle, etched a few marks, and continued mapping on the corresponding quadrants.
With a chef’s knife, he carefully cut into the line, from the side and then the top. With swift movements, slicing off layers and revealing blunt angles, coming back with the chisel to clean the lines—the character we’ve all come to admire with his work began to emerge.
A dystopian vessel in sharp relief, a solid base with thick walls rising like avian protrusions. An armistice of sorts, offering the viewer the semblance of a type of stone, an apocalyptic totem, an ancient summit carved with industrial ferocity.
Breaking the silence, I asked him what first brought him to the desert.
“You know when stones are darkened on the sun side and orange on the shadow side – the kind of way that time has imparted that look, those stones look wood fired to me.”
Without looking up, his hands continued to trace, shape, and carve. Cross shared his interest in the surrounding geology, “the aesthetic of eroding, sunbleached surfaces.”
He paused, picking bits of clay off his tools, “You know when stones are darkened on the sun side and orange on the shadow side – the kind of way that time has imparted that look, those stones look wood fired to me.”
He continued to explain his inspiration from the native history vibrant within the American Southwest, particularly regarding the architecture; “The dwellings they created are this harmonious balance between natural looking forms that are rocky and geological but also very architectural, which I feel speaks to my work.”
Jonathan Cross is a sculptural artist based out of the small desert community Twentynine Palms, California, just outside of Joshua Tree National Park. Originally from Texas, Cross moved to L.A. after receiving his BFA to work for Gemini G.E.L. – a print shop specializing in high end contemporary art. With this work, Cross developed an affinity for strong, graphic compositions.
While living and working in L.A., Cross made a few serendipitous visits to The Huntington Gardens, where he was fascinated by, and somewhat consumed with the cacti and succulents. He began cultivating and collecting rare specimens, filling his windowsills and porch-space.
When he sought containers to pair with his cacti, the nursery industry had little to offer beyond basic pots. So, being the artist that he is, Cross decided to make some vessels of his own. He enrolled in some ceramics classes, you can probably guess what ensued in the months and years to come.
In his words; “I kind of fell into ceramics. It’s very tactile, putting your hands in something and working out ideas in three dimensions. There’s something about the reductive nature – taking something away and watching the form emerge.”
So he decided to get serious, enrolling in and completing an MFA program at Arizona State University, focusing on ceramic art. It was in this time that Cross began wood-firing his work, altering his approach and aesthetic entirely.
“I kind of fell into ceramics. It’s very tactile, putting your hands in something and working out ideas in three dimensions. There’s something about the reductive nature – taking something away and watching the form emerge.”
Wood firing a kiln is a bit like an ancient ceremony. Even before the advent of agriculture and sedentary society, humans used clay forms to infuse objects with meaning, symbolism, or function. The oldest known ceramic is a female form found in today’s Czech Republic, a so called Venus figurine that dates back to 29,000 BCE – the Paleolithic era—a period where early humans developed our most primitive tools and began forming band societies.*
The earliest formal clay firings are thought to have resembled massive bonfires, however these processes did not subject the clay to the incredibly high temperatures we see with kilns. Kiln technology was thought to have developed in China around 2,000 BCE. While the materials and techniques have expanded with the millennia, the wood firing process has remained grounded in this very ancient knowledge. **
And yet, Jonathan’s process is slightly more industrial and high-octane than the earthen, natural image you might have in your head.
"Observing a kiln firing is like watching someone tame a dragon – you have to feed it, stoke it, establish a harmony between heat and time."
“The kiln looks like a locomotive when its firing,” he describes; “It puts out huge plumes of black smoke. The fire shoots like four feet out of the chimney. And it’s for four days at a time, six times a year.”
Observing a kiln firing is like watching someone tame a dragon – you have to feed it, stoke it, establish a harmony between heat and time. Every few months, Cross stacks wood, calls the fire department, and organizes the kiln shelves in a sort of strategic Tetris.
With an intimate awareness of the fire’s current, Cross places his pieces knowing that certain planes will be exposed to more or less heat and ash buildup – creating the stark definitions of patina and color that make his forms stand out.
“Flame moves through the kiln a lot like water,” he explains. “If you throw a stone in the river, you see the way it flows. If you put multiple stones, it eddies, pools, slows down while on the outside the water moves faster. Ash builds up like that,so there’ll be heavier and lighter accumulations outlining the geometric shapes.”
In his studio, the sculptural symphony continued, quiet and purposeful. Cross sliced and carved, exposing new angles for your eye to wander, hidden planes for the flames to pool.
"He creates his matter, molds his subjects, uses earth and metal and fire to conjure these abstract, monolithic forms –dark and grounding."
“The form is the most important part of the work,” he stated confidently, “the way I carve and interact with the clay.” This comment affirmed my feeling we were witnessing the peak of an artistic crescendo.
“I’m almost done with the piece after its carved, I’ve already invested my time and my thoughts with it,” he took a step back, examining the light and the angles; “This will get like a new life from the kiln.”
“It’s an interesting juxtaposition,” I offered; “In here, you have absolute control over the shape, and once you put it in the kiln to be fired, you have to let that go and see what manifests.”
“Exactly,” he nodded, “and what comes of that generates new ideas,” gingerly cleaning edges with his fingers; “But now that I’ve fired more often, I can better predict the way the surfaces will turn out. I’m playing around more with the kiln when I fire.”
"There is a reason for each cut, imbued with a 3-dimensional experience in mind—beckoning you to follow the light and shadow."
I inquired if his approach differs between creating a stand-alone piece as opposed to something that will be paired with a tree or plant. Shrugging his shoulders, Cross explained how he used to get caught up between making vessels versus sculptures, but now he sees the process as one in the same. He simply wants to create pieces that are captivating in their own right, regardless of their eventual pairing.
“And where do you even begin with a piece like this?” I asked.
“With this, I wanted to create a kind of like v-shaped enclosure for the tree, so it could be more dramatic—something that can change with the tree as you walk around it.” He began collecting the scraps of clay from the floor with a dustpan.
He continued to share about his sculptural approach –he thinks reductively, methodically. The blocks of clay he works with are created by a process called rammed earth. After sourcing and preparing the clay locally, Cross packs these custom geometric molds, ramming the clay down to eliminate air pockets until he has these massive cubes to carve.
The carving process is multi-layered—it’s not just a line, a plane, an angle, what looks good physically. There is a reason for each cut, imbued with a 3-dimensional experience in mind—beckoning you to follow the light and shadow.
“I like to say that the form is intuitive," he continued, "so even if I have an idea of what I want to make, I never draw something and then just make that drawing. I never make a small piece and just blow it up.”
It’s this perfect balance between control and chaos, toeing the line between planning and pure innovation. Always thinking, conjuring, collecting, and then executing in a flow that is structured by his ideas and the aggregate impressions.
Cross took some white, clay-stained cloth and covered the vessel. With a head nod, gesturing towards the hallway, we followed him into the kitchen where he pulled out four palm-sized iterations of his larger vessels, filling them to the brim with tequila.
“I’m like the curator of my subconscious I guess. So all those things I’m reading, thinking, and watching, I create a visual vocabulary in my brain, making judgements about what I like or don’t like -what I want to explore.”
He took a sip, leaning on kitchen counter; “After gathering ideas, you gotta make a chunk of clay somehow.” Smiling at the simple sentiment, his countenance revealing the many layers of thought and intention lying beneath that process. We rose our glasses for a casual cheers, the gritty cup and smooth tequila tasted like the desert.
"I wanted to create a kind of like v-shaped enclosure for the tree, so it could be more dramatic—something that can change with the tree as you walk around it.”
Cross swung open the screen door and approached his kiln, fiddling with the thermometer and preparing some wood. Late afternoon drizzled into early evening, that sublime point where the sun softens, the landscape almost breathes a sigh of relief. Critters perk up, the burden of heat lifts.
Reclining in a camp-chair, the thumb of tequila pressed on my throat—I took another sip. The desert is known to be a spiritual, if not alien place. I thought of the bulbous, incomprehensible rock formations of Joshua Tree a few miles away—how the earth churned, compacted, fired and carved the shapes over millennia.
And on this little plot of barren land, an artist works out this very same process, abstracting the hand of nature, distilling its meaning into a single body of art. He creates his matter, molds his subjects, uses earth and metal and fire to conjure these abstract, monolithic forms –dark and grounding.
The pieces offer a knowledge, an insight, an unspeakable truth— the meshing of simplicity and magnified complexity. We all see something different in Jonathan Cross’s forms; they call us to a primal integration with the land.
He secured the kiln hatch, tossed his gloves on a nearby table and joined us with some more tequila. We spoke about Joshua Tree, the lure of the strange geology.
"The pieces offer a knowledge, an insight, an unspeakable truth— the meshing of simplicity and magnified complexity."
“I don’t believe in like a sentient, purposeful nature—it just is, a reactionary molding,” Cross shared. We nodded, wanting to hear more. “And while nature can create beautiful places and things and objects, it’s not art, it’s nature. There’s a difference between nature and art.”
He continued, “Now, man can move a tree or a stone from its context and frame it in a different space, not changing anything about it except for its location and turn it into art. It gets infused with meaning, a purpose that doesn’t exist outside of that interaction.”
Ricardo chimed in, offering his opinions. I settled quietly, contemplating the postulate. A philosophical tick revved within me, a fist slamming down on the table objecting the anthropomorphic undercurrents of the statement. But I took pause, considering whether matter has inherent artistic value or is only made special by our mental constructs, by sacred interaction between viewer and subject.
I was reminded of a poem that Cross had shared with us earlier that day, by Claudi Cassanovas, another influential sculptural artist. In describing his work Cassanovas states; “Each piece is a silence | that is filled with the sounds of your gaze.”
Cross hopped up to tend to the kiln again, the smoke beginning to gain momentum, a black plume rising into the twilight. When he opened the door, quickly tossing in some cottonwood, we caught a glimpse of the inferno –a magnificent heat transforming the forms within. In four days, they would emerge from the ashes as art, as vessels, as one man’s offering to make sense of our human relationship with this rocky planetoid.