Learning Curve 

Local woodturner Jon Mavko gives reclaimed materials new life

click to enlarge art_main_john_mavko.jpg

Athene Klein

Some things are best learned through trial and error. Others, not so much. Wood turning, with its reliance on obscure tools and heavy machinery, likely falls into the latter camp, but that didn't stop local artist Jon Mavko from giving it a go.

Mavko credits his father and grandfather—a master craftsman and machinist—for his initial interest in woodworking. When his grandfather passed away, Mavko inherited all of his tools. At first, he felt a duty to carry on his grandfather's legacy, but that sense of obligation quickly turned to an obsession with the craft, and he realized that, after years of searching, he'd found his ideal creative outlet.

"I've always been interested in art," Mavko says. "I love and admire art, but I've just never been that good at it. I'm a horrible drawer. I can't paint. Colors, no idea."

But an aptitude for mechanics and precision allows him to express an aesthetic through wood.

At first, Mavko worked on things like spoons and cutting boards that could be made simply with a saw and sand paper. Eventually he became bored with those limitations and looked to expand his craft. That's when he found a video on YouTube of someone using a lathe. Mavko quickly found his own lathe—a "ratty, 1950s-era Shopsmith for $300 on Craigslist."

"I bought it and gave myself a crash course, and that was a little gnarly because I almost killed myself," he says.

He started out doing spindle work on the lathe, making muddlers, but he really wanted to make a bowl. He bought the necessary attachments—a special gouge and a chuck to mount the wood.

"I got all set-up, mounted the wood to the lathe," he says. "I was like, 'That looks good, but just in case I'm going to stand out of the way,' so I flipped the switch and the whole thing wobbled off, and the wood just shot across the room, leaving a softball-sized hole in the wall right where my chest would have been. I found out what I did wrong very shortly after that."

When error can lead to grave consequence, trial and error becomes a dangerous approach to learning a new skill, but Mavko is not risk-averse. An avid rock climber—Mavko is also the head coach of the Tucson Climbing Project, a non-profit youth climbing organization—he is used to working in fields in which physical safety requires great attention to detail and a small margin of error.

Though he's happy to sell his work, he doesn't see woodturning becoming a full-time gig. For now, at least, it's more of a side hustle. It's an artistic practice first and a product second.

Mavko works exclusively with reclaimed wood, a decision born, at first, from economic necessity. Now it's a choice he makes for many reasons.

"As I progress through this craft, I feel like I'm giving this material, this tree that was once alive, the highest level of respect by creating something new out of it," Mavko says.

After three years of this endeavor, he says he would never cut down a tree for the sole purpose of making something out of it.

"I feel very lucky to work with a piece of wood and have it reveal its life history to me," Mavko says. "As soon as you start taking away wood, you see the grain and knots and inclusions and other things that you wouldn't otherwise see. Turning brings curved surfaces to wood very easily, and that gives a unique perspective."

Mavko works primarily with mesquite, and it takes a long time for their trunks to grow thick, so it's not always a given that he'll find the wood he wants for a specific project.

"Imagine, in order to make a 12-inch salad bowl, how big that tree has to be," he says.

Unlike many wood turners, who seek out wood that yields a smooth and predictable product, Mavko embraces the blemishes of found wood.

"Most woodturners don't want to work with blemished wood, and that makes no sense to me," Mavko says. "What does wood do when you cut it down? It cracks; it warps. It's going to have knots and checks in it. Why would you want to hide that? You've chosen to work in this material, so respect it."

As a result, Mavko's work often highlights the idiosyncrasies of his medium. Bowls and vases feature cracks and holes as aesthetic choices.

Mavko had the opportunity to hone his design skills through an apprenticeship last summer in the Hudson Valley with Joshua Vogel, who makes art under his own name and also runs a company called Black Creek Mercantile and Trade.

"Honestly, using the tools correctly is the easy part," Mavko says. "The challenging thing is matching your hand to your eye. You have a shape or curve or movement in your brain that you're searching for, and you have to trust your hand to execute it."

His time with Vogel allowed him to practice that in a serious way.

"I like bowl shapes that have a curve such that it looks like there's one movement from the rim of the bowl to the base. There aren't any turns or angles," Mavko says.

Understanding his aesthetic in terms of moves gave him a new vocabulary for his work, and helped him think about design in a more intentional way, but it didn't make the physical task of getting the hand to create what the mind desires any easier. But Mavko has been working to implement what he learned under Vogel's tutelage.

"My skill with tools will increase the more I do this, but what I really seek is to create minimal objects that invoke movement off the lathe," Mavko says.

Mavko also makes functional objects, salad bowls and other implements, using resin to block cracks and holes in the wood in order to make them food safe. "You're still highlighting the natural features, just in a different way," Mavko says. "When you fill a crack with resin, it makes it pop."

He doesn't love using resin, as it's inorganic and, in his opinion, takes away from the elegance of the final piece. In art pieces that needn't be food-safe, Mavko favors wooden bowties as a way to join cracks.

Mavko is currently working out of a new shop in the Lost Barrio that he shares with a metal worker and a fellow woodworker, Jake Scott of Black Hill Design. The space is larger than his old shop on His work is available at MAST (100 S. Ave. del Convento, #120) and samples can be found on his website, jonmavko.com.

More by Laura Horley


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