In our new series, Handcrafted, we take you to the studios and workshops of the artisans, artists, and makers selling in Amazon’s store. Learn how a chance discovery led sculptor Jenny Wong-Stanley to become an extreme wood bender and found her small business Art of Plants, and how sculpting became a source of healing for her mental health.
In her Oakland, California studio, artist Jenny Wong-Stanley stands at her desk, meticulously sanding a small wooden sculpture. Steam rises behind her from a long handmade steamer. A timer goes off and she walks over, lifts up the steamer’s sideways lid, and pulls out a scalding hot plank of wood with her bare hands. The steam has made the wood malleable, allowing it to be bent into a tight radius. Jenny is an “extreme wood-bender,” as she calls herself, and 10 years ago she turned her love for wood-bending into a small business called Art of Plants.
Jenny creates intricate bent-wood sculptures for home décor. In her studio, hundreds of individually handmade pieces of various sizes hang from the ceiling and line the shelves, ready to be packaged and shipped to their new owners. The sheer volume of perfectly-bent sculptures demonstrate her finesse, while hinting at a possible obsession with the craft that she began perfecting only after discovering it by chance. “I couldn’t stop myself from trying to get it correct,” she says.
At home on maternity leave following the birth of her second child, Jenny was working on a future project which required some reading. “I was a middle school science teacher, doing some research on deforestation,” she says. As she sifted through a series of articles, she came across one that seemed out of place. It stopped her in her tracks. “It was this one-pager that [said] this guy bent a very small radius [of] juniper or oak.”
The idea intrigued her so much that she immediately set off to try wood-bending for herself. She found a wooden ruler and tossed it in a lobster steaming pot for a bit. Then, she tried to bend it. “There [were] no instructions,” she says. “I proceeded to break it, of course.” But she didn’t give up.
For Jenny, learning to bend wood was about more than creating art. “I need things to focus on,” she says. Long before she discovered wood-bending, she was diagnosed with clinical depression. “I would just lie on the couch and cry all weekend long, but there was no particular reason why I was sad,” she says. “It’s not like there was a traumatic moment that happened.” Her bouts with depression continued for years before there was a diagnosis.
Another pattern that Jenny and others around her noted was that she would work nonstop, spending long hours functioning with little to no sleep. “I would be fine, until I wasn’t. And then, I would crash,” she says. It was a frequent occurrence that finally led to a second diagnosis of Bipolar II disorder.
When Jenny discovered wood-bending, “I became obsessed with figuring out how to bend the wood without breaking it,” she says. Her need to find a solution became a “compulsive focus.”
Every piece of wood has a story. If I listen very carefully, and feel it, I can tell how far I can push it.
Wood-bending, however, became a healthy obsession because she found healing in creating art. “I love using my hands, I love the bending of the wood,” she says. “It was just really relaxing to work with my hands and repeat, and repeat,” she says as she works on a piece called “Whirlpool.” It is one of more than 22 designs that she has made by hand hundreds of times for Art of Plants, both to fill customer orders and to relax her mind. She also regularly exhibits her larger sculptures in galleries and as installations.
After she successfully bent her first few pieces, turning them into beautiful sculptures, her husband suggested that she try to sell them. “I put like two pieces up [for sale online] to see if [people] wanted it, if anybody even liked it,” she says. “And people did! There [were] like five people who were interested.”
At first, she didn’t envision it as a business. “I [thought that I] was definitely going to go back into teaching,” she says. However, taking a year off to raise her kids, she continued making her sculptures and selling them. “I just kept doing it,” she says. That small beginning marked the launch of what would become Art of Plants. “That was 10 or 12 years ago,” she says as she tries to recall the exact number of years. “And I am still doing it!”
The wood that she uses most often is cypress but only when it’s found, fallen, or discarded. “Sometimes, I get [wood] from the East Coast, sometimes from the West Coast,” Jenny says, “every time there is a storm, I contact people there… like small farms, local milling places, or local lumber stores.” She pays to have the wood cut into large planks and shipped to her. Not all the wood is suitable for bending. Some, she has learned to recognize, will break easily.
Art of Plants is part of Amazon Handmade, a community of sellers with handcrafted products. “[Selling in Amazon’s store] has been a boost for me personally, because it allowed me to reach a huge [customer-base] that I would never have reached, whether it’s through social media or [selling on my own],” she says.
There are many steps involved in creating each of Jenny’s sculptures, and it takes her between five to seven days to complete a piece. The actual bending part though takes between 30 and 60 seconds, which is all the time she has before the wood starts to cool off and becomes difficult to bend. The rest of the time is taken up selecting the wood, milling or cutting it to an appropriate length and width for the intended sculpture, sanding it, painting it, letting it dry for a day or more, then soaking it overnight in her proprietary non-toxic solution. And then comes the bending. “So, if you’re not paying attention, it’ll already [be] done [before you notice it],” she says.
After a few finishing touches like additional sanding and painting, she completes each piece by adding an air plant—plants that do not require soil in order to survive and are watered by placing them in a bowl for 5-15 minutes.
As she places another piece of newly-treated wood into the hot steamer, she says: “People always say, ‘why are you using your bare hands?” It’s because she needs to feel the wood. “Every piece of wood has a story,” she says, “If I listen very carefully, and feel it, I can tell how far I can push it.”
These days, Jenny has a new goal. “I’m trying to condense my bending time from 30 seconds to even shorter,” she says. The challenge is what keeps her going. ”I love it,” she says. “I’ll stop doing it the moment I stop loving it, but I don’t see that happening.”
Handcrafted is a new series taking you to the studios and workshops of artisans, artists, and makers, as they share their stories and give us a peek into their creative process.