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Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

John Cameron shows award-winning furniture at Copley Society for Art+Crafts.

John Cameron, Chair (detail). Bill Truslow photograph

John Cameron, Chair (detail). Bill Truslow photograph

For furniture maker John Cameron, awards like this are the pinnacle—“The chance to make speculative work,” he says. 

So when the Boston Society of Arts+Crafts sends you congratulations and a check, and then says “Make what you want” for an exhibition, all limitations are off.

“The only constraint might be, ‘Does this look beautiful?’ ”

Cameron, who lives in works in East Gloucester, was recognized by SA+C for his furniture making, his metal-smithing (he fabricates the hinges and other metalwork as well), and for his wood engravings. It’s not Cameron’s first award, just another achievement in decades of working his craft. Let’s just say he makes nice things.

“My dad was Depression era,” Cameron says. “He did everything, and you can learn a lot watching your dad.” It’s his way of explaining how he got so skilled at working with tools.

It wasn’t a direct path from home-repair to award-winning furniture for Cameron though: lots of readers will remember him from the popular ska band Bim Skala Bim, his mates for decades. He still plays, although the long road days are over. “The audience kept getting younger,” he says, “and I didn’t.”

All along he was making things, even while in the band. Apprenticeships, studies—even a couple years of post-doc training in California with the late woodworking artist James Krenov—honed the skill. “His books were like 60 percent philosophy, and 40 percent how-to,” Cameron says. He gives credit to other furniture makers, like Richard Scott Newman, as well. 

Artistically, a late-’80s Museum of Fine Arts exhibition that mixed traditional furniture with contemporary artists made a difference. “Back then I knew what I wanted to do,” he says, “but I had no idea how to start. Then I saw contemporary artists looking at older work, and then responding to it. Right then I thought, ‘That seems like the most fun I could possibly have.’ ”

Exhibitions like the current one at SA+C “never pay initially,” Cameron says, but they always do eventually. New clients, commissions, all lead to more things to work on in the shop. “The value is exposure,” he says, “and all exposure is good.” He shows his work at his own Mt. Pleasant St. studio in East Gloucester, and at the Gallery at Somes Sound on Mt. Desert Isle in Maine.

Cameron also makes bamboo fly rods—“there’s a bunch of fanatics who still like the feel of the wood,” he says, and then quickly proving that he’s one of those fanatics, by admitting he knows the level of any stream in North America at any moment.

The furniture, prints, fly rods, engravings and drawings of John Cameron are on view through Sept. 1 at the SA+C Gallery, 100 Pier Four Blvd., Boston. To see more of the artist’s work, visit johncameroncabinetmaker.com. For information about the current SA+C exhibition visit www.societyofcrafts.org or call 617-266-1810.

Keith Powers covers music and the arts for GateHouse Media and WBUR’s ARTery. Follow @PowersKeith; email to keithmichaelpowers@gmail.com.

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