Wood. The forms it takes in Jeffro Uitto’s life are almost as many and varied as the waves that wash it ashore for him to find and sculpt into fine art.
His work has been well known on the southern coast of Washington for years. Initially, much of it fell into a general category of furniture, more accurately furniture as art, with form always overshadowing function. The pieces were big, bold and dramatic, curving and twisting in their natural forms but carved and polished to lend an other worldly quality.
In recent years, his focus has changed to tap into a creativity not driven by function but an inner vision to sculpt the wood into something entirely new. Some of the work is free form, inspired by something natural, like the kelp forests that grow just off the coast. But lately, the most impressive pieces are sculptures of powerful animals – giraffes, horses, Texas longhorns, spectacular eagles — all life-sized and imbued with motion and energy. The medium, as always, is wood, pieces of driftwood, sometimes hundreds of them, for the most part just as he found them, fitted together to mimic the muscle, sinew and bones of the animals in an organic form that blurs the lines between plant and animal.
The driftwood medium includes logs and root wads of trees claimed by erosion along the ocean. His foraging includes pieces ranging from finger sized and smaller, up to sizes that require a winch or a small crane to salvage from the beach. There’s a photo of him wading — in winter — waist deep in water brimming with bobbing pieces of driftwood to get the pieces he wants.
“Big projects” is how he refers to the pieces he’s concentrating on now, and it’s particularly apt for the life-size rhinoceros he made last year for the Chimei Museum in Taiwan. He had the project in mind for years and when the museum asked him to create something for an exhibit about animals, it was the push he needed. “I had saved stuff for 10 years off and on. It wasn’t a solid idea yet, I was just saving texture,” said Uitto. “ … The opportunity to do the show was the spark. They didn’t even really know what I was doing. We had four or five months to do everything and get it over there.”
The museum leased the piece for six months and in July purchased it for its permanent collection.
He doesn’t typically talk about what his work sells for, deferring out of respect for the privacy of clients, but in one conversation about the rhino, he was hopeful it would bring a six-figure price.
He has begun working on a life-size Texas longhorn after being approached by a real estate development company in Texas. It started as essentially a commission with a price in mind and the possibility of more like it, but that felt limiting to him and now he’s letting it take its own direction.
“I think I’ll try to go further with it and not scale it down … just blow it out of the water and see what happens. … What I wanna do is just not hinder this piece. I just want to feel that freedom and go as far as I want to on it.”
Uitto, who is 34, grew up in Tokeland, on Willapa Bay along the southern Washington coast. He, his partner Zela McKinstry and their daughters Leah and Timber live in the same house where he was raised by his grandmother. The property includes a cabin next door that he purchased and is converting into a studio. Wood, collected for years, surrounds both the house and studio, organized by shapes, textures, size and potential uses. He can look at many of the pieces and remember where he got them and what he saw in them at the time.
But he’s starting to feel like it’s a bit much and he’s working to “dial in” his physical environment, maybe lighten his load and in the process free up “chi” for himself creatively and improve the physical space for his family.
It’s hard because he appreciates the pieces for their own singular, intrinsic beauty and it’s not easy to part with some of them. He points to a piece and says he’s thinking about leaving it just the way it is but putting a glass dome over it and simply display it for what it is, something natural and perfect.
His affinity for wood and shaping it came early. He said he first saw the commercial potential as a child when he could carve something and trade it for something else.
He grew up around the beach, with a free and easy lifestyle that included bikers and riding Harleys with his grandmother. The ocean was just a block or two away and like most of kids in the community he grew up and went to work in the area, in the cranberry bogs or as a commercial fishermen or carpenter.
He supports himself with his art now, representing himself on the business side, as opposed to being represented by a broker. But it takes effort and he starts many mornings on the computer, networking and looking for ways to get his name and his art more widely known. He sometimes travels to be part of shows and exhibits and counts it as part of the cost of doing business for an artist. “It’s just kind of a matter of creating a buzz,” he says. Almost strangely, he doesn’t entirely mind the business side and he enjoys the contact and friendships he’s developed with clients, but it requires contacts he doesn’t have if he is to exhibit on an even bigger stage, so he is weighing whether to get outside representation.
Right now, most of his sales are handled directly through his website, jeffrouitto.com.
Tokeland is small — 151 people, according to the Census — but with a surprisingly large number of artists and creative types.
“It’s epic,” he says of the art community around him. “There’s a killer group of people here, the energy is awesome. Everybody is just in their own world, doing their own thing, but when you get the opportunity (to collaborate) … that always helps you grow a little bit. It’s so easy to get too close to what you’re doing.”
Lately he’s been energized by a collaboration with Judith Altruda a jewelry designer (Washington Coast Magazine, Winter 2015).
“It’s cool when you accidentally discover new techniques,” Uitto said. “We were sitting around one night and I was thinking ‘You know what would be cool, is to get different textures by blasting these (copper panels) with bird shot.’ We started doing it and it translated into some of her jewelry.” He produces a photo on his phone to show the effects. “Isn’t that freakin’ sick, man?”
Altruda has known him for a long time and seen him evolve as an artist. “Jeffro has an eye, a feel and the ability to capture the essence of his subject. He is a composer with wood, selecting and arranging a multitude of pieces with great skill to create something bigger than the sum of its pieces,” she said. “He taps into the life force beyond the physical piece and that is what I relate to. That is what creates the aha! moment. It’s something seen and felt.”
She is also his friend. “As a person, he is funny, irreverent, serious and focused,” she said. “He’s a wonderful family man and always evolving as an artist. He’s never satisfied to repeat himself.”
Uitto often juggles multiple projects and says he feels like he’s never not working. “You live in your environment. I always have the mindset that wherever I’m going, I relate it to work,” Uitto said.
“It goes in waves. I’ll just get obsessed and start six things in one day. But to not burn out and keep the excitement going is a big deal.”
“My favorite is when you are just so dialed in that time doesn’t even exist. You don’t think about eating or anything. You’re a vessel, and energy is just coming through you. I don’t know where it’s coming from, but it’s coming through you. You could go all day and night. That energy is a big high.”
A turning point for him, he said, was acknowledging confidence in his own work. “Just knowing and believing and thinking about things like they’ve already happened, and thinking big. Think huge. And if you come close to your mark, make a new mark.”
In that category is one idea he’s been playing with for years. “I want to do this giant, humpback whale and have this thing kinda breaching, grabbing a lot of movement up in the air a little bit.” He already has some of the pieces and sees it as being maybe 20 feet long. He’s considering doing it in bronze. He would first sculpt it from driftwood pieces, then take it apart and have bronze castings made of the pieces then braze the bronze pieces back together like the original.
He’s on the fence about the technique. The longevity for something so large and involved is attractive and the patina and look of bronze as it ages is a look that appeals to him. “On the other hand I like something that’s so authentic. I love the wood. It’s warm, it’s original, not a copy. And there’s a shelf life on material (like wood) that almost makes people appreciate things in the moment.”
John Gumaelius, a sculptor who lives in the North River area (Washington Coast Magazine, Fall 2014) is a friend and has also collaborated with Uitto. “I like that he’s using stuff other people just pass on by, and he makes something beautiful out of it. I really admire him for his artistic sense, and as a person he’s just so full of life. … He’s really patient (as an artist) but to meet him you wouldn’t think so because he’s bouncing off the walls.
“He’s got things figured out. I’m sure he doesn’t think so, but he’s really arrived.”
There are definitely days when Uitto doesn’t feel like he has it figured out. He recently finished a sculpture of a red-tailed hawk. He likes the way it turned out and sees energy coming from every painstaking piece, but early on he struggled with it and at one point hung it in the doorway so he had to face it every time he entered the studio. “Some days I would come in and I would be jamming, and some days I would just look at this thing all day and I’d pull off the pieces I put on the day before.” It’s been months and several hundred hours of work and he’s still fiddling with it. “Often, when Zela and I are searching for shapes, we call it a game of playing ‘nope.’ It’s so simple that it’s hard. But if you can step out of your own way, that’s a big deal.”
Uitto says he’s not sure where his creative energy will lead him. “The only thing I know is I don’t know anything and there are no rules. I don’t know where everything is going and that’s kind of the excitement.”
“I know I will always be into some kind of creation and probably in this medium, but maybe more (directed to) my own environment.” He loves the beach and says he’ll always keep his place there, but he’s drawn to the lush North River forests south of Aberdeen, too. “I have some ideas and kind of dreams of getting land and expanding my vision and creating my own world up there.”