To Jesse Schlesinger, Nature Is the Greatest Teacher

After training extensively in Japan alongside seasoned artisans and craftspeople, the second-generation carpenter and student of Paul Discoe has never been more dialed into the wisdom about growth, erosion, and transformation embedded in the outdoors. A showcase at Frieze L.A. with Anthony Meier shows how the San Francisco artist has learned to follow his intuition and imbue objects with the spirit of their place and maker.

Jesse Schlesinger in his studio. Photography by Chris Grunder

What did your upbringing as a second-generation carpenter teach you about craft?

Growing up in a household of makers, you learn by doing and observing, sometimes in subconscious ways, such that acquired knowledge feels fundamental, even inherent. My father instilled in me a dedication to craft that focuses on quality—to approach every aspect of the work with the utmost care and respect. A consequence of this way of working is a commitment to the quality of the work as a primary importance, that it will be reflected in the life of the thing that one is making, whether it’s a home, artwork, or piece of furniture. In the end, these objects will be imbued with the spirit of their making and their maker, and this might be transferred or experienced by the person that interacts with it—no matter how brief the engagement. 

It is increasingly rare these days to inherit a trade, and I’m grateful for the agency and confidence it has provided. There is something in this that shares an affinity with my experiences in Japan—the respect and appreciation for craft and aesthetics.

Do you recall the first time you felt truly connected to the outdoors?

We grew up going on weekend hikes, and family vacations were primarily camping trips, so a profound connection to the outdoors feels fundamental to me, like breathing. It’s where I go when I need to center myself. The outdoors offers a kind of spiritual experience: there is a hike on Mount Tamalpais that I’ve returned to regularly over the past decades that engenders a profound sense of peace for me, regardless of what’s happening in my life and the world. It makes me think of Wendell Berry’s oft-quoted poem The Peace of Wild Things—and I’d be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the complexity inherent in the concept of wild and wilderness, and the privilege I’ve enjoyed in having access to these places. 

Most importantly, my mother is a teacher and a gardener, and though I balked at joining her in the garden when I was growing up, I have no doubt that her influence eventually led me to work on a small, organic farm in my early twenties. This was an experience of great importance to my ideas and experiences of the natural world. 

“Untitled (Hope you went for a walk and the skies opened up and you got soaked and it was glorious)” (2022). Photography by Chris Grunder, courtesy of Anthony Meier

Your parents were back-to-the-landers and you’ve cited Wendell Berry’s perspectives on agrarianism as formative. What keeps you grounded, fulfilled, and creatively inspired in Northern California, especially as technology saturates every aspect of our lives?

When technology or the glaring inequities of our world seem too heavy to bear, I seek solace in nature and the outdoors. This can be something as simple as walking along the bay shoreline near my studio in San Francisco, hiking on Mount Tamalpais, or spending time at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. There’s a scale to nature in California that’s so dramatic, and it invariably helps put things in perspective. Since I often seek the materials I work with in local mills, quarries, or simply out on my hikes, I’ve found that nature is the greatest teacher if we pay attention and are willing to listen.  

Tell me all about your experience of spending six months as an artist fellow living and working with artisans across Japan. What drew you to this opportunity and how did you know it was something you wanted to pursue?

I was drawn to Japanese art and culture from childhood. This may have been through my father’s interest in Frank Lloyd Wright (who adored Japan), or through the lineage of Eastern philosophies that influenced my parents as well as the Beats, John Cage, and so many past generations. These interests deepened during my twenties, through my own philosophical developments and art historical and aesthetic discoveries, and in my work with Paul Discoe. 

The opportunity to travel to Japan was a profound gift. Thanks to the tremendous generosity of friends and acquaintances, I was able to explore the entire length of the country, living and working with a variety of craftspeople and artisans, from woodworkers to glassblowers to fashion designers… I even lived in a restaurant in Kyoto for a month. The experience was utterly transformative and will have a lifelong impact on the way I see the world around me.

Untitled works in Monterey cypress and salvaged redwood. Photography by Chris Grunder, courtesy of Anthony Meier
(FROM LEFT) “Untitled” (2023). “Untitled” (2023). Photography by Chris Grunder, courtesy of Anthony Meier

How has your time in Japan shaped the way you work today?

It’s hard to know where to start. I feel a kinship with that place and culture that is foundational. It was like coming home: a way of seeing the world and approaching one’s work that transcends language. The experience instilled an agency to follow my intuition, to accept my capacity to act from a place of experience, and to let go of my tendency to get lost in overthinking.  

When did Paul Discoe come into the picture? What did he teach you?

I was introduced to Paul thanks to Lawrence Rinder shortly after art school, and we embarked on a wild pedagogical experiment in which students learned traditional Japanese building techniques and eventually constructed a 16-by-24-foot timber frame structure on a remote property in Northern California. There’s so much I could say about this. Suffice to say it was crazy and beautiful and for me, it cemented a lifelong friendship (and mentorship) with Paul.

There are so many lessons I learned from him—from craft to Zen Buddhism—that it’s hard to choose just one. I might distill it into a respect for tradition and a willingness to break the rules of that tradition, and to know, fundamentally, based on dedication and experience, which rules can be broken and which should be maintained. To experiment, and not hold back.

Most of your works are untitled, but one is called “Hope you went for a walk and the skies opened up and you got soaked and it was glorious.” Is there a story behind this?

The works are untitled, as the application of language, if it is applicable, tends to come later.  This title is a direct quote from a message I sent to a dear friend and colleague, for whom I hold tremendous respect intellectually and otherwise. I am an avid reader of prose and poetry, with a focus lately on contemporary writers, from Anne Carson to Rachel Cusk to Mieko Kawakami and Yoko Ogawa and so on. Lucia Berlin holds a special place on my bookshelf. Language, and the way it is constructed and can be played with, holds great meaning for me, though it is generally not the genesis of the work that I make as an artist, but rather serves as a dialogue. Every once in a while I discover that I’ve written a sentence to a friend that has a certain poetry to it, and I have an archive of such correspondence that I draw on when looking for titles. This relates the work, through the title, to that person and whatever was occurring at that moment.   

“Untitled (Whetstone Work 04)” (2024). Photography by Chris Grunder, courtesy of Anthony Meier

You’ve spoken about “the subtle, gentle act to show the unseen wonder of things.” Do you often embed narratives into your work that the viewer may not catch at first glance?

Yes, that’s accurate. I hope the work will deliver or reward attentive engagement, that the closer one looks, the more might be revealed. This relates to the notion that stems from my experience growing up on job sites building homes with my father: that the work is imbued with the spirit of its making… or perhaps it could function like a koan. That would be a lofty ambition.

The whetstone paintings almost resemble a tree trunk when viewed from directly above. Is this intentional? What compelled you to pick up the whetstone as a painting tool?

It is wonderful that you see that, though it had not specifically occurred to me. Your observation is a generous window into the way you’ve drawn associations and threads across different facets of my practice. It’s like a gift, a glimpse into the way your mind works.  

The whetstone paintings stem from the traditional process by which I flatten the stones that I use to sharpen my chisels and handplanes. These are the tools I use to make some of the sculptures. I realized that the residue of this process resulted in a work that spoke to labor and craft and also engaged in an aesthetic vein related to an art historical lineage from action painting to Gutai and beyond—so I felt this was fertile ground that warranted exploration.

If your sculptures could talk, what would they say?

They would ring, like a bell.

(FROM LEFT) “Untitled” (2023). “Untitled (New Ways of Thinking About It)” (2023). Photography by Chris Grunder, courtesy of Anthony Meier
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