Both parents were artists. As a child I thought everyone could do what I did. I would find clay in the dirt and make different animals, then leave them in the sun to bake. In art classes I couldn’t understand why the other students didn’t do very well. I thought they weren’t trying. Then I began to realize that I saw things differently than most of my classmates. My parents were always pointing out different aspects of compositions, commenting on forms and structures. We had many Sunday outings to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, TX. My father always had some type of art related project in the works. I was drawn to the sculptures, especially the large ones around the exterior of the museum.
I started working with my dad, Pat Dudley Roberts, around 1974. We/he had no real woodworking experience. He was one of those hair-brained artists that did whatever it took to get a installation done. He worked with a variety of media to create artwork for offices, hotels, and restaurants, along with some private collections. A job came up to fill a large atrium area with some type of art, after
going to the bank he noticed how much natural wood they used throughout the interior. Hence the introduction to wood murals. He designed some large, around 6’ diameter, daisy/sunflower type flowers. These were such a big hit that the designer asked if he could do something similar for a restaurant named “the Woods”. At this time I started working with him. I had the choice of going to the university or working as an apprentice with my father. Obviously I chose the latter. The designer asked if we could do panels with animals that would be found in the woods. My father came up with 4 panel designs. One was a 6’ by 6’ screen, it had inlay on both sides with cut out areas that you could see through.
The others were solid 4’ by 8’ pieces that had more of a mosaic appearance. My job became taking his design to make it into a workable pattern and transferring that pattern onto the wood. I enjoyed picking the colors and grains as I was laying out the projects.
He would start sawing and after all the parts were laid out I would saw out parts also. We both did the shaping, he would oversee the piece and let me know if I needed to sand more or less. Overall he let me do whatever struck me at the time. I made a silly cat that ended up in a piece that commemorated a prominent business man in Houston. The project depicted many of the huge buildings he pioneered, my dad said the cat represented the man was really a big pussy cat.
I am often asked if I started on smaller projects then worked my way up to the larger pieces. I grin and say, “ya know if you’re from TX ya just gotta start big”. It was a challenge to scale things down, I had trouble putting too much detail into a design thinking it was going to be much larger. All of the larger panels above and below were created between 1976 through 1983. Many times other family members assisted.
After working with this technique (we called them wood murals at the time) I realized how much I enjoyed sculpting the wood, working with grains and colors of wood. When you start shaping the wood it comes to life. Sometimes the wood inspires a project idea, other times I’ll be designing a piece and remember that special board that will work perfectly for it. Then I can’t wait to get started on it. I also enjoy adding textures to break up the smooth areas in order to balance things out.
Jerry Booher Came Aboard – Wood Murals are Intarsia
Jerry and I started working together in 1984 and that was my first chance to design and create one of a kind pieces on a smaller scale for private collections. You could say I had acquired a jig saw puzzle mentality. Jerry has refined the process, my father was the hair-brained artist and not that great of a craftsman (although he could be when he wanted). I have learned so much from Jerry. Jerry studied the technique as I showed him how my father and I created the wood murals. He was sure we would become rich mass producing wood art. This optimism was quickly dashed when he realized how labor intensive the whole process is. He was a tool and die maker before switching careers. He became an expert on the band saw, so much so, that people would swear he did the sawing on a scroll saw. He really perked up when people would ask if he used a laser beam to cut the parts out. We targeted juried art festivals in Florida. People really got excited seeing our wood murals, we could not make enough pieces to keep up with the demand. Everyone started asking “what do you call this stuff and where do you get the patterns?”
You could see the light bulb go off in Jerry’s head. He said we will be selling intarsia patterns, I didn’t think there would be much interest in patterns. Jerry sent pictures to the National Woodcarvers Association asking if they knew if there was a name for this technique of woodworking. Ed wrote back and said it was called Intarsia, and the only place he had seen it was in Italy. Jerry told me about the name Intarsia and I didn’t think there was a name for what we did. I looked in the Webster’s dictionary and sure enough the description fit what we were doing. Jerry sent pictures to Better Homes and Gardens “Wood” Magazine not long after the discovery of a name. They called and wanted to do a story about us. In 1988 Wood Magazine did a feature article about us and it changed our business to selling patterns and helping other people learn how to do make intarsia projects of their own. I guess ol’ Jerry was right about selling patterns. I created a pattern of a little owl in a tree and called it “Oh Hoot”. At the end of the article it had our address to send a S.A.S.E. for more information about Judy’s patterns. The response was overwhelming, people really enjoyed making the owl and wanted more patterns. We were living back in Texas at this time, my dad’s health was failing and I wanted to be closer to him.
We strive to make our patterns the best they can possibly be. Jerry will edit the patterns and ask “does this really need to be like this, can you smooth this out”, or ” Judy, this is really too small. I may be able to cut it out but other people may have a hard time with it”. After we get through that, then I start the sanding and parts that looked fine in theory (even after all these years) I realize it may not work that easily in reality. So I edit the pattern more. After it is shaped and the finish is applied, another edit may come in if the colors or shades may look better done a little differently. I don’t have to do this that often, but it does happen. I still try to sneak a few of those tiny pieces in just to see if Jerry is paying attention.
We got letters from all over the world, with pictures of the projects people were making from our patterns.
In 1997 I got a call from one Wood Magazines Sr. Editors letting me know I had officially been inducted. Inducted? I had to think about that for a moment – inducted into what?
He went on to tell me I was one of the first 10 people to be included in the Woodworking Hall of Fame for Design, Craftsmanship, and Education in Intarsia. I couldn’t believe it, I wouldn’t be getting this type of recognition if Jerry had not been behind me. He is the silent hero behind pushing intarsia to where it is today. He is the one responsible for all the parts fitting so nicely too.
Most people do not realize I design the patterns we have for sale. Visitors will come by our studio and see the pencil sketches and ask if I draw these patterns. At first I thought that was odd, although we do not mention where the designs come from. Each pattern starts out with a pencil shaded version of the intarsia pattern. I like to work out the coloring and even shade in where I will be shaping the project. When I am shaping the piece I will have my pencil sketch on the wall as a reference. I also like to have as many pictures of the subject matter as possible, especially when I am not familiar with the subject.
In the Spring of 2001 issue of Scroll Saw Workshop magazine the cover shows the pencil sketch used when I made the Indian on horseback the “Beginning of the Trail”. We received so many requests for the “End of the Trail”, that is such a sad statement for Native Americans. I like to create original designs. I had a horse enthusiast call and comment on how I even had the horses ear turned back waiting on his riders next command. I enjoy paying attention to the small details. Most people do not notice the little things like that but it is what makes my patterns have a special quality.
I have designed and created many projects for a variety of magazines. My time is limited, I do not have the time to make as many projects available for the magazines.