John Diamond An artist surprised at himsel
Author: Paul deVere | Photographer: John Brackett
When John and Nancy Diamond moved to Hilton Head Island in 1990, John Diamond was semi-retired from the giant management consulting firm, Booz Allen Hamilton, where he had worked most of his professional career. He also probably had the longest commute to work.
“I spent six years commuting between Hilton Head and Brazil. I’d go down there, spend about 10 days, then come back and play a little golf for a couple weeks. It was a wonderful way to retire,” Diamond said. What he didn’t realize was that halfway through that “retirement,” in 1993, he would add a dimension to his life he had never considered.
“We had a neighbor who lived in Long Cove, retired Air Force General Fred Dean. I came back from playing golf one day and Nancy said, ‘Fred Dean is having an opening at the Art League gallery tonight and we’re going.’ I didn’t want anything to do with any artists or galleries. Of course I went,” Diamond said, laughing. For years, Fred Dean was a well known woodturner on the island and had a number of successful shows.
As the Diamonds entered the gallery, John saw Dean’s beautiful display. “I just took one look at it and I said, ‘I want to do that,’” Diamond recalled. He’s been doing it for 15 years. “I credit my wife for dragging me, kicking and screaming, to Fred Dean’s show. She’s my greatest supporter and severest critic,” he said.
He is still somewhat surprised by his passion for turning. “When I was a kid, we built soap box derby cars and tree forts. But I’m an engineer and happened to go to law school. I worked as a management consultant almost all of my career, the last 15 years of it overseas. I never had time to do that kind of stuff,” said Diamond. Overseas meant places like Australia, Japan and Latin America.
Diamond’s “stuff,” including exquisitely turned bowls, vases, and wood sculptures, is now commissioned, carried by galleries and prize winners at art shows. In the 2006 National Juried Show at the Walter Greer Gallery in the Arts Center, Diamond’s bowl, titled “Macassar Ebony,” placed first in the sculpture category. His current galleries include the Signature Gallery in Savannah and Camellia Arts on Hilton Head Island. He has also had works at galleries in Charleston and Bluffton.
Diamond gives much credit to Fred Dean for helping him get into the art of turning. After the show, Diamond talked to him about what he would need. “A couple months later, Nancy and I went to Atlanta and I bought a lathe, a band saw, and a table saw, and I was off and running,” Diamond said.
“Fred was a great help, particularly when I first started out. I’d get in trouble twice a day. I would call Fred and ask if I could come over. I’d take him a piece and say, ‘Fred, I’ve sanded and sanded this thing and it doesn’t look right.’ So he’d pick it up and take it outside and look at it in low angled light, that really emphasizes finish. Then he would say, ‘looks scratchy,’” Diamond laughed.
When Diamond was doing his Hilton Head Island to Brazil commute, he and Nancy were building a new home in Long Cove. It now had to include his studio/workshop. “I told the architect I want 800 square feet. I don’t care what shape it is. I would take the blueprint on the airplane and shape it myself,” Diamond said. The studio includes all the machines and tools he needs to create his art. The dust collection system is massive—and essential. The sanding involved in woodturning creates a significant amount of dust. “Sanding is the bane of every wood turner’s existence. We all hate to sand,” Diamond said.
Where other homes in Long Cove might have a wine cellar, Diamond has a store room for slabs of wood and burls. A wood burl is an outgrowth on a tree where the grain has grown in a deformed manner. A burl is a very peculiar and highly figured wood, prized for its beauty. On a trip to the West Coast, Diamond fell in love with them.
“Nancy and I were driving up to the northern California redwood forests. I saw a hand made sign that said ‘Burls for sale.’ Of course the car shifted out of my hands and we drove in. There was a guy that sold burls. Loggers brought them to him. Big maple burls, some black oak, and myrtle burls. He sold them and also made bowls. He didn’t do it on a lathe. He would take a chain saw and cut that cavity as neatly as I’ve ever seen that done on a lathe. Then he’d power sand it and get it almost perfectly round,” Diamond said. “I was entranced. I bought a whole bunch of this stuff and had it shipped back to Hilton Head.”
Diamond is also interested in exotic burls. He mentioned several, including Cocobolo, a very dense hardwood from Central America. It is so dense it doesn’t float. Diamond said exotic burls cost between $30 and $40 a pound.
Diamond makes 50-100 larger turned pieces a year. But he also makes small objects such as pens, bottle stoppers and letter openers. They give him instant satisfaction. “Bowls take months. I can turn almost anything in a few hours. But then I’ll spend weeks or months finishing it, getting it right,” he said.
The Diamond’s home is tastefully laced with art works, some of it created by other professionals; a Walter Palmer sculpture is there. And, of course, there are works by John Diamond, the engineer-lawyer, the “quant,” as he describes himself, who still seems to be surprised by his passion and art. The pieces are striking—the natural beauty of the grain of the wood, the intricate patterns, the sometimes delicate, sometimes subtle, sometimes bold colors, the ultra fine finish.
The ones he “got right.”