A NH artist and his creative shelter
Sculptor Jon Brooks's residence is his biggest work of art.
Sculptor Jon Brooks’s singular, undulating little house in the woods of southern New Hampshire seldom fails to surprise and charm visitors. It is human nature to put the new in terms of the known, so you might at first compare Brooks’s home to the buildings in a Dr. Seuss book, or to the hobbit houses in a Peter Jackson movie. But, in fact, it looks like nothing so much as Jon Brooks’s house. Brooks is a sculptor who favors organic and abstract forms, and the New Boston home that he shares with his wife Jami Boyle is one of his works of art, albeit larger, and with plumbing and electricity.
There are few right angles in the house. Outside, the shingled walls lean into sloping, gently twisting rooflines. A tower attached to the main body of the house has a top that references a mushroom or a samurai helmet. The chimney is a mosaic stalk that looks a bit like a moss spore. Inside, the natural wood ceiling and walls of the main living area are curved and ribbed with supports that are also key design elements. A wooden staircase leading to an exposed loft in one corner looks like a spinal column, with each step a vertebra. It’s a little like being inside the body of a big, friendly creature.
The floor, ceilings and walls are made from local hemlock and pine. There are a few “fancy” woods here and there, such as the mahogany used for the tabletops. An artist friend from Philadelphia created ceramic wall mosaics for the ground floor and the upper level of the house. The mosaics provide a pleasing contrast to the natural wood in both color and texture. A vintage enamel stove is a bright focal point in the kitchen.
The artist stands in his studio workroom.
It’s a fairly small house—Brooks is unsure of the square footage, as there aren’t any “squares”—but it’s not at all cramped. There is a ground-level entrance with a hall, bathroom and utility space, from which “floating” steps that resemble paramecia lead to the upstairs living, kitchen and dining areas, plus sleeping loft. The attached tower has an office, a meditation room and a third-floor bedroom. Brooks raised his daughter here, and when asked how it might have been for a toddler to negotiate staircases that daunt some adults, he says it had never been a problem; “it’s just home.”
Reflections of the homeowner
One of the most surprising aspects of the house isn’t visible: the cost. Brooks, a New Hampshire native, built it himself starting in 1970 for about $1,500—an impressively small sum, even forty-plus years ago. The land belonged to his family. For materials, he used salvage and wood from the property. He also had skill and a great deal of patience. It took a little more than ten years to build the house, but he was fueled by the desire to create a home that reflected his own aesthetic. “I knew I didn’t want to live in a box,” he says.
Climate control was an issue in the early days. The house was chilly in the winter. However, with the addition of fans, insulation and window shades, the house is now comfortable year-round.
Outside, there are vegetable and flower gardens, and chickens. There are also more sculptures. Some are as simple as branches placed in the ground at odd angles, so, at first, you aren’t sure which are there by accident and which by design. Other sculptures are monumental, such as the five striated pillars set into the ground near the house. Brooks’s inspiration for them came from pillars holding up a structure in Barcelona that was designed by architect Antoni Gaudi. A short distance from the house, Brooks’s studio stands where disaster struck more than four years ago.
Flower and vegetable gardens are part of the landscaping for the Brooks house (in background).
Loss and gain
In the dark of the morning on January 18, 2010, the studio went up in flames, taking with it about twenty pieces of Brooks’s work. A transformer wire, loaded down by heavy snow, had touched off the blaze. Brooks and Boyle were several hundred feet away, sleeping in their house, when the fire started. It happened so quickly that not much could be saved, even after the fire department arrived. Brooks had to hold himself back from going in to try to rescue some of his pieces. A fire is devastating for any home or business owner, but seems like an especially cruel blow for an artist whose primary medium is wood.
A month later, work had already begun on a new studio. Brooks’s brother, a post-and-beam contractor in Lyndeborough, did the building, with help from many friends, including some of the New Hampshire Furniture Masters, of which Brooks is a member.
He now has three studio buildings, one each for storage, machines and work, where before he had one. “I have more storage now than I had before,” Brooks says. And there is now running water. Although the buildings aren’t as curvy and organic-looking as his house (or the previous studio), they still lean to the whimsical, with slanted roofs and scalloped, painted trim. The scalloped motif is repeated in the wooden walkways that connect the buildings.
Maggie, the family dog, waits outside one of the studio buildings, which is trimmed in scalloped woodwork of magenta and yellow.
During this time, Brooks went from dismay to a state of happiness and gratitude. Shortly after the fire, he discovered that his insurance would not be enough to cover the losses. The general public stepped in with additional funding. “I had support from all over the world,” he says. Between donations and help from friends and family, he considers himself extraordinarily lucky. “I was blessed,” he says. “I am blessed.”
These days, Brooks is still working with wood in his studio, but also experimenting with bronze casting. It’s a medium he’s familiar with from his art school days, but otherwise it’s a new venture for him. He was attracted by metalwork’s scalability and the potential to make more affordable pieces. A current project is a jewelry holder with a wooden base from which a familiar, Brooks-style ladder in bronze emerges at an angle. Brooks has also been working with strips of bark, creating a pleasing series of nests and balls.
Who knows what will emerge next from the hands and mind of Jon Brooks? Even he’s not sure. Years ago when he was designing his house, he says, “I had lots of visions, but none looked like this.” The same is true of his art to this day, he adds. Except you can be pretty sure it won’t turn out looking like a box.
A ribbed ceiling and walls enclose the main living area of the house. In the center background is a vintage enamel stove.