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Knotty by Nature

Leilani Marie Labong | January 29, 2019 | Style & Beauty Story Style National

Simultaneously defying and exalting the forces of nature is what San Francisco artist Katie Gong does best. Her sculptures, long rattan poles contorted into knots, squiggles and sometimes even braids, are as soothing to the eye as they are bewildering. After all, wood is hardly known for its suppleness and such bending feats. Inspired by a stair rail she once admired in a friend’s Sea Ranch home, Gong’s works seem beyond the realm of possibility.

Yet, a whole forest of these sculptures lean against a wall in Gong’s workshop at Get High on Mountains, the Tenderloin co-op she and her husband, photographer Brett Walker, opened in 2016 to provide affordable studios for local artists. Her work can also be seen at the Mission’s ladies-only hangout, The Assembly, where Gong handbuilt most of the furniture; and among the “it” girl goods at Legion in the Tenderloin, Rare Device on Divisadero Street, Yonder in the Inner Richmond and Freda Salvador in Pacific Heights.

“My sculptures are like these frozen moments in time when the wood wasn’t supposed to be doing what it did,” says Gong, 35, a Davis native. “And what’s more: It’s still standing tall.”

The process of steaming the rattan for eight to 10 hours before a single pole is ready to be bent into the desired shape (Gong spends hours practicing on rope what she does in less than five seconds with the wood, which regains its rigidity on contact with the ambient air temperature) came after a lot of trial and error that involved unconventional applications of ordinary household objects: Big soup pots were used as molds for the wood, as were colanders with holes strung with wire to medievally keep the wood in place.

Gong, a former senior display coordinator for Anthropologie, experimented with different steam applications, but quickly found they did not possess the intensity required to soften wood. Now, she uses an industrial vapor steamer with a large chamber, which functions as a steam bath for up to 10 poles. Before settling on rattan, the vertical pores of which allow steam to permeate the wood more evenly, as the ideal medium for her practice, she tried manipulating walnut, ash and redwood. (While not as cooperative, they remain her materials of choice for furniture-making).

“When I first saw Katie’s wood knots, I was viscerally thrilled. Bending wood is advanced,” says Gong’s friend, SF artist Windy Chien, whose wooden spoon-carving, while secondary to her internationally acclaimed rope work, grants her sisterhood in an emerging subculture of female woodworkers in the Bay Area, which also includes Oakland-based Aleksandra Zee (timber large-scale artworks) and Yvonne Mouser (simple, well-crafted everyday furniture) in Dogpatch.

“Woodworking can be an intimidating pursuit for women, who often haven’t been encouraged to do something that requires strength, noisy power tools and a rapport with the bros at the hardware store,” says Chien. “It takes a certain type of fortitude to get through those initial barriers.”

You could say Gong—the daughter of a general contractor and granddaughter of an engineer/woodworker who grew up wielding all the tools to build her own toys and treehouses—has been developing this kind of grit since childhood. She’s also confidently handy. When Walker asked his wife to build a new bed for their apartment in the Outer Richmond, Gong completed the task midway through her pregnancy with their daughter, Finn, now 6 months old.

“My to-do list grows longer and longer every day, but I like it that way,” says Gong, who is creating furniture on an ongoing basis for The Assembly and will soon start building out a spinning gym in Oakland with her best friend, Zee. She claims she mastered multitasking while at Anthropologie, during chaotic, low-budget installs. “They’d be like, ‘OK, for this project we’ve got $300, all this paper and 10 sewing machines. Now what?’ I’m the lady who spins a lot of plates. I operate well under a little bit of chaos, as you can tell.”

Her presence is remarkably grounding, despite the topsy-turvy goings-on around her right now at Get High on Mountains—power tools at full throttle in the background; studio artists orbiting around her, ready to ask questions; a freshly wakened baby vying for her attention; the Tenderloin’s colorful street culture looming at the front door. In this moment, Gong’s sculptures seem to transcend their face value as elegant works of art. They are metaphorical expressions of her life as a mother, wife, business owner and prolific creative, frequently thrown for a loop and pulled in different directions, but still standing tall.

Originally published in the February issue of San Francisco

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