Transformational Light

Erleuchten Lamps was founded in 2016 by Matthew Johnson, a fine artist based in Oregon, USA. Inspired by forms and textures found in the natural world, he uses specific materials such as hard wood gourds and maple burl to create a variety of highly-detailed lighting art.

A: Your practice is both research- and craft-based. How do you combine these two processes?
MJ: When I decided to embark on this journey, from the first to last piece I told, tell, and will tell a story that spans esoteric and general history, current and future events, topics and things. Merging research and craft-based, or what I like to call functional-based art is accomplished by incorporating the story behind a piece into something easy to notice in the design.

An example of this can be viewed in the piece Payseur. The Payseur family was in part a Railroad family in the United States. The design of the Payseur has four large round circles accompanied with straight parallel lines. The lamp also represents an old railroad gas lamp I had when I was a child. The parallel lines represent railroad tracks, and the parallel lines in old railroad train engines and cars while the circles represent the trains wheels and lanterns used.

A: You’ve mentioned that you “see abundant beauty where mundane items expose their vicissitude quality” – what is it about this that appeals to you, and how does it inspire your research- and craft-based work?
MJ: Everything changes, everything has the appearance of change, every action has an equal or opposite reaction. My thought is that the outcome of change can in part be influenced by intension on a micro or macro level. Intension can be something as simple as how firewood is stacked. An intension to take a pile of firewood and stack it in a way that is beautiful. A piece of firewood can be described as mundane however, many pieces of firewood can be stacked into something beautiful.

Intention changed the vicissitude quality of firewood by stacking it in a way of beauty. This is how I stack my firewood on our property. I use it as a feature in our yard, in fact the stack of firewood itself has a vicissitude quality as it grows or shrinks.

This way of thought inspires my work because I take something simple and mundane: a gourd, which after it grows dies off, dehydrates and the exterior skin moulds. It looks ugly and rotten and is hardly noticeable laying on the ground. I have to take the gourd and process it, clean it – and once clean, change it into something incredibly beautiful with new meaning that will last for generations.

A: To what extent does an actual location inspire your work? You are currently based in Oregon – do you think your process and resulting pieces would be different if you lived somewhere else?
MJ: The inspiration for my work is not location-based however, living in the mountains, where I feel most comfortable, is a relaxing place to work.

A: How does working with different materials inform your practice?
MJ: I currently use the same materials for each piece so it doesn’t however this may change as I introduce other sources of materials.

A: Is the creation of your lamps driven by places in which you can observe or participate in environmental and social issues?
MJ: In some cases, yes, in others no. Referencing the piece Payseur, it can be both, whereas Intergalactic is an interpretation of a potential.

A: Your art practice is called Erleuchten Lamps. Did you choose the word “erleuchten” from the German word “leuchten” or perhaps from “erleuchtung”?
MJ: Yes, “erleuchten” is a German verb meaning to illuminate either or I supposed both, physically and/or spiritually. Although I am American, my heritage is Germanic. “Erleuchten” applies to my heritage, the work I do as I work with light and spiritually.

A: What was the catalyst for founding Erleuchten Lamps?
MJ: The catalyst built over a lifetime. Art, design and love for architecture was always part of my life but I never considered these things anything more than a hobby. As far back as I can remember I’ve had a light sensitivity. Ambient and non-direct lighting by necessity intrigued me and for a long time I intellectually dabbled in how to design lighting I did not find in the art, design and architecture marketplace that satisfied my aesthetic taste.

For thousands of years gourds have been used for musical instruments, carrying water, eating, and in more recent history carved for lighting. Typically, gourds are for the casual hobbyist spending a few hours cutting and carving a small thin-skinned gourd to place over a candle, or small Christmas-style lights or even a light bulb you’d find in most homes.

My wife and I were looking at lighting for our home, and not finding anything that appealed to us, it clicked: I can marry my lifelong experience in art and design, and build a functional piece of fine art. The next step was figure out how to build something you can’t learn in a class or a book.

A: When did you create your first lamp, and what three things have you learned since that first creation?
MJ: The first lamp I worked on from 2016 to 2017. It currently sits in my shop as it was the first piece and was used to learn the techniques needed to make one of my incredibly intricate, unique and complicated to make lamps. The name of the lamp is One and as of today is not for sale.

I knew what I wanted the finished product to look like but I had little idea on how to get there. I needed to build one and solve issues as I went along while fabricating custom tools as many of the tools needed for working the shade (gourd) to obtain the results I wanted were not available. Tools for gourd crafting are not designed for the finer details and techniques needed to make one of my pieces.

The base is made from metal. While the base on One is nothing like what the base is on succeeding lamps both internally and externally, the shape is similar. I had to experiment with an array of materials and learn the alchemy of the metal I finally chose, to create the delicate and organic look of the base.

The light bulb used for each piece vary. Some bulbs are more opaque than others. Wattage varies as well producing a brighter or dimmer light. Some bulbs are clear. Variance is needed. Each lamp projects light differently depending on the design. And each lamp shade has areas of the gourd worked down from a half inch thick skin of hard wood down to paper thin wood which creates a beautiful and relaxing amber colour.

Other parts of the design have holes carved where light shines directly through and into the room. This is where the choice in bulb makes a big different in the experience when a lamp is turned on.

Each lamp is a unique experience. A softer opaque bulb softens the shadow and light edges, while a clear brighter bulb will have sharper lines. On the bottom of the piece Home there is a carved compass: m compass modelling an antique nautical compass. I wanted to lines projected out to be very crisp so I used a bright clear bulb. The rest of the lamp shade displays colours of the ocean in swirls, showing the major warm and cold currents I mapped using satellite images.

A: Each lamp consists of a lamp shade, a base and an end cap. How is the creation of the base and end cap influenced by the lamp shade?
MJ: A lot of thought goes into how light emits from each lamp into a room. The light assists with the design in telling a story. The position of the lamp shade – its height and angle – achieves this. The lamp base is custom made and hand forged, for each lamp.

The end cap also plays a part in telling a story the lamp tells sometimes continuing the design created for the lamp shade, other times as with Payseur the end cap designed to show pragmatism of a piece. In the case of Payseur it’s the ruggedness of the generation who built the railroad system in the United States.

A: How does mathematics and specifically geometry inform each design?
MJ: Math is applied to every piece, however, the spherical and fractal geometry is used for many of the designs. The golden spiral and golden ratio were used in both Tani and Intergalactic. Both pieces used the same three-layer grid utilising the golden spiral and ratio and as you can see, the finished designs look different though the same math-based layers were used.

A: How does the material affect the emitted light?
MJ: The material used and its affect on how light is emitted is one of the reasons I decided to move into making lighting/lamps using a gourd for the lamp “shade”. I use rare, incredibly difficult to find, thick-skinned, hardwood gourds with a spherical shape for my lamp shades.

A bulb is positioned inside and in the middle. Light emits from the inside outward at all spherical degrees. The bulb plays a very important part in how the light projects, illuminates, and creates the intended effect. I pick from dozens of bulb watts, volts, shapes, filaments, and glasses to get the right lighting for every lamp.

I design a lamp to look beautiful with the light on or off, creating different moods and ambience in a room that changes with the rotation of the Earth and direction from the sun. Light emits in more subtle ways in areas of the design where wood is planed paper thin creating beautiful amber glow. The base is hand forged from metal. Each base is made to angle each lamp shade and project light as designed.

A: How have the designs evolved from the Relic collection to the Ironic collection to the Naturalis collection?
MJ: The evolution for most pieces in the first and third collections utilises the same math for the base grids with the overlaying design work growing in complexity.

For the Relic collection, I wanted to focus on the beginning the story I will tell therefore, the designs while complex are simple and elegant. I also wanted to include a globe so I designed Home which I spent months painting with a toothpick in order to get the texture wanted to show the major warm and cool ocean currents and, texture to the land on the continents.

The Ironic collection was made as political pieces demonstrating my frustration over the riots occurring in USA in 2020 as well as the fires started all over my state of Oregon during the same year. Over 200 arsons were caught in southern Oregon starting fires which caused billions of dollars in damage, destroying entire neighbourhoods and displacing thousands of people from their homes and jobs. The smoke polluted our skies, caused health problems and destroyed a good part of the year for many of us. The media called it the summer of love, but it was more like the summer of hate.

A: What are you learning now, whilst in the process of creating the Naturalis collection?
MJ: Yes, the Naturalis collection is currently being worked on; the complexity in design, although based on the same math as pieces in the Relic collection is exponentially more complex drawing inspiration from math found in nature. I’m mostly learning woodworking techniques. I also need to fabricate more wood tools to accomplish what will be included in the coming collection.

A: What is it about “functional fine art” that appeals to you?
MJ: In our home, nearly every piece of furniture is not only a utility – it is also well designed and artistic, even in a small way. Blurring the line between utility and art is a beautiful thing where I appreciate both the artist’s creativity and efficiency in making something a person can both functionally use and admire. I see time as our most valuable asset in this world and I do my best to use my time efficiently. If I am going to make art, I am going to make something functional, well-constructed and beautiful.

A: What are your current inspirations, an what projects and exhibitions do you have coming up this later this year and in 2025?
MJ: My current project, the Naturalis collection is coming soon – it’s a representation of the universal invisible force colliding then merging with the physical and result of the merger. Currently I find inspiration in the current turning of the global power structure, the macro cycle which it resides, the parallel nature of the two, and the result jump starting a new cyclical frame in time.

Evolving from the events in time from the previous cycle results in new life. In this case animals resilient enough to survive. In tandem with the Naturalis collection, I am drawing inspiration from animals that will be incorporated into the Animalia collection, which will be my fourth collection.

I am also in talks with a London gallery and a Scottsdale gallery to show my work.

All images courtesy of Matthew Johnson.

Instagram: @erleuchten

The work of Matthew Johnson appears in Issue 109 of Aesthetica. Click here to visit our shop.