City Folk: Kenneth Johnston spends his days climbing trees and doing cool stuff with what he finds

July 24 2015  CITY PAPER

Kenneth Johnston is a professional tree climber, a beat-boxing multi-instrumentalist, and a sculptor. He’s also building a tiny house.

The chicken coop is chirping with loud squawks and a gray cat named Gray Cat is sunbathing in a pile of wood chips next to a half-built tiny house, next to a series of interconnected workshops and studios, a school bus, and an East Baltimore warehouse that has been transformed into a home.

“I’m conflicted,” Johnston says. “One day I’m trying to be a musician. One day I’m trying to do this wood stuff. I always feel like I’m spreading my butter too thin. But I feel like, if I wanted to be ‘successful’ or make a living, I think I would have to go full throttle with one thing.” If he had to choose just one, he would be a musician full time. But he says that is the most difficult route. “Even if I was ‘successful’ as a musician, I would still be below the poverty line,” he says.

So Johnston makes most of his living eight months of the year climbing trees for his cousin’s 30-year-old Hamilton-based tree removal company, Tom Thieman Tree and Stump Removal. He learned tree removal later in life.

“Shit. I was 24 years old, and I needed a job. By that time, [my cousin] was 54 and he needed a climber, so I learned how to climb,” he says.

“People don’t equate tree work with a high skill. They think of it more like landscaping. Whereas if you had an electrician, you wouldn’t mind paying them a significant amount for the work,” Johnston says. Tree work is statistically one of the most dangerous jobs when it comes to fatalities and injuries, he says. “The first is deep-sea fishing,” he says. “But I guess the real most dangerous job is a drug dealer. But I guess that’s not an official job.”

His family’s company takes down trees as tall as 120 feet with a crane, and Johnston has had his share of danger. “I’ve been cut a couple of times,” he says. “Minor cuts—with a chainsaw.”

“Being a tree climber is the same as being a performer,” Johnston says. “Pretty much everybody is on the ground and they respond to the branches you lower down. And everyone, the ground crew, is watching you.”

“I was taking down trees, and I put one and one together,” Johnston says of his wood art. “You give a kid a crayon and put them in front of paper, and . . . I had a chainsaw in my hand and I was in front of logs. It was inevitably gonna happen.” Growing up he was into graffiti, but sees a lot of that art as destructive now. “But making art out of wood, you have to get out into the world and find the wood.”

“I just taught myself, which is kind of how I do everything,” Johnston says. He dropped out of high school at 16 and earned his GED.

His first project was a big Adirondack bear cut out for his grandmother, but for the last two years he’s focused on mostly creating functional furniture. “I’d rather sell a $300 coffee table to my friend who is a teacher, who can afford it.”

Johnston’s functional furniture includes desks and coffee tables that often incorporate live edge slabs, which allows the wood’s natural colors and texture to stand out. He has also used turquoise and broken windshield glass, set in clear resin, as accents in pieces. In addition to the functional furniture, he sells the slabs to restaurants, bars, and individuals who use them for tables and shelves.

Most cabinet makers prefer trees that grow very straight in the forest, but Johnston prefers the residential trees that have had a chance to really spread out. “I like that you can see where all the branches are. It’s like the tree makes the artwork itself,” he says.

“This one is a ghetto palm,” Johnston says pointing to a piece of wood. “It’s an ailanthus. You see it everywhere. But it’s got this really cool gray.” The gray in the middle of the grain was most likely a mold that grew on the tree at some point in its life and the scar is permanently fixed.

Before heading to work every morning, Johnston practices his music for about 30 minutes in one of the bathrooms in the house because the acoustics are inimitable. But come winter, he turns his full attention to his music.

Johnston toured the East Coast last winter with his new album, “Prisms.” He makes his music, much like he does his woodworking, solo, but it sounds like a full band. He plays guitar, shruti box, and vocal percussion simultaneously to create a meditative sound with an occasionally haunting edge. “I wanted it to sound like a desperate thing. Like an animal dying,” he says.

“I play New Age music. My main goal with music is kind of to have a meditative experience and I want the listener to have the same thing. I want to layer tranquility and catharsis and have it build up in a narrative of music,” he says.

As with his woodworking, Johnston is glad he is untrained in music. “I like to put myself in a corner. No post-production, no multi-tracking, and no looping, and just see how much I can possibly do elegantly,” he says.

In the midst of his last touring season, Johnston attended a meditation retreat which inspired him to build a tiny house. “I’ll have a smaller carbon footprint. I could buy land in the country. The only things that I care about are the music and the wood,” he says.

But with tree season in high gear, Johnston says his tiny house still needs work. “I’ve got to finish the siding. It’s all salvaged, so I have to pull every single nail out,” he says. He got the wood for the siding from a guy out in Harford County who pulled it off of an old house. He still needs to put in the wood stove, dry wall, a composting toilet, and some sort of a bathtub. “I consider it an art project,” he says.

“I love climbing trees. I interact with the entire city every day,” he says. Even if his music provided enough of a living to quit the wood business, he wouldn’t leave it behind. Ideally, he wants to open a saw mill in Baltimore City, featuring a Lucas Mill Super Slabber machine.

In the meantime, while he looks for a business partner and saves up for the investment, the tree-removal job not only pays the best, but provides the wood for his art. And in turn, both his art and tree-removal work allow him to take time over the winter months to tour with his music. “If I could do it all over, I would pick the same life,” he says. “It’s organic and it feels really good.”

Dezman Jackson and Blind Industries help people adjust to sightlessness

Jan 6 2016

Dezman Jackson is sitting at a table in a boardroom typing on a device. “You can use speech on your phone, and it will speak the messages to you,” he says. “I have it speaking so fast that most people can’t understand it. But 80 percent of the time, I mute speech and use this.” He pulls out a leather pouch that is just a little smaller than a standard keyboard. The rows of differently shaped buttons look complicated, like something only Robert Moog could design. “It’s called a refreshable braille display. Basically it just transmits what’s on your screen to these pins that pop up and down, so you can read the messages from your phone in Braille. I connect to this device via Bluetooth.” People, especially on the bus, are curious and ask him, “What is that thing? Are you playing music?”

The machines cost a lot—between $3,500 and $15,000 each—but there are government programs which financially assist those who can’t afford one on their own. By assisting employers or employees in getting accessible technology, the Department of Rehabilitative Services allows disabled people to remain, or get, on even footing with those who don’t have a disability.   

Jackson offers a cane in one hand, and a plastic blindfold in the other. The blinding process is called immersion, and usually lasts three weeks for new students. The goal of immersion is to teach people with low vision how to live independently without relying on their diminishing sight. It’s always bustling at the building off Washington Boulevard that houses Blind Industries and Services of Maryland (BISM), where all students are legally blind, dealing with a progressive blindness disease, or are fully blind. And most of the employees are blind too. Framed photos of blindfolded groups white-water rafting and working with power tools in the on-premise wood shop line the walls.

“It’s only been recent that blind people have been able to be certified in teaching other people travel because for years it was viewed as a profession that only sighted people could assure safety,” he says. “So we were kind of locked out of the profession.”

Many blind adolescents are pushed into professions such as music or massage therapy early on because it seems those jobs don’t really require sight. “History has kind of shown the progression,” Jackson says. “At one point, blind people were walking around on the streets as beggars. Eventually people worked into what we call blind trades, which is good because it showed that blind people have something to contribute, and can be productive in society. But we are constantly trying to push forward and raise expectations even higher.”

When Jackson grew up in Mobile, Alabama, he was one of the very few blind students integrated into the public school system. “I was fortunate that I was able to get a lot more training than some,” he says. “But the component that I didn’t have access to was that I didn’t see a lot of successful blind people, adults. Teachers, as great as they were, were sighted.”

In high school, Jackson began to question his own future and what was available to him.  “Around the time I was turning 16, you know what happens at that age—you get your driver’s license,” he recalls. “I didn’t have the confidence to get around my neighborhood and nobody really expected me to, anyway. And at that point I just started wondering, ‘what is life gonna be like for me?’”

It was also difficult to find a job. “I know I didn’t get to work a summer job like all my friends did,” Jackson says. “It wasn’t as easy for me to convince somebody I could go to McDonald’s and work behind the counter.”

But on the night of his homecoming dance, something very small happened that helped him gain more confidence. “I took a girl to the homecoming dance. I was able to look up directions from my house to my high school, and that was huge for me because I felt like I had some sense of control,” he recalls. “I wasn’t driving, but I was giving directions.”

He doesn’t think twice about finding directions now, but at the time it was a big movement toward his future independence.

Jackson completed his undergraduate and master’s degrees in psychology, but he says he still struggled at times. “Ninety percent of what we teach here is confidence,” he says. “A problem-solving approach to things, and I really didn’t have that at the time.”

As the Lead Rehabilitation Instructor and Mobility Specialist, Jackson embodies that problem-solving approach to life. “Go ahead and put your blindfold on,” he says. “We start off on this hard floor on the first day when we’re teaching people how to hold and use the cane” and listen to the sound the cane makes. Jackson goes on to explain that, with practice, a blind person can even tell where an opening in a hallway is just by feeling how the cane cuts through the air flow.

“We’re basically about helping people get their life back after they lose their sight,” he says. With the help of government funding, BISM aims to be the center point for blindness in the state of Maryland and across the East Coast. With programs and classes focusing on life skills such as taking care of a house, cooking, traveling with a cane, reading Braille, and using technology, the goal is for students to gain optimal independence whether they are blind or losing their eyesight.

“I think we give way more credit to our eyes or our ears, or sense organs, than is necessary,” he says. “Vision happens in the brain, you know? Your eyes are really just a vehicle. The brain will actually take what might be used for vision for a blind person and remaps it to visualize the way we learn to see things. Seeing doesn’t have to happen with the eyes. You just have to be more inquisitive to get a sense of the world around you.”

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