A World Brought Together in Wood
Story and photos by Jessica Cook
If you know Roberto Gastelumendi, you know there is a salsa tune in his head. It escapes in a whistle or in the soul-punching poetics of Rubén Blades as Roberto deftly dances around the woodshop’s menacing equipment. His intense focus is that of a person doing what he loves. You might see him in a duet with an 8-foot-tall bandsaw, his favored woodshop companion, or working in the kitchen with high flames and hot oil, his preferred cooking technique for chicken. It’s also his approach to a crusty coconut-garlic rice, which requires last-minute salvation before it caramelizes to the pot.
Gastelumendi is not a chef by profession, though. He’s a woodworker—an artist, designer, and furniture-maker who breaks the rules just by following his instinct. “Finding our passion gives us purpose in life,” Roberto says, and his passion is creating beautiful things with wood. Organic. Flowing. Structural. Curves flow purposefully throughout his creations, and his technique of joining wood defies what most woodworkers say is possible. “A lot of people say that it won’t work, that you can’t mix grain and species of wood due to the natural instinct of the wood to return to its original form. But this technique I created actually locks the wood pieces together, making use of the movement to hold things tight.”
Roberto was born in Comas, an arid barrio on the outskirts of Lima, Peru. The cerros surrounding Peru’s capital city (second driest in the world) were settled in the 1970s during rapid rural-urban migration with limited infrastructure. Roberto’s mother’s family traces this migrant lineage, a mix of European and Indigenous histories, and his father’s story is that of enslaved Africans displaced to another continent. Recounting his own path to the United States and the Bay Area almost 30 years ago, Roberto describes the migration of an economic refugee. “I never wanted to leave Peru, but when it became an option, my family saw no other way. This is what they saw as opportunity.”
Roberto, who spoke no English when he arrived in the United States, is self-taught in woodworking. He made his way from construction assistant, cleaning up and shuttling materials as an 18-year-old, to self-employed contractor, to finish carpenter working in the homes of the Bay Area’s elite, rising through the ranks while also supporting his family back home. In his creative work, he captures the nuances of migration as he melds the woods of his origins and path: Peruvian walnut, South American purple heart, wenge and padauk from Africa, and white oak, walnut, maple, and cherry from the United States. He joins these woods to combine the functional and aesthetic, creating furniture, sculpture, and kitchen items like cutting boards, serving trays, charcuterie boards, knife holders, rolling pins, and baking peels. He’s collaborated with other master artisans during his travels, incorporating his signature motifs while making paddles in Hawai`i, surfboard fins in Southern California, and sunglasses in the Basque Country.
There are storylines to each of Gastelumendi’s pieces, narratives best related first-hand and accompanied on a chilly Oakland evening by the artist’s homemade Peruvian lentils. Some of these storylines are bound to have a political frame and philosophical anchor. “Unity is the antidote to oppression, and that’s a dangerous idea, the very reason Fred Hampton was targeted,” he says, and there’s a bit of that represented in his work. He sees resilience in difference. After unexpected flooding in a former workshop, Roberto found that his innovative joinery not only withstood the expansion and contraction that comes when wood meets water, but the pressure from movement seemed to create an even stronger interlocking bond.
Beauty in Everyday Life
“Everyone deserves beauty in their everyday.” Another radical idea Roberto espouses when friends claim they can’t bring themselves to cut an onion on his wood art cutting board. “We always should make something better than it was before, elevate its purpose,” he adds. When he found plastic outdoor furniture in a Berkeley community garden, he replaced the pieces with rustic slab benches and tables. Another time, he installed a sculptural bench in a neglected Oakland park. But Roberto isn’t one to stick around for accolades. The doing, the action, is what’s important.
Ah, and the pot of rice almost burns—again—and again, Roberto catches it just in time. ♦
Find Roberto Gastelumendi’s Gastboards on Instagram or at gastboards.com
Roberto Gastelumendi’s Lentejas (lentils) with Chiles and Chicken
In a large pot, boil 1½ cups lentils in water to cover along with a clove garlic, half an onion, and a bay leaf. Lower heat and cook until lentils are tender. Remove garlic, onion, bay leaf, and any excess water.
While lentils are cooking, reconstitute 6 New Mexico dried chiles (or other mild dried chiles) in boiling water. Let soak for 15 minutes before blending with 1 cup of the chiles’ soaking water.
Dice 2 white onions, mince 4 to 6 cloves of garlic, and chop 6 tomatoes. Heat some olive oil in a sauté pan. Sauté onion for a few minutes, add and sauté garlic for another minute, add and sauté tomatoes for a few minutes more. Stir in the blended chiles and set aside.
Season 4 to 6 bone-in chicken thighs with salt and pepper and sear on high heat (skin-side down) for 10 minutes in a covered cast iron pan. Turn thighs and lower heat to cook chicken through until juices run clear.
Add sautéed onions, garlic, tomatoes, and blended chiles to the pot of cooked lentils. Add the chicken. Mix and heat through so the flavors can meld. Add salt and pepper to taste and enjoy!
Jessica Cook is an arts and social justice writer and casual photographer with publishing credits in Orion Magazine. She is committed to art, community, social justice, and learning from difference—from cultural strategy for migrant rights to artisan business development internationally, food system projects, and youth arts and outdoors-access programs.