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.”