Thinking Inside the Box: The Art of Jay Rogers

Jay Rogers’s sculptural wooden containers are metaphors for the psyche, hinting at the parts of us that reveal themselves only to those willing to explore.

Text by Nathaniel Reade

Jay Rogers’s sculptural wooden containers are metaphors for the psyche, hinting
at the parts of us that reveal themselves only to those willing to explore.

Lots of us used to put together model cars when we were kids; Jay Rogers is the first person I’ve met who paid equal attention to the insides. In high school, many of us listened to our friends moan about their romantic problems. Rogers thought, “How could I turn this troubled relationship into a Japanese puzzle box?” And he may be the only artist on the planet whose portraits have six sides, eight corners, and drawers.

Rogers, a sixty-eight-year-old man with swept-back white hair and pale blue eyes, works—fittingly—inside a square, boxy bedroom in his Cambridge, Massachusetts, house. Here he glues veneers to plywood, cuts the results into pieces, and builds boxes that depict an Indian temple, a new marriage, or the story of the Cabinet (what else?) of Doctor Caligari.

Rogers didn’t start out life in love with boxes—or wood. He grew up in Washington, D.C., where his first experiences working with wood traumatized him. His father tried to teach him how to hand-saw boards and pound nails when Rogers was too young. This frustrated the boy, which made his father angry, which led the Rogers to conclude that he was bad at woodworking.

In high school, however, he was reading an Anaïs Nin novel when something jumped out at him: a reference to a Japanese puzzle box. He was fascinated by the notion of a container that revealed its interior only to those who knew its secrets. When a friend complained to him about a tortured romance with a girl, Rogers began to imagine that relationship as a puzzle box, and wanted to build it so badly he ignored the negative associations of woodworking from his youth. When that box was finished he began making portraits of his other friends—as boxes.

He graduated from Harvard with a degree in music, and worked for twelve years as a teacher at a private middle school in Cambridge. Then one day he thought to himself, “I can’t do this anymore.”

With the help of a therapist, he came to realize that he really loved making things with his hands—boxes. But could he make a living at it? He started by selling puzzle boxes at craft shows, beautiful, traditional rectangles that revealed their interiors only if you figured out exactly how to open the sliders and drawers. Within two years, he was making boxes full-time, scraping by with supplemental income from giving piano lessons.

Why boxes? Why not carve his creations out of wooden blocks, or use a 3-D printer? Because, Rogers says, his boxes require us to interact with them, to figure them out—just as we do with people. And because boxes are the perfect metaphor for his own life. He chuckles and says, “It’s good old sublimation.”

“Every artist is making self-portraits,” Rogers says, whether they realize it or not. “And when I was growing up, I felt very much in a box.” His father died when Jay was twelve, after which he felt pressure to be “the man of the family.” And he was hiding a secret about himself: he is gay. Safety and survival required that he conceal his interior, build a defensive exterior, and protect his secrets. His life was a puzzle box.

As he came to terms with himself, and as society grew more accepting, his boxes grew more expressive: an exuberant, light-birch box that seems to burst out of a darker box enclosing it; a growing crystal of boxes that looks like an enlargement of a mineral sample; boxes inspired by his father’s hero, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Today his boxes often don’t contain puzzles at all; they openly depict the things he loves. He just closed a show at the Society of Arts and Crafts gallery in Boston that consisted entirely of “fantasy architecture”: temples, grottos, and imaginary prisons inspired by the work of M.C. Escher and Piranesi. His fascination with the box as metaphor for the psyche has created a new genre of sculpture: three-dimensional expressions that contain box-like attributes—drawers, pulls, and hidden -chambers.

When he was younger, Rogers says, “The message of my boxes was, ‘You can’t get in here.’ Now, with their descending staircases, open tops, and gothic arches, they say, ‘come on in.’ ”

Editor’s Note: Jay Rogers is represented by ­Gráficas, Nantucket, Mass., graficasgallery.com. To see more of his work, visit jrogersboxes.com

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