The Wooden Clock Art of James Borden

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The Wooden Clock Sculptures of James Borden

We live in a world defined by factories. From the cartons that hold our milk to the beds we sleep in, everything has been designed in a way to make them easy to produce, trendy, and ultimately disposable. Though American style is more colorful and varied than the grim brown boxes of communism, the lasting effect is perhaps not much more substantial.

It’s for this reason that a clockmaker like James Borden can stand out. The man behind Timeshapes, Borden uses his early education in humanities to bring a worldly approach to his magnificent clocks, some of which are so stunning that they can sell for prices north of $15,000.

The Beginnings of a Clock Artist

Though Borden supports his family with his art, the money seems to be a secondary concern. Traveling through his background, you can see that clockmaking was always a passion. Growing up in rural Illinois, the young James Borden had a fascination with timekeepers of all stripes. His hometown of Rockford gave him access to one of the most extensive private clock collections in the country, and this early exposure fanned the flames of his curiosity. These flames blossomed into wildfires during a trip to Germany. He was fortunate enough to set eyes on the Rathaus-Glockenspiel in Munich, a monstrous tower clock that has delighted townspeople and tourists since 1908.

That was in 1980, and it led him to embrace clockmaking for a full year. He spent his hours whiling away in his parents’ basement, developing clocks of various styles and disciplines, never thinking that his hobby would lead to employment. It was only a diversion, even if it consumed his days and nights.

Borden attended school to pursue a degree in humanities, and his interest in the history of cultural civilizations informed his early work. He may not have followed his love of Greek history or Renaissance art into a lifelong study of anthropology, but he let those interests work their way into his clockmaking. Even today, Borden’s finest pieces suggest a simpler time, when he might have been a village craftsman, building clocks that would pass into history themselves as cultural landmarks.

Following His Clockmaking Dream

Borden attended Wartburg Theological Seminary in Iowa in pursuit of his ordainment. Halfway through his schooling, the thought of the clocks he’d left behind became too great to ignore. He started to tinker again, realizing that a passion such that he felt could not be relegated to a mere hobby. Still attending seminary, he opened up a clock shop on the side, repairing and restoring antique pieces for Dubuque residents and making money from his skills for the first time. Seminary school was far from a total loss; he met his wife Barbara while attending Wartburg. After getting married, they moved in together just above the clock shop.

Over time, Borden moved away from fixing clocks for customers and back into the true heart of his passion: designing them from scratch. Like most burgeoning artists, his first attempts were closely in line with the traditions of the time. Gradually, he put more of himself into his productions. He broke away from the old traditions and started creating pieces that were as concerned with form as they were with function. He minimized, removing the panels and cabinets that would typically be used to hide the gears away. He celebrated their inner workings rather than obscuring them with ornamentation. Instead of making them look half-finished, though, this approach to clockmaking gave his pieces a unique craftsmanship that would come to define his life’s work.

Borden moved to Minnesota with his family, leaving the shop behind and settling in to his new role as a freelance clockmaker. The work was slow at first, and he sold pieces whenever and wherever he could. He traveled to art shows and craft fairs, renting booths where he could display his clocks in and amongst the handmade jewelry and paintings. A friend suggested that he travel to a major show put on by the American Craft Council in Baltimore to get some exposure. He followed that advice and immediately took his fledgling career to the next level.

Selected Pieces of Clock Art by James Borden:

Walnut Floor Clock

Walnut Floor Clock by James Borden

Walnut Floor Clock by James Borden

This walnut specimen seems to take its inspiration from the mathematical compass, twisting in on itself to give center stage to a couple of immense wooden gears. Standing seven feet tall with a full three feet of width, its slender frame balances two teardrop counterweights on either side of a hanging pendulum.

Cherry Wall Clock

Cherry Wall Clock by James Borden

Cherry Wall Clock by James Borden

There is something faintly nautical about this cherry wall clock, and like many of Borden’s finest works, it could easily be disguised as something other than a clock to the uninitiated viewer.

Spalted Maple Table Clock

Spalted Maple Table Clock by James Borden

Spalted Maple Table Clock by James Borden

In this unique table clock, Borden crafts a medieval appearance from spalted maple. Using the discoloration of the tree’s fungi, he has created a clock that achieves decorative depth without the use of paint or excessive finish.

Suspended Clock

Suspended Clock by James Borden

Suspended Clock by James Borden

Designed from a mixture of woods – walnut, white oak, cherry, and box elder – this suspended clock proudly boasts the natural character of the trees. The twirls and curlicues that finish the graceful curves accentuate the carved invention of the piece.

Long Island Jewish Medical Center Clock

Seeing one in person is probably the only way to fully appreciate the intricacy with which Borden’s clocks are made, but this video showing one of his astounding pieces from all sides comes close.

A Clockmaker’s Passion

It’s been smooth sailing for James Borden lately. Though he still travels to craft shows and public exhibitions to sell and show off his work, he also makes a significant amount of his money from private buyers. According to a 2014 interview with Smithsonian Magazine, Borden’s clocks go almost exclusively into homes, a fact that seems to bring him the highest joy. Most of his clocks sell for between $5,000 and $10,000 each. In 2005, he was honored by Fine Woodworking magazine with the Best New Artist in Wood award. Some of his other awards include Best in Show at the 2007 Milwaukee Fine Furnishings event and the Gold award at the 2013 Smithsonian Craft Show.

Today, Borden’s career is flourishing as he continues to get more mainstream exposure for his handcrafted masterpieces. Each Timeshapes piece is as unique as the clockmaker himself while still retaining his signature preferences. Some stand alone, some mount on the wall, and almost all of them expose their gears and pendulums for maximum effect. Few, if any, display the numbers because Borden believes they steal the simplicity that he appreciates in a well-made clock. Best of all, none of them are mass-produced or done to fit a trend, and that fact alone makes them a treasure to behold in the early years of the new millennium.

For your many years of fine service to clockmaking, Mr. Borden…Online Clock salutes you! 🙂

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