Oasis artist puts on solo woodworking show that highlights natural beauty | Culture

Woven woodwork and twigs intertwine to create a large, lifelike praying mantis. It’s one of John Robson’s many works that can be found at Oasis Fine Arts and Crafts in downtown Harrisonburg.

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At Oasis, Robson is putting on a solo show called “Sawmills, Driftwoods and Twigs,” which will be on display till Feb. 12. Currently, there are pieces such as “The Swamp Thang” — the praying mantis — and handcrafted wooden mirrors and tables  on display. 

As a woodworker, Robson, 78, has been creating and selling pieces like the praying mantis since 1976, when he got his Virginia sales tax license. It was during this time that he worked for Contemporary Workshop, a small vocational rehabilitation program that worked mostly with high school-aged kids. The goal of programs like these is to help people become more equipped to return to the workforce or to be more independent in general, according to a Grand Canyon University blog. According to Robson, the program, based in Fairfax County, taught and provided kids with educational and life skills that they could then apply out in the world. 

Robson said he originally started as the woodworking supervisor and later became the assistant director of the program. As the woodworking supervisor, Robson said he taught students how to make rectangular wooden school blocks. After the company closed in 1974, Robson opened his own undercover workshop — there were strict business regulations, he said — in Fairfax to create pieces to sell at craft shows. As he continued to develop this workshop, he decided to name his business The Standing People. As a woodworker, Robson focuses on making  furniture that he then displays at craft shows and in Oasis. 

“‘The Standing People’ is an Indian phrase for trees, and in the Lakota Sioux language, all the natural kingdoms were people,” Robson said. “There was the swimming people, the flying people and the standing people … and I feel that way about the trees, and I hope in my work that will rub off a little.”  

Robson moved to the Shenandoah Valley in 1981 and started his own craft show with his wife, Sue, in Timberville, Virginia, soon after. For two weekends in October, they hosted the show on their property, known as the Barn Show, where Robson sold his work and invited other select artists to participate. The Barn show lasted for 32 years until Robson and his wife decided to discontinue it five years ago due to the amount of time and effort it took to put the show together. 

Fellow artist and volunteer at Oasis, Barbara Paul, first met and learned of Robson during this show in the 1990s. She said she loves the real, natural look Robson brings to the wood and appreciates how he makes the beauty of the piece come out.

“When I look at his work, I always want to touch it because the wood is just so beautiful, and it makes me want to be out in the woods and makes me want to go out and appreciate trees more,” Paul said.

Paul has been a member of Oasis since fall 2018, volunteering and showcasing her own jewelry. Alongside 35 other artists, Paul gives her time to keep the gallery running, including overseeing shows like Robson’s. 

When Robson first showed his work at Oasis last May, he recaught the eye of Brenda Fairweather, who’s in charge of finding artists for the rotating Oasis shows. 

Fairweather has been a member of Oasis since 2006, selling pottery and baskets. In addition, with a lot of organizing, collaborating and communicating, Fairweather said she works hard to put together the lineup of artisans who’ll be featured at Oasis a year in advance. While Fairweather first met Robson eight years ago participating in his own show, she said she desired to get his work exhibited at Oasis, even though he’s not a member or volunteer at Oasis.  

“His technique and quality of work is so special that when a piece of his work is in your presence, it just feels like he is in your presence,” Fairweather said. “His heart and soul are in it. His work inspires me to make changes to what I do, to become better at making pottery or baskets.”

After filling the schedule with Oasis members first, Fairweather met with the board to pitch Robson joining the gallery. Oasis focuses on artisans the board and its members know will bring people into the store and have historically done well with shows, and Robson was no exception.

“John had done so well in that group show in 2022 and we wanted someone who is successful and popular,” Fairweather said. “But we also asked him because of the quality of [his work] and who he is. People know him, so it draws people into Oasis.” 

Robson said he wants to continue to participate in these shows in hopes it’ll let people know his own business is still alive after he stopped doing his own show. He said he loves the face-to-face interactions of showing his work.

For Robson, “setting up is no fun, taking down is no fun.” He loves the moments in between.

He said the atmosphere of letting customers choose what they want, and discussing the history of the individual pieces is his favorite part. 

“This whole idea of buying local and having individual people making your work and wanting to know where your items come from and ‘know the maker,’ — that’s it, that’s us in a nutshell,” Paul said of Oasis. “We allow more of a connection to the arts of the community.”

Contact Sabine Soltys at soltysms@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.


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