By Gina Malone
When Jem Klein says he had a “unique childhood,” he means one largely free of the modern conveniences and luxuries that define the lives of most. Born in southern Virginia, his family moved to northern California when he was one. “For a few years, we lived in a wild-looking triple-decker converted school bus,” he says. “I remember on winter days waking up with ice on my pillows. I didn’t have consistent running water or electricity until I was 15 when my family of six found a small cabin rental with a real roof and walls where we had our first phone and indoor plumbing.”
With a radio and books, but no television, he spent all of his waking hours outside, he says, with the natural world his classroom. “My parents told me to follow what I love, so observing nature and making stuff is what called me most.” He began gardening at age six, creatively finding ways to get water to his garden. “How food grows from a seed will forever amaze me,” he says. “No one ever taught me to garden; it just evolved as a deep need—like my love of woodworking.”
Today, both of those early loves figure into his life as artist and grower of herbs. He met his wife Meredith in 2002 at Motherland Herbs and Botanical Sanctuary in California, when both were picking lavender. “Meredith and I both have the deep spiritual need to work with the plants,” he says.
They began making videos and posting them on a YouTube channel as a way of helping others suffering with Lyme Disease, which Jem has struggled with for many years. Their business Reverence Botanicals evolved when people began writing to them wondering if they could buy some of their healing herbs.
Jem’s talent for wood grew out of an inexplicable need to learn woodworking. At 12 years old he started a weed-eating business in order to buy woodworking tools. “My brother Jon, who is now a skilled nature photographer, used to grill me about why on Earth I was trying to buy woodworking tools when I didn’t know how to woodwork,” Jem says. “I would just shrug my shoulders and say, ‘because I need to.’” By age 16, he had bought the tools, learned to use them and built a pole frame woodshop to store them in. An apprenticeship in those years with a maker of Japanese bamboo flutes called shakuhachi taught him many valuable skills besides, he says, including integrity, homesteading and construction.
A practical wooden barrette he made as a gift for his wife in the early 2000s led to marketing his woodcrafts online. “We weren’t internet savvy, but eventually with her being stopped so many times to be complimented on her barrettes, she urged me to start selling them to little shops and galleries,” Jem says. “Then a lot of people asked for earrings and that whole wooden jewelry thing just kind of happened.” When his first son was born in 2006, he built a website to increase sales and when his second son was born in 2013, he began selling on Etsy.
His sons join him in forays in the woods to find the materials he uses for his creations. “This earth is amazing and I have tried my best to live in a way where my choices respect my affection for the planet,” he says. He uses bamboo harvested in the winter as a renewable resource for his flutes. “My woodworking wood is mostly collected from fallen trees and limbs. I love to walk in the forest, and when I see a fallen branch with unique patterns, spalting or grain, I’ll put it in my backpack and carry it home.”
Working with bamboo, wood and the soil, along with home and family life, fill his days, but he cannot envision another life for himself other than one exploring creativity freely. “Believe me, there are many days where a nine-to-five income would have been great, but it also would have broken my soul,” he says. He urges others who put off their own creative urges for someday to embrace the challenge. “There’s no better time than now,” he says. “It is possible to follow your calling as an artist and get supported in following that dream.”
To learn more, visit JemKlein.com or ReverenceBotanicals.com, and find on Instagram and Pinterest. Klein’s work may be found locally at One of a Kind Gallery in Micaville; and Woolworth Walk, Grovewood Gallery, NC Foundation Woodworks and NC Arboretum Gift Shop, all in Asheville.