The Technology Behind the Puzzles: A Video Interview

I am pleased to have been interviewed by WGBH this spring for their Auction In An Hour series.  Every year I donate a puzzle to their auction. This year I donated Jungle Scene and was pleased to be asked to do an interview with Chris Voss. He brought a film crew to my Altier in Marblehead and I demonstrated my machine on camera. I hope you enjoy it!


Port of Tripoli: A Long Lost Puzzle Returns

The Port of Tripoli, Flemish School, signed JVO, c. 1650. 12 ¾" x 19 ¾", $460

The Port of Tripoli is one of the first puzzles I made at the very beginning of J. C. Ayer & Co. circa 1986.  The original was painted on wood. My brother Rick had it in his apartment in Paris. We propped it up in indirect sunlight and photographed it.  I had a Rollei and Rick had a 35mm Minolta . We used both slide and color negative film. Very amateurish but somehow we got a good result which made some of my first puzzles.

When we went digital, I lost the original. Recently we found a high quality digital copy while reworking the website. I t is a really good picture and a good puzzle. I think the unknown painter painted the mountain in a dream. The pastel colors of the mountain, sky and sea blend together to add a bit of difficulty for the puzzler.

If you’d like to try it, visit my website to order it here.

Make Believe Ballroom by Larry Rivers

Make Believe Ballroom by Larry Rivers

Years ago this puzzle was in my catalog. I am putting it back on my website because I really like the picture and have redesigned small puzzles to have many more, smaller pieces. In spite of its size, Make Believe Ballroom has more than 200 pieces.

I am just old enough to have seen the great Disney films and Broadway musicals when they first opened though I was pulled away from the last episode of Fantasia, Walpurgisnacht, deemed too much for my tender young mind. That theatre and the songs from Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and others wonderfully fought the depression and the following war with laughter. Make Believe Ballroom is in the same spirit. Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire could have been dancing on that bed.

Compulsion Motorboat Wooden Jigsaw Puzzle

The Compulsion puzzle in-progress

This is a story of a special puzzle that I recently made. My customer sent me two pictures of racing motorboats, one for the puzzle and one for the drop-out-lettering. We decided on an oval puzzle because a rectangular one would have too much unnecessary background. The final size was 10 x 15 inches. I used a design from an 11 x 14 puzzle so I had to modify the periphery. The picture above shows the design part-way made.

I wanted the name in the puzzle just as it is on the transom. I was glad that the picture was taken almost directly from astern so I could just trace the letters. The name was slanted to be parallel to the boat’s waterline. The letters were large enough so that the puzzle could be put together with or without them.

The finished Compulsion puzzle


A New Jigsaw Puzzle

This is my newest puzzle. I bought the original painting in the 1960s because the painter’s style reminded me of Van Gough. The painter, Janvier, seems to be unknown. I can find nothing on Google and my Haitian daughter-in-law knows nothing about her either. I was told somewhere that she is/was a woman. I would like a comment from someone who knows something about her.

This is a large puzzle, almost 16 x 20. I have not put it together yet; I think it will be difficult. Like Lion with Gray hair, it is a new design.

Lion with Gray Hair – A new Wooden Jigsaw puzzle

This is my first new standard puzzle since Bicentennial Baloons and The House of the Seven Gables (scroll way back to April 10th 2009). The picture is by Salnave Philippe Auguste. He uses his last two names to sign his work but if you google him, use his first name to separate him from a medieval French king named Philippe Auguste. As you can see Philippe Auguste was influenced by Henri Roussseau as was Millevoix ( Jungle Scene, post dated November 9th, 2009 ).

Lion with Gray Hair  is the first puzzle that I have designed completely from scratch in a very long time. I hope my designs have improved over the years but I am not so sure about that.   All the figure pieces are animals, some extinct. I have tried to make the pieces a little smaller than in past designs. The puzzle is 13.2 x 19.7 and has about 660 pieces. I do think it is more difficult than Jungle Scene, a much earlier design.

I am working on another puzzle, designed from scratch, with a picture by a Haitian artist but one who, it would appear, was influenced by Vincent van Gogh rather than Henri Rousseau.

Phoenix rising?

I had a nice wedding blog planned for this week but that changed because of the tragedy in Haiti. After the immediate needs of the people are met and after the infrastructure has started to be rebuilt, the character of the society will have to be addressed. My father used to say that we should not impose our system on others and I used to think that each  society should take care of itself. Those that couldn’t should stew in their own juices. Now I know that in some cases that attitude is morally wrong  and often bad policy in an increasingly interconnected world.

 In the NY Times this morning Bob Herbert writes ” No matter how overwhelming the tragedy, how bleak the outlook, no matter what malevolent forces the fates see fit to hurl at this tiny, beleaguered, mountainous, sun-splashed portion of the planet, there is no quit in the Haitian people.” In today’s Wall Street Journal Kevin Rozario writes about natural disasters – Lisbon in 1755 and Chicago in 1871 among others – and the opportunities they present for new and better future: ” The lesson was clear, and it was one that would resonate down through the centuries: With the right intervention, catastrophies presented extraordinary opportunities to make improvements.”

Haiti has received much aid over many years and yet has little to show for it. The challenge is to take that refusal to quit and combine it with a desire to take advantage of the “extraordinary opportunities”. That’s the big job, bigger than helping the sick and rebuilding the bricks and mortar of the country. It means schools, it means competant government and law inforcement with less corruption, it means jobs and it means hard work. It means the transformation of society. I hope the Haitian joie de vivre as shown in its art does not get lost.

Wooden Jigsaw Puzzles – a reprint

This blog is an altered reprint of a Fresh Ayer News article published in the fall of 1996. It serves as an introduction to several forthcomming blogs about Haitian puzzles.  In the 1970s a friend began lending me his hand-made puzzles, one by one. They came by registered mail to be returned the same way. They were wonderful and a revelation to me since I was used to cardboard puzzles. I put togehter his dozen or so and looked around for more to buy. I quickly found I could not afford any good ones. Intricate, hand-made woden jigsaw puzzles were beyond my reach.

Years later I figured out how to cut wooden puzzles by machine. A two-axis computer controlled table could generate the shapes if only there were the equivelant of a round jigsaw blade that could cut in all directions. A waterjet did that job. Still it took more than a year of false starts and frustration to develop a reliable machine. Now it makes puzzles comparable to hand-cut ones at a fraction of the cost.

In the meantime, as fate would have it, my friend suddenly fell from wild success to failure. His collection of puzzles was lost in a fire and he ended in depression. I sent him some of my puzzles thinking the therapy would do him good. I got them back untouched. I decided to put together one of the larger Haitian hand-painted ones. As I started to lay out the pieces, my wife was in the next room watching the second presidential debate. She lasted through the whole thing which I thought was a heroic exercise in masochism. I had the better deal: I could get the gist without watching or paying attention.

Hand-painted Haitian jigsaw puzzles are really great for a number of reasons. First of all there is the patina, the feel of paint on wood, sometimes with the grain showing underneath the paint. Secondly, though the kerf is the same width, the paint obscures the cuts almost completely so they seem to disappear. Finally there is the exclusivity; each is unique. However, they are delicate. The edges tend to chip so the puzzles have to be handled with care. The art, though lively and colorful, is nothing to write home about. Good art is reproduced, not cut up. Some examples of good Haitian art reproduced in puzzles are shown in previous blogs.

Here is a wooden jigsaw puzzle hand-painted in Haiti. Note, there is a piece missing. With Gracie running around, one has to be more careful than I. Pieces dropped  on the floor often get hidden away or chewed. Gracie is our West Highland Terrier – see blog dated May 15th, 2009.

The Stairway, a rather special wooden jigsaw puzzle.

This puzzle of a painting by Berio Gizzi has been in my collection for some time. It’s a sleeper and should be more popular than it has been. To start with the original painting is amazing. It is the opposite of impresionistic, carefully composed and meticiously crafted. To quote from my 1999 catalog “The images include a portrait by Van Eyck, a photograph of Mr. Gizzi’s daughter, one of the artist’s own landscapes and a porcelain doll. The stairway after which the painting is named is dimly reflected in a mirror.” I assume that the person who ultimately puts the puzzle together has gotten it as a gift, does not know the picture and will be astonished seeing it evolve as the puzzle is put together. The cut design has several large figures made of more than one piece. I guess I can say that both the picture and puzzle design are equally quirky.