I came to my art of creating intricately composed furniture by a twisted path, using nature’s afterthoughts. I grew up in a rural area and even as a small child, I preferred to spend most of my playtime in the woods where I felt safe, free, and happy. I regularly returned home with trophies – both alive and dead. I counted Indian pipes, rabbits, frogs, turtles, and snakes among my treasures. After high school, I trained to become a nurse, but during the rare times that I was not studying or on the wards, I continued to haunt the woods.
As a nurse working in a big city hospital, I deeply missed my beloved woods and wished I had chosen a path that allowed me to be in the forest. A few years later, I left nursing to earn a master’s degree in evolutionary biology. I loved this experience, although in retrospect I must have lost touch with reality. I started graduate school with two children and finished with four! Seriously outnumbered, I made the decision to devote myself to my family and forego a career.
As the children grew, I kept looking for a way to reconnect with the woods. Then, about 15 years ago, I started attending evening courses about animal behavior.
I fell in love with the idea of learning to track animals. I was delighted to find in my town a local chapter of a national group called Keeping Track – an organization dedicated to monitoring the presence of area sensitive carnivore populations such as, fisher, otter, grey fox, and mink. I threw myself into this new part of my journey, and before long I could identify a dozen types of animal tracks and their scat (droppings). This may not sound impressive, but it is hard to do. At last, I was back in the woods.
As I walked through the woods looking for scat and tracks, I kept noticing unusually shaped trees and vines, and I began to envision the tables and chairs I could make with them. One day, a friend at an art class showed me an unusual maple chair she had made. I knew I had found what I wanted to do!
I sought out a local furniture maker and worked with him for a few years to hone my carpentry skills; then I branched out on my own. I began to use bittersweet vines in my work. This is an invasive species that chokes native trees and other woody plants. The vines are deadly, but beautiful. I searched for other artists who worked with bittersweet and found a woman in Connecticut who used it exclusively. I attended a workshop with her, and she changed my approach to furniture making. Even when the bittersweet vine is several inches thick, it allows the artist to bend and twist it into many interesting shapes.
My art is not without danger. My forays into the woods often include climbing high into trees with my trusty saw dangling from my belt so I can cut the best, most interesting vines. Of course, these always seem to be near the treetops. On one of my first tree-climbing episodes, I made the mistake of cutting the vine that would help me descend from the tree. After an ungraceful and painful climb down, I vowed to be more careful.
After I transport my bittersweet vines home, I begin to put them together to form a piece of furniture. I try many combinations until I am happy with the look. Then I begin attaching the vines together with special metal screws that I sink deep into the wood so they are almost invisible. To complete the piece, I often head back to the woods to search for more vines of a very specific shape.
My furniture is designed to bring the essence of nature into the home. The works are arresting, but they are also sculpturally pleasing and functional. My home is my showroom, which is the best way for visitors to grasp how easily the pieces can be incorporated into traditional settings, adding charm and a touch of whimsy to a room.
I have been designing and building bittersweet furniture for more than ten years. In doing this work, I have found a way to combine my love of being in the forest with my dedication to ecology. Every time I cut down a big bittersweet vine, I am saving a maple or an alder from its treacherous grasp. My appreciation for the beauty of bittersweet is a grown-up version of the joy and sense of mystery I felt as a child playing in the woods.