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The Beauty of Bittersweet

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June 7, 2012 | Posted by Mia in FeaturedMy Art
by Nancy Reilly


Some might say 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 when I was a small child, I preferred to spend most of my playtime in the woods where I felt safe, free, and happy. To my mother and younger sister’s horror, 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 and earned my nursing degree, but during the rare times that I was not studying or on the wards, I continued to haunt the woods. By this point, I believed I had become a bit more sophisticated, like a 19th century naturalist. But my sister (with whom I shared an apartment) was of a decidedly different mind. One day she complained that all the dried plants that I had gathered and carefully displayed in our kitchen were homes to hoards of insect larva. She was correct. So to keep the peace, I threw my lovely plants away.

As a nurse working in a big city hospital, I deeply missed my beloved woods and began to wish 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 biology, concentrating on 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! Not surprisingly, it took me a long time to finish my master’s degree, but I did. My triumph was short-lived, however, when I made the painful, but correct, decision to forego my dream of earning a Ph.D. and devote myself to my family.

As the children grew, I kept looking for a way to reconnect with the woods.  Then, about 12 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 mammal populations such as porcupine, fisher, otter, 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 too impressive, but it is hard to do. At last, I was back in the woods.

I have always been a human version of a worker bee and have never started a project that I did not see through to completion. As I walked through the woods looking for scat and prints, 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 and something clicked. 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. These are an invasive species of plant that choke native trees and other woody plants. The vines are deadly, but beautiful. I searched for other artists who also created 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. Now I always carry my cell phone whenever I climb.

After I transport my new finds home, I begin to put the vines together to form the piece of furniture. As with a jigsaw puzzle, 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.

When finished, my furniture carries an 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 eight years. My family has supported me even as I have taken over our garage. 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. When I am working in my basement studio creating a new piece of furniture, I experience a feeling of inner peace that often eludes me when I am simply checking off daily chores. 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.


From http://www.miamagazineonline.com/the-beauty-of-bittersweet/#more-1376