Crafters listen as wood ‘starts speaking’

Photo by Alexandra Retter


Michelle Kline examines a piece at “The Art of Fine Furniture” exhibit, now open at the Winona County History Center. 



Vintage cars and 1920s art inspired woodworker Mark Laub’s piece. The cabinet of mahogany is the first in a series with aluminum pieces resembling classic car grilles, and it is influenced by the Art Deco style. Laub appreciates the smooth lines of that style, he said. His piece is on display as part of the exhibit “The Art of Fine Furniture,” now open at the Winona County History Center. 

A set of interlocking gears and a writing table with bird and flower designs are just some of the other pieces in the exhibit. 

Curator TiAnna DeGarmo said she feels the exhibit is unique as the pieces are not roped off. “We want accessibility. We want to see people opening doors, drawers, really exploring,” she said. 

It is valuable to honor skills like woodworking that have existed for centuries and are passed down, Museum Educator Jennifer Weaver said. She added that in the past, all furniture was made by hand, but today, it is mass produced. “So I think to hold onto those skills and artistry of that era is really important, to really appreciate something that’s handmade and not done by a machine,” she said. 

Jamie Schell founded the exhibit in 2013. Woodworking is an approachable art form, he said, and the exhibit draws in a wide group of people, as a result.  

It is wonderful to see some woodworkers exhibit pieces year after year, Schell said, and to welcome new woodworkers to display their art. “That’s … great to me to see that it’s valuable enough or important enough that it continues on,” he said of the exhibit marking its ninth year. 

A friend encouraged woodworker Mike Watson to participate in the show for the first time. “And that was a big leap of faith,” he said. Once at the show, fellow woodworkers provided encouragement, he said. “I work in a vacuum, you might say, by myself, so you don’t get feedback from people of this quality. So it’s really affirming to be around these guys, and they say positive things about your work,” he said. 

Watson displayed a set of drawers elevated on wooden legs made with maple and walnut. “We needed a piece by the front door. I had a space, but there was a light switch on the left side, so I had to design around that,” he said. He also displayed a keepsake box made with plywood, maple and aspen. The lid features a geometric repeating pattern. “It’s a different use of plywood to achieve an interesting design,” he said. 

Woodworker Greg Stevens hollowed and shaped a burl, put pieces of glass inside and placed the work on a pedestal. “The burl I found in the woods, and I cut the tree down, and so I feel a real deep connection,” he said. He will often find a wooden piece he wants to work with but not quite know what to make with it, he said, so he will bring it to his shop and let it dry. While it dries, which usually takes a few years, he has time to think about what to build. “And I think a lot of woodworkers work that way, where they sort of start out with a lean or a direction, but it just becomes its own thing. It starts speaking back to you,” he said. 

Woodworker Richard Helgeson displayed a table, serving tray and canes made of maple, including dyed wood. “I make iterations of things. I’ll get into an idea and spin off several variations,” he said. 

To create pieces, Laub starts by sketching. He considers what the piece would look like if he were standing on a ladder, looking down. Then, he creates models with cardstock and glue before heading into the shop to actually build. While building, one tool Laub uses is a vinyl vacuum bag, which helps curve pieces by removing air. 

Attendee Michelle Kline appreciated the originality of the woodworkers’ designs and the beauty of the wood they used. “It’s not something you’re going to walk into any store and see,” she said. 

Interacting with fellow woodworkers and exhibit attendees keeps the artists motivated, the woodworkers agreed. “I know all these guys here … I like the camaraderie,” Laub said. 

DeGarmo said she appreciates the community that exists among woodworkers. “So it made sense to me to start curating, because it’s something I love doing — I love bringing people together,” she said. 

“Typically, most of us work alone, so it’s a very isolating journey most of the year,” DeGarmo continued. “And when we can all get together for an exhibit and then interact with the public, it’s one of those few moments on an annual basis that we just get a boost about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and why it matters.” 

This year’s exhibit also includes an educational portion about taking a log and turning it into different types of lumber. DeGarmo said woodworkers are often asked what woods they use and why, so she wanted to start with information about logs becoming lumber and build on that topic at future exhibits. 

One goal is to help community members and artists speak a common language so community members feel more empowered when commissioning a piece, for example, DeGarmo said. 

“The Art of Fine Furniture” is on exhibit through September 17. More information can be found at