Local woodworker’s crafts featured at Smithsonian and Philadelphia Museum of Art

Posted 11/15/21

Local woodworker Martha Collins’ exquisite crafts have been making the rounds across the country, earning her national renown for her intricate artisanship.

The artisan’s works were …

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Local woodworker’s crafts featured at Smithsonian and Philadelphia Museum of Art

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Local woodworker Martha Collins’ exquisite crafts have been making the rounds across the country, earning her national renown for her intricate artisanship.

The artisan’s works were featured at the Smithsonian Craft Show in October, and most recently, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Contemporary Craft Show early this month.

Seeing her works selected for craft shows in such prestigious institutes is incredibly gratifying for Collins, who’s spent more than four decades mastering her craft.

“It’s like playing Wimbledon; it’s a great honor,” she said of being featured in the Smithsonian and Philadelphia craft shows. “It’s life’s work.”

After taking a look at some of Collins’ pieces, there’s no question why her works have earned nationwide praise. From bracelets to spice mills to bowls, all of her pieces go through an elaborate and careful design process. The petite wooden crafts contain a rare level of intricacy and methodical arrangement that highlight gorgeous hardwoods interlocked with vibrant colors.

Although Collins is at the pinnacle of her skill-set now, the woodworker surprisingly didn’t grow up with an artisan background.

DEVELOPING A TOUCH

Collins was born in New Canaan, Connecticut, before moving to Birmingham, Michigan. At the beginning of high school, her family moved once again to Ann Arbor, where her father was a professor at the University of Michigan.

Although she enjoyed growing up in Ann Arbor, she never was truly exposed to woodworking and didn’t have a home workshop to discover her true passion.

For Collins, “there was no basement” to dabble in or experiment with crafting at an early age.

Similar to her father, Collins decided to go to college, looking to become a doctor. Although she graduated with a degree in humanities, she quickly discovered that her calling was not within a college campus, but in a tactile environment where she could use her hands.

Her first experience with artisanship came after befriending owners of a woodworking business.

“At that time I had a friend with a cabinet shop and it looked like fun,” she said.

From there, Collins shared her interest in woodworking by becoming a carpenter’s apprentice in 1973. She then took part in a 2½-year program to learn about cabinetmaking, and continued to grow her knowledge in the discipline of woodworking.

In the 1990s, Collins made the move out to Port Townsend to work at Admiral Marine Works as a crafter of interiors for yachts. Eventually, she left to work independently as a woodworker.

Picking up the knowledge gained from past jobs, Collins applied her expertise into her own truly unique creations. Greatly inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright — a legendary architect famous for pioneering organic architecture — she applies Wright’s natural stacking style into her own artwork.

Utilizing wood pieces in the stacking style, Collins creates magnificent shapes and patterns with wood to “shift it like a napkin or a deck of cards,” she said.

More than 40 years of experience in woodworking has helped Collins to form a particular method of creation for her unique wooden creations.

LABOR OF LOVE

She fashions a variety of detailed items from her home workshop, located on a slope out near the Olympic Mountains. Collins’ creative process involves precision, and more importantly, patience.

“It’s not just add water and stir; it’s not a quick process,” she said. “There’s a lot of variation and that’s what I love about it.”

A FOREST OF CHOICES

The design process begins with wood selection. After choosing her wood blocks for a particular project, she decides what order to arrange them in.

“The material talks to me and tells me what to do,” she explained.

Next, Collins adds a dyed maple veneer to her selected hardwoods, and observes the block of combined woods for visually appealing elements.

“In a given day I’ll have 40 species of wood,” Collins said.

One of the woods, purpleheart wood, “is a fan favorite,” according to her.

After she is satisfied with the appearance of the block, she adds jeweler’s epoxy and clamps the block together to cure.

After the block is finished curing, comes one of the hardest parts: slicing.

The slicing takes a lot of time and preparation as Collins uses a bandsaw to cut the wood slices with surgeon-like precision in sequential order, matching grain lines for later steps.

After finishing slicing, she begins to shift her slices into a detailed pattern to her liking. The piece is then taken to Collins’ lathe — a machine used to shape wood — where she fashions the wood into a bowl, spice mill, or whatever item she is set on making.

With Collins’ methodical process of creation, she has almost infinite possibilities for experimenting with new patterns, woods, and colors to work with.

Her final product can have hundreds or even thousands of unique wood pieces, using a wide variety of hardwoods from around the world.

For Collins, there are few things that compare to crafting pieces from wood block to final product, and receiving high praise for her work from distinguished institutes such as the Smithsonian.

“It’s really fun and really different. And every day is a joy,” she said.

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