Recently one of my cards was featured in a treasury alongside a pair of beautiful bent wood chairs. I initially thought they must be miniature furniture, made from the most slender twigs. Once I discovered they were indeed human-sized, I had to know more! Enjoy a little Q & A with Marcia of The Bent Tree Gallery.
Tell us about your work—why do you create what you do?
I’m a rural midwesterner, raised by farmer parents who experienced the Great Depression. I was taught not to waste, so became creative with what we had. We were not poor, just thrifty. I found it was fun, as well as challenging, to create something from available inexpensive raw materials, like wood, recycled fabrics, etc.
How did you learn your craft?
I took a basketmaking class in 1981, and my husband (a farmer) taught himself to make rustic furniture in 1982. The ‘farm crisis’ was in full swing; lots of farmers were going bankrupt. We used our newfound basketry and furniture-making skills to supplement our farm income. We have both since taken a few classes, but the main learning takes place as we create. Any new idea or evolution of an old one helps to make us better craftsmen.
Tell us about your sustainable harvesting practices.
We use wild willow trees almost exclusively for our furniture, candle holders, and wall hooks. This tree species is unappreciated by farmers–it spreads into their fields, grows fast, and makes farming around the edges of the property difficult. Similarly, the highway maintenance crews cut it periodically, as it interferes with their roadside mowing practices. So we have no problem getting permission to harvest…it’s a tree nobody wants (except us!). When we cut, we do it in a way that does not kill the tree. We can go back the following year (if it hasn’t been mowed off, sprayed, etc.) and harvest again. And again.
How has your work evolved?
Our work has evolved over the past 30 years by becoming more refined and more sophisticated. At first we didn’t sand anything, and didn’t use a finish. We didn’t kiln-dry, we didn’t use jigs (contraptions that help insure that every piece is the same size and shape). We made just the basics…chairs, loveseats, end tables. Today we still make the practical items, but they are much more esthetically pleasing. And we do lots of custom orders for people, and also make nonfunctional pieces, like our orbs and our wallscapes.
What is your greatest challenge?
Our greatest challenge is probably time. There are so many pieces we want to make; so many items yet to become reality. So many ideas; so little time.
What inspires you?
We are inspired by nature and we never fail to be amazed and impressed by others’ art. We might see something made from steel, and we think, “how can we do something similar with willow?”
What advice do you have for people looking to take up a new artform?
I would say, “Jump in and try it. Maybe take a class first if you are insecure. Otherwise, find instructions online or use your own common sense to try something new. It may not turn out exactly how you’d envisioned, but you will learn a lot from that
first attempt. Then you can move on from there.”
How does one care for your furniture?
Our furniture is kiln dried and finished with several coats of a hard satin sealer. We do recommend it be placed in a sheltered location. A covered porch is fine, and lots of people keep it inside. Clean as you would any other fine wood furniture. However, you may take it outside once or twice a year and just hose it off, if it’s on the porch and gets dirty or dusty.
How did you discover etsy.com?
Our daughter got us started on Etsy. She had been having success selling her leather handbags (www.stacyleigh.etsy.com) and thought we would benefit from an Etsy shop, too. She was right! Etsy is not our main business; we have a brick-and-mortar gallery (The Bent Tree Gallery) in Clarksville, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi River, which is open six days a week. We also have another website, www.thebenttree.com, which generates much of our furniture orders. We also do 2-3 art shows a year.
What advice do you have for new etsians?
It takes a while to build up your sales. Don’t get discouraged if you aren’t selling much for awhile. But do keep your shop active by listing, relisting, answering convos promptly, keeping up with any treasuries you are in, etc. And be sure to provide excellent customer service for those people who do buy your work. This will result in repeat customers, and repeat customers are the best…they are saying, ‘your work is so good I have to have more!’ That is the best kind of encouragement!