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Based in Eldred, NY, fine furniture maker Bo Stevens (aka Walter Stevens) initially attained his command of the craft in the boldest of ways: “At first, I acquired most of my skills by telling people I knew how to do something and then figuring out how to do it,” he explains. “As my skill grew over 40 or so years, I had to tell that fib less and less often. But I still like to take on projects I am not sure I can accomplish. Of course, I didn’t figure things out all on my own. There is a wealth of how-to information in magazines and books, and there are many skilled people who are willing to share what they know.” Despite all the help, Stevens is a testament to DIY learning.
In the fall of ‘86, Stevens and family (his wife and kids) moved to the area having formerly lived in Tribeca, NYC and Monroe, NY. They wanted a rural life, and it was the Homestead School in particular that drew them to Eldred. Now, after decades of creating custom cabinetry for several area residents, Stevens is a full-time artisan creating exquisite marquetry furniture. “My studio is the same shop, with the same tools, but I now call it a studio so I’ll feel more at home,” he says.
Inspired by walks in nature, Stevens came to marquetry with one goal: to make furniture with sliced branches imbedded in the surface. For this work, Stevens gathers many branches, the criteria for which are very simple: “I gather lots of branches with the only requirement that they are not too big to fit in my saw, and not too rotten. I often do not know what species I’ve gathered. It’s not until I get the pile of branches home and start to cut them into veneers and see the interior of the branch that I begin to see what the pieces can become.”
After some research and experimentation, it became clear to Stevens that a few techniques in marquetry needed to be learned. In typical outsider fashion, instead of mastering all of the 16th-century approaches, Stevens cherry-picked and then adapted only certain choices in methodology to meet his vision. “I am not one to learn a technique for the purpose of mastering a technique,” he says. “So my mastery of marquetry is limited to what I need to know and is pretty idiosyncratic.”
When asked if he was employing any of the more modern techniques such as piercing into his work, Stevens replied, “I don’t know what piercing is, so I don’t know if I do it, or why it is modern. Seems to me there are three divisions in the history of woodworking: (1) Working only with hand tools; (2) Working with power tools; (3) Working with modern computer-controlled tools. There are contemporary people doing marquetry in all three ways. I work mostly the second way, with power tools.”
Though it may look inlaid, Stevens “two-branch” slicing technique is most definitely marquetry. “To do inlay you cut a shape into a solid background then cut a piece to be glued into that shape. Marquetry uses veneer, not solid wood,” he explains. “Essentially you make a veneer sheet of many pieces, like a jigsaw puzzle, which you then glue down to a backing board; there is no cutting out and then fitting in [as there is in inlay].”
Considering his outlier ways, it should come as no surprise that Stevens is inspired by many types of artists including photographers, filmmakers, musicians, writers and poets, both well-known and obscure. As for woodworking craftsmen, Stevens cites studio furniture makers of the ‘70s and 80s, Wendell Castel and Garry Knox Bennett, artisans to which he feels a connection. “In a time when a lot of people were learning traditional woodworking skills in order to make reproductions of Shaker furniture or copies of antiques, they were bolder and somewhat irreverent. They made very personal and challenging work and were not afraid to follow their own voice. It is more this attitude than any single piece that inspires me.”
When asked how many weeks/months/years it took for him to address all of the trials in developing his technique, Stevens recounted this small exchange:
Tourist to farmer: “Live here all your life?”
Farmer: “Not yet.”
And then he explained, “This joke just about sums up the idea of addressing all the challenges in my work. I have notebooks full of drawing ideas of pieces I want to do, many more than I can complete in a lifetime. The ones I usually pick to start are those that I fear I can’t accomplish. The risk of failure is an important part of the process. I am always pushing the technique. With the marquetry, I’ve been working this way for a long time and [it all] started part-time about 25 years ago while [I was] still a commercial cabinet maker.”
Some of the technical problems Stevens encounters when cutting and slicing branches into veneer include which saw blade to use, how to curve a piece of wood, joining together two pieces, clamping down veneer and what glue to use. The equally—if not more challenging—non-technical ideas are mostly aesthetic and have to do with what he wishes to accomplish. What piece of furniture to make? A table? A standing case? A piece with drawers? How to use colors and patterns of wood and especially branches. With each piece, he asks himself, how can the branches seem an integral piece of the furniture instead of just a decorative surface? According to Stevens, the non-technical questions “usually do not have a correct answer, whereas there can be right and wrong [with] technique.” Not surprisingly, as a fine-art craftsman, Stevens finds the non-technical issues to be the most exciting.
As stated, Stevens regularly walks in the woods and, like many of us, does it not only for a kind of energizing peace and solace, but also to feel connected to the natural world. He, of course, also does it for his work. “My walks directly feed into my work, but how that happens I can’t put into words.”
To experience more of Bo Stevens’ branch marquetry, visit www.branchmarquetry.com.